The collective culture of HBCU marching bands may be the single greatest free media machine the nation has ever seen. These bands have landed students and the names of their schools in front of some of the world’s biggest viewing audiences: presidential inaugurations, Super Bowls, reality shows, and pop music videos.
Everywhere our students go, standing ovations follow — even from audiences geographically and culturally far removed from our campuses.
So how is it that these musicians can land themselves and their schools in front of millions by way of a two-minute clip on YouTube, but still struggle to find support for student scholarships, travel, staff and equipment?
How many real dollars are left on fields and stages because our schools don’t leverage the HBCU marching band brand beyond historic outputs?
YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter rake in billions off of content they don’t produce, but by simply offering a platform for people to build identities as media producers and curators. Some of those billions come in from HBCU alumni and students, who capture and publish the best sights and sounds from every football halftime show, basketball tournament and yard show involving some of the nation’s best marching bands.
For years, Honda has co-opted the HBCU marching band appeal with its ‘Battle of the Bands’ showcase. ‘HBOB,’ when viewed strictly as an event drawing HBCU stakeholders, performs on scale with the CIAA Basketball Tournament, and better than most HBCU football classics and conference championships. Honda pays for bands to travel and eat, makes scholarship donations to each participating school, and gives young people the time of their lives.
But after the last note is played and the media wave rolls back away from historically black shores, many of these schools face dire economic straits across academic, auxiliary and operational aspects of the campus. Despite the story told by a 12 minute field show, many of these schools are contending with state budget cuts, and changes to direct appropriations from the federal government and in student aid programming.
HBCU sustainability is an admirable goal of corporate responsibility and campuses are more than happy to have it. But HBCUs should be more strategic about the give and take beyond the free media and the perceived social capital of being invited to the Battle of the Bands.
If HBCUs are going to be corporate brand ambassadors — and to be clear, every single corporate HBCU partnership is a strategic effort to get affluent HBCU graduates to buy or invest in a product or service — then corporations should not be afraid to pay corporate money for the access to our stakeholder base.
And that notion doesn’t begin and end with marching bands — it continues with initiatives like the Home Depot Retool Your School challenge — which annually draws millions of eyeballs to Home Depot branding every year but returns a few hundred thousand dollars to these campuses in small-scale beautification projects. To put that in perspective of raw numbers, Shaw University raised more than $600,000 in alumni support last homecoming, but Home Depot will split $300,000 among nine HBCUs this spring.
Honda, Home Depot, McDonalds, Allstate and countless other corporations offer pennies of support in exchange for attention and brand loyalty that would be far more expensive in any other form of commercial space. But these companies do this because HBCU communities are satisfied with bragging rights and free exposure, and not real dollars which keep doors open, lights on and students enrolled.
Part of this lack of leverage is because we don’t monetize our own HBCU marching band product. Do we have sponsorship opportunities for halftime shows? Would we be willing to put corporate logos on band uniforms? Do we have enough concerts for paying community members? Do we produce and market paraphernalia? Do institutions invest in producing their own high-quality HBCU marching band videos, which can generate ad revenue on sites like YouTube?
If we treated every element of the HBCU experience for exactly what it is — a chance to reach hundreds of thousands of brand loyal consumers — we would be better off as a community of schools with an urgent mission benefiting the nation. But helping others to realize our value begins with our leaders first making this realization for themselves.