It’s been a long time since I’ve attended a conference without having any conference-related responsibilities. Usually I’m there because I’m presenting, hosting a roundtable or two or assisting with planning. But not this year. I could attend the American Marketing Association’s 2015 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education (better known these past few days as #AMAHigherEd) without having to worry about any responsibilities other than to learn.
So that’s what I did. I attended as many sessions as I could —
right up to today’s closing keynote with University of Cincinnati President Santa Ono, which begins in a few hours. Unfortunately, I had to head to the airport earlier than planned in hopes of catching my flight on time.
I sat in on a lot of good sessions related to marketing, enhancing reputation, strengthening relationships between IT and marketing, A/B testing, and more. They were all great. But to me, the greatest takeaway from the conference is just how much the issues of race, multiculturalism and diversity came to the forefront this year.
Diversity, ethnicity, inclusivity
The #AMAHigherEd planning committee must have included a time traveler or two for this Back to the Future year’s conference. The first two keynote presenters — Sergio Alcocer, until recently president and chief creative officer for the multicultural creative agency LatinWorks, and former National Public Radio host Michelle Norris — both spoke on issues related to race relations, diversity and inclusivity in their presentation. Who could have predicted, just a few short months ago, that their talks would be so timely as student demonstrations about racism on our campuses become more widespread?
As Monday’s opening keynoter, Alcocer set the tone by discussing the work of marketing against the backdrop of an America that is increasingly multicultural. Some 38 percent of Americans today are multicultural, Alcocer noted, and 50 percent of kids under 18 and their parents are multicultural. For marketers, this means we must:
- Think in terms of inclusivity rather than diversity. For our organizations, it means ensuring that under-represented voices are heard and that under-represented people are involved in our decision-making. To illustrate how under-represented those voices are in our culture, Alcocer referenced a marvelous tumblr site: Every Single Word. This site features clips from mainstream movies to show how people of color are represented by the lines they are given in those movies.
- Focus on lifestyle marketing, not marketing to “ethnic groups.” Noting that millions of Latinos in the U.S. are proficient in English, don’t assume that marketing to them in Spanish will work. Think instead about the cultures and lifestyles of that group. Also, keep in mind that “Hispanic” is an American construct and does not exist outside of our U.S. borders. Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans and Brazilian-Americans all fall under the “Hispanic” label but their cultures and experiences may be vastly different from one another. (Read the AMA interview with Alcocer: Marketing to Latinos: Segment By Lifestyle, Not Ethnicity.)
- Give voice to U.S.-born Latinos. See above. And remember: Not all of us speak Spanish.
- Realize that tension is unavoidable.
- Be wise in your marketing, but also be provocative. Don’t be afraid to be edgy. (“Edgy” and “higher ed marketing” don’t exactly go together, but it’s good advice anyway.)
Later in the day, Michelle Norris talked about the Race Card Project and the “series of left turns” in her life that led her to develop this site and project. (Here’s more about the project and its genesis.) In a powerful presentation about the project and the conversations it engendered, Norris described how a project intended to get people of color (primarily) to open up about racial issues — by asking them to describe race in six words — has broadened and deepened into a conversation about race that is indeed inclusive. The majority of submissions to her website and on postcards come from whites, she said.
Submissions to the Race Card Project ranged from the serious (“Lady, I don’t want your purse.” “White Hispanic Girl. No hablo espanol.” “Race is everything. Race is nothing.”) to the silly (“Total non-issue when the aliens arrive.” “Underneath, we all taste like chicken.”)
Flavor of our flesh aside, underneath it all, Norris discovered that we as a nation DO want to talk about race. It is uncomfortable, but if we are to progress as a nation, we must become comfortable with the discomfort, she said.
At the end of Tuesday’s event, several of us gathered in a hastily arranged roundtable discussion to continue to conversation about race. It is a great and hopeful start. Now I hope that we can take these conversations back to our campuses, where the real work begins.