Eliana Goldstein
Junior Digital Specialist

Diversity, Authenticity, and Your Student Viewbook

Lewis Williams, CCO at Burrell Communications, and Lipman Hearne Advisory Board member...

…discusses showcasing, not tokenizing, your students.

The higher education community has, albeit not without occasional controversy, embraced the value of diversity in educational environments. Colleges and universities trumpet the varied cultural, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds of their student bodies. In viewbooks and admissions mailers, they promise prospects a community where they’ll both feel at home and be introduced to people and perspectives that will expand their horizons.

Unsurprisingly, this promise comes with pitfalls for higher education marketers. Misrepresenting an institution’s actual demographics by deliberately seeking out students of color for photoshoots or misusing an image out of context can result in public relations headaches rather than positive feelings. Lipman Hearne’s Jeremy Ryan, Executive Vice President for Creative & Digital Services, sat down with Lewis Williams, Executive Vice President & Chief Creative Officer at Burrell Communications, to discuss how higher education marketers should approach showcasing diversity in marketing materials.

A marketer’s first step should be understanding diversity’s value, not only to an institution but to the creative process. “Diversity is more than race,” Williams told us. “Diversity gets you an opportunity to look at a problem, or solve a problem, or touch people in so many ways. It increases your perspective.”

It is incumbent upon marketers to consider these differing perspectives during the brand development and creative processes. “If I were a young white student on campus versus a young black student I would experience that situation very differently,” said Williams. “It’s important for a brand to acknowledge who you are because…diversity is your [audience’s] personal choices and how [they] interpret things.”

With this in mind, universities should balance the diversity they seek to have with the strengths they can already claim. Williams suggests that marketers shine the spotlight on thriving organizations and efforts serving students with marginalized or minority identities. Cultivating these resources should be a priority for college & university administrators as well, since they act as the kind of welcome mat that can help a school change its image of non-diversity.

That being said, Williams does believe that universities should be showcasing the communities they aspire to expand, not just the one they currently have. If your institution is lacking in a certain type of student, put that student on the cover of your latest admissions materials. “Be bold with it,” he advises. “This is a student like any other student.”

Williams added his advice for avoiding the cliché “four-student multi-ethnic photo.” He recommends first increasing the number of students in the photo to avoid the appearance of choosing “one of each.” Most importantly, he said, “Look for a situation that is natural to be in. Try to build a story around that.”

Ultimately, Williams says that authenticity should be your guide when curating images for your marketing materials. “Whatever it is, let it be, instead of worrying about what looks right,” he said. “If you capture that real life moment, it will feel like a real life moment.”