Marketing Communications Best Practices

The purpose of this is to provide guidance for paid reputation and recruitment campaigns to ensure our communication and marketing efforts are authentic and in alignment with our values of inclusion, diversity, anti-racism and equity.

Diverse and Inclusive Marketing

Diverse and inclusive marketing aims to speak to a larger audience by looking past preconceived notions of (among other things) gender, age, race, ethnicity, income, sexual orientation, ability, language and religion. Often, people confuse diversity and inclusion (D&I) with inclusive marketing. While  D&I refers to developing an inclusive culture within the workspace, inclusive marketing refers to what you do to remove exclusion through marketing efforts. 

Evolving Marketing Practices

This guidance begins examining the basic ways we can start to evolve our marketing by choosing how to frame our stories and connect with diverse audiences. Our work should be about more than marketing our university; we should be endeavoring to change marketing for the better. The words and images we create and circulate not only produce powerful mental associations with the university, but also define how we perceive each other and the world around us. These can either contribute to or combat harmful stereotypes and affect the reputation of the university.

Branding Campaigns

Our marketing and branding campaigns serve an important role as they help increase awareness of the University at Buffalo; strengthen our reputation and positive distinctiveness; influence national rankings; and influence prospective students and parents as well as prospective donors by highlighting the great work happening at UB. It is important therefore to select the most compelling stories and visuals that will meet the mission and vision of the university.

Stories collected throughout the year for inclusion in our campaigns should speak to our brand attributes and overall university brand. Not everyone will feel included or represented in every story, so it is important that the overall breadth of our stories be inclusive. We should also keep in mind when selecting stories that diversity can mean many things, from gender to race to age to experience or background. Having a wide variety of stories that represent diversity in a multitude of ways will help audiences relate to the content we showcase. Note: Stories are collected from UBNow, UB press releases, Impact in Action, to name a few.

Our priorities as we select stories to feature in our campaigns will include the following, keeping in mind we will review and update as needed. 

  • School/academic area (to ensure breadth/variety from the university)
  • Diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, religion, ability, etc.
  • Equity/justice
  • International/global (ensuring breadth/variety)
  • Real-world impact of UB’s research and people
  • Student involvement
  • Experiential learning
  • Opportunities after graduation
  • Social media appeal
  • National media attention
  • Visuals to support

Audience Targeting (specific to paid media)

Multicultural marketing involves targeting people of specific races, cultures or ethnicities within a brand’s overall audience, while inclusive marketing is designed to resonate with people of all backgrounds. Multicultural targeting strategies are often elements of inclusive campaigns.

Our University Communications current defined reputation audience consists of the following groups: 

  • Higher education influencers (e.g., faculty, researchers, journalists, and even companies and schools) who are shaping the higher ed sector.
  • Peer groups, including AAU colleagues, presidents, provosts, VPs, deans and faculty. 
  • Buffalo community members, leaders and guidance counselors.
  • Potential students and their parents (part of our reputation building). 
  • UB alumni, where appropriate.

We can control the stories we put out on a national level by selecting those that show our inclusivity across our campuses through our research, faculty expertise, ambitions of our students, etc. 

Our University Communications recruitment audiences are prospective students, typically 15- to 18-year-old high school students, with a secondary audience of parents. Our partners in Admissions have a specific strategy that helps identify these target audiences. As an example, we have the ability to further target by ZIP code in order to capture various demographic and socioeconomic groups.

Choosing and Framing Stories

Truly diverse and inclusive content requires more than an image—it’s about the stories we tell and how we tell them. We must select stories that show inclusivity and equity across our university. For example, if our stories that focus on people of color are consistently about the difficulties they have faced throughout their lives, we are not writing from a place of inclusion and equity. Stories about any individual should be about the whole person, including their work, their passions, their aspirations, their successes, etc.

Such stories cross racial, religious, sexual orientation and gender divides, and these higher-level messages help create connections and have greater meaning. This will involve more thoughtful discussions as a group, anti-bias training, etc. in order to tell these stories differently. 

Of importance is the fact that inclusive advertising doesn't end with the ad. In fact, half of the customer experience in advertising resides where we send them after they click on the ad. It is critical to ensure diversity is demonstrated within our landing pages as well as on our website.   

Visual Storytelling

Together with the stories we tell, the images we show have tremendous power to influence thoughts, feelings and behaviors. As we strive to be inclusive in our imagery (especially in recruitment marketing), we must also be careful not to misrepresent our student population in recruitment materials. We should strive to choose images that connect with audiences and evoke emotions on a deeper level. The “three and a tree” depiction of campus life is a cliché for a reason and we should avoid it. (Three and a tree is a common university marketing phrase that says if you gather your school’s marketing materials and spread them out on a table, you will more than likely repeatedly see photos of three students of various ethnicities and genders, usually dressed in university branded merchandise, looking at a laptop, all smiling, textbook open on the lawn under a big shady tree.)

A few examples of the visual and narrative resources that we should utilize: TONL, Getty Images Project #ShowUs, Black Archives, CRWNMAG, Men Thrive, GirlTrek, ARRAY, Code Switch, Sojurn Project and The Gordon Parks Foundation. It is important to either source stock imagery or produce original content and cast talent that accurately and respectfully reflects both our university community as well as our target audiences. Such images need to acknowledge the diversity within races, genders and cultures, not just diversity between races, genders and cultures. For additional information, please see the best practices document authored by UC’s Creative/Design team.

For additional information, please see the Visual Communication’s Best Practices.

On-brand visual examples:

students gathered around a table looking at notes.
student with teacher drawing plant.
group of girls wearing yellow hard hats.
students in lab.

Paid Campaign Planning

The first step in a campaign cycle is planning. A creative brief should be filled out that outlines goals and objectives, target audiences, geographies, how success will be measured, creative considerations, etc.; this should be followed by a discussion with the media buying agency (Fahlgren Mortine) to help identify how best to meet the goals and objectives of the campaign. To begin planning, visit the creative brief.

To assist with planning a paid campaign, consider the following six principles of inclusive marketing:

1. Start with tone

Tone is the brand’s voice—it’s the style, character or mood of a piece of content. Often when people are offended or turned off by a piece but can’t quite put their finger on why, tone is the culprit. Consider the intended subject, topic, message and overall impact of a piece in the planning stages to help reach the appropriate tone that aligns with the university’s defined brand attributes. Are we sending the right message with the right intention?  

An example that conveys a tone of pride:

  • Original - June in Buffalo: Marking 40 years, and still at the forefront of new music.
  • Revoiced - Sharpening the vanguard of music every June in Buffalo.

For additional examples of voice and tone, please refer to the strategy section of the brand site.

2. Be intentional with language

There is immense power in language: It can deepen understanding and strengthen relationships, or it can confuse and even cause harm. For these reasons, it is critically important to carefully consider every word and phrase as well as the symbols, metaphors and subtext in a piece, and where and how they are placed. Imagine how others could interpret or be impacted by what you’re saying, and remember that not everyone has the same experiences with language—inoffensive language to one person may be offensive, demeaning or harmful to another.

Being intentional with language is not about being politically correct. It’s about not alienating your audience or distancing your brand from them. If you’re not sure how your words will affect others, speak with people of different backgrounds, abilities or experiences. Please note: Always remember to refer to UB’s custom style guide to ensure you are using the most up-to-date race- and gender-related language.

3. Ensure representation

Representation is the visible presence of a variety of identities in a story, image, video or other piece of content. People want to see themselves reflected in media because it helps us to feel recognized, empowered and inspired. Before publishing an advertisement, for example, ask: Am I elevating diverse voices? And does this reflect the university? When selecting photos, be mindful of what the images may be inadvertently communicating. For example, images used to talk about financial aid and scholarships should feature students of all races to convey that all students may need—and have access to—financial support.

4. Consider (and reconsider) context

Ads do not exist in a bubble. In the same way that audiences bring their personal experiences to an ad, context, whether historical, cultural or otherwise, influences the ad’s content. Many of us can think of ads in the past few years that incited controversy for seemingly missing important cultural context, often related to gender or racial equality.

In addition to history and culture, context also includes representations of order and hierarchy. Though evaluating your content for this type of context can be extremely nuanced, it is no less important. As an example, many of us as marketers are sensitive to unintended representations of order and hierarchy in stock photography (e.g., a woman at a computer with a man leaning over her shoulder). Always select and review with an eye for such representations.

5. Avoid appropriation

Appropriation takes an aspect from a culture and uses it without knowing or honoring the meaning behind it. Drawing from people’s cultures, traditions and personal experiences is both subjective and sensitive. We can all lead with cultural respect and awareness by being mindful of nuance and historical context, learning and honoring the culture, seeking guidance and diverse opinions, evaluating intent and impact, and elevating authentic voices.

Examples to avoid:

Washington Redskins old logo on helmet.

Washington Redskins old logo. Photo credit: Joe Glorioso

Whitewashed Mahjong game.

Whitewashed Mahjong game. Photo credit: The Mahjong Line

Caucasian woman with box braids.

Caucasian woman with box braids

6. Counter-stereotype

Counter-stereotype is a phrase that means going against a standardized image that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude or uncritical judgment. Many of us have seen ads that play into harmful stereotypes, but imagine a world where the marketing images around us shattered these stereotypes rather than emboldened them. This is where we as marketers have the power to change the society around us.

Counter-stereotype examples:

Dad with child while doing chores.

Stay-at-home dad

female mechanic.

Female mechanic


It is important for us to evolve the university’s marketing efforts and present authentic diversity, considering the many dimensions of human diversity, including but not limited to age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and ability. This is not about having a checklist to determine if our stories/content and images are depicting diversity, equity and inclusion. It is about ensuring the stories we highlight, the language we use and the imagery we select reflect a diverse and equitable institutional culture. This will take time and a commitment every day to continually be self-aware, to carefully consider the stories, messaging and images that represent the university on local, national and international levels. And although authenticity in marketing has always been a best practice, it’s even more crucial now to show how the UB brand will evolve moving forward through thoughtfulness and sincerity. It requires thinking differently and genuinely valuing the inclusion of diverse voices in our marketing efforts. We must be dedicated to trying to improve and learn on a continual basis.