Lessons for HBCUs from ‘Black Panther’

Marvel’s latest superhero juggernaut “Black Panther” will have a historic opening weekend, with some experts predicting $300 million in global box office receipts accompanying the historic moment in black cinema solidarity.

To put that in perspective, HBCUs collectively received $316 million in private gifts and grants in 2015-16, which was up more than $50 million from the previous year.

“Black Panther’s”‘ success is not by happenstance. Marvel secured top talent in directing and acting to deliver a solid movie product. Then they backed up what they knew was a good idea and a well-produced final product with overwhelming grassroot and high-level marketing executions.

How Marvel’s Black Panther marketing campaign married movie and movement

Black Panther is a flagship movie for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is the first in the 17-film franchise to boast a black lead in Chadwick Boseman and also the first to feature a black director in Ryan Coogler of Creed fame.

There’s a growing sentiment about black folks’ reaction to “Black Panther,” and why we can’t mobilize similar support to improve black communities. We saw the same thing happen 10 years ago with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, which brought out the best of African Americans’ collective philanthropic spirit at earning levels big and small, to power a black man to the White House.

But there are lessons for HBCUs to learn from both of these moments of black excellence, and they don’t require millions in additional resources to generate big impact, or the whole nation wearing daishikis.

Marketing Matters

“Black Panther” didn’t try to gross the majority of its box office receipts from black audiences. According to the New York Times, black folks comprised about 37 percent of its total domestic opening weekend audience. Brands like Lexus aligned with the movie early to reach affluent black viewers, and to engage younger viewers in its push to build familiarity.

The moral? A good product isn’t enough. Even loyal stakeholders have to be overwhelmed with reminders that a good product is available to them, and explanations on how buying the product enriches their lives. HBCUs should be better at this kind of marketing than anyone else; no school type has a better product design in serving diverse groups of people according to race, class, and preparation. Our schools struggle to use the means we do have for marketing to translate this message – we talk nurturing instead of networking, interpersonal satisfaction instead of industrial access, and endurance instead of growth.

We put up billboards instead of buying Google Ads.

Virginia State University uses YouTube, Howard University uses Facebook, and everybody uses Instagram to convince their stakeholders to stay engaged. So how do HBCUs use these platforms and align with large and small brands to grow as black lifestyle assets to current and potential students, and donors?

The Messenger is the Message

HBCUs are rightfully pursuing ways to attract all kinds of students, mostly in reaction to predominantly white institutions becoming more aggressive in their recruitment of affluent black students. Mingling the racial and cultural strengths of HBCUs against the expectations of higher education is complex, but our schools can’t go wrong by embracing and promoting who and why we serve.

“Black Panther” is being celebrated as an empowering movie by and for black people, but Marvel and superhero genre fans of all races are praising the movie for being a good superhero movie which just happens to have a virtually all-black cast. Marketing HBCUs doesn’t require terms like ‘heritage,’ ‘tradition,’ ‘opportunity,’ or any other buzz words designed to make black folks pay closer attention.

Terms like ‘top-ranked,’ ‘state’s only’ and ‘nation’s best’ are the terms that move the meter for all people. And when they pay closer attention and find that the messengers delivering those terms just happen to be black, people are becoming more inclined to prioritize results over race.

Confront Stereotypes and Break Them

“Black Panther’s’” cast is an exercise in busting up stereotypes in colorism and gender equity. Protagonists and antagonists are brown-skinned people. Women are generals and scientific geniuses. Ideas and philosophies even among tribes and families are diverse and sometimes clash. That’s the reality of black people.

HBCUs are designed the same way. But to the outside world, we work hard to show that our leaders, students, and graduates are all ultra-liberal black nationalists who have perfected the art of blaming the white man for our lack of resources and respect.

If HBCU presidents and chancellors do not promote diversity of thought, theory and advocacy on our own campuses, we’ll never begin to make them to be the kind of spaces known for creating the Civil Rights movement or being party factories, or being the kinds of communities who only welcome and work with certain kinds of people.

“Black Panther’s’” Wakanda is a place where black folks love and war with each other, but in the end, it thrives as a nation. HBCUs do the same thing, but if they hope to thrive, it will be under a new way of approaching our market value in a time when black folks need it more desperately, perhaps, than we ever have before.

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