Inclusive Holiday Marketing: How to Appeal to Today’s Culturally Diverse Generation of Students

Est. Reading Time: 7 minutes

With Thanksgiving almost upon us, many marketers are in full bore prep mode for Christmas season. We don’t need to, but we’ll warn you anyway… we are about to enter maximum Christmas saturation.

While today you may notice some introductory hints of the holiday at your favorite retailers, before long, those hints will turn into a wall-to-wall, inescapable barrage of imagery featuring good ole’ Saint Nick, his reindeer, Christmas trees, Christmas stockings and everything else clad in red and green.

As we wrote in our last post, Americans spend trillions of dollars during the holiday season. So, from a marketing perspective, it’s just smart business to go all in on the popular Christian holiday. Right?

While that may be true for traditional retailers, the story might be different when your primary audience is substantially younger. If you’re a higher ed marketer trying to appeal to the disposition of the quickly growing Generation Z, it may be wise to rethink the traditional strategy.

Generation Z Lives & Breathes Diversity

many faces being looked at through a looking glass

Gen Z is the most diverse generation in history. Shifting your marketing strategy to be more inclusive will engage them more than all the Instagram ads you can buy. – GenZInsights.com

Roughly 7 out of 10 Gen Z respondents (71 percent) in a recent Facebook-commissioned study replied that they would like to see more diversity in advertising. Facebook IQ, the social network’s research division, noted that: “Strategists can engage this new generation by developing messaging that embraces diversity, inclusion and adaptable lifestyles.”

The takeaway for anyone who wants to gain the trust of Gen Zers is to be more socially conscious in your marketing approach. And that’s precisely the type of messaging that’s generally lacking in the time of year that traditionally belongs to Santa.

What can you, as a higher ed marketer, do to become more “woke” (see: inclusive) in your holiday-season marketing appeals? We’ve got a few suggestions to ponder.

Reign in your holiday bias

It’s safe to say that an overwhelming number of Americans love Christmas. And, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Kwanzaa candle and figurine

But many college campuses are melting pots, with people from a number of different cultures, religions and traditions. That’s not surprising considering that the U.S. annually hosts more than a million international students from countries such as China, India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. In these countries, Christmas is not the predominant celebration this time of year.

And American-born students aren’t a homogeneous group, either.

There are a number of cultural holidays that are celebrated in December, in the US and around the world: Hanukkah (Judaism), Kwanzaa (pan-African), Bodhi Day (Buddhism), Pancha Ganapati (Hinduism), Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexican), St Lucia Day (Swedish), Boxing Day (Australian, Canadian, English, Irish), Omisoka (Japanese), Yule (Pagan). If you celebrate any of these holidays, it’s hard not to feel overshadowed by the annual immersion into all things Christmas by the American public at large.

gold star of david ornament next to red christmas tree ornament

That’s not to say that Americans of the Christian faith are intentionally (or, even unintentionally) disrespectful of other cultures. It’s just that the overwhelming focus on Christmas tends to make members of other faiths and cultures feel like “the other.”

That goes directly against the ethos of the youngest generation. So, if you want to appeal to Gen Z, you’d be well served by exploring how to approach holiday messaging in a more culturally sensitive manner.

Mix up that traditional color palette

One way to even out holiday season imagery is to eschew the traditional red-and-green and blue-and-white color schemes. There are other colors in your color wheel.

You may consider leaning into more of your school colors. Some pastels or soft tropical colors can communicate warmth – a welcome respite from the cold, winter hues. Certain earth tones could also strike the right chord.

Here’s a great post that speaks to some awesome non-traditional holiday color palettes.

Value-based, rather than holiday-based messaging

One way to not step on anyone’s holiday toes is to forgo holiday-based messaging in the first place. Instead of centering your message on gift-giving or tree-lighting, speak to the values of generosity and community.

Drastic, we know. But, if you’re afraid that the pitchforks and “war on Christmas” mantras will come flying out… let’s remember that you’re aiming the message at the youngest generation, not the older ones who may find the absence of a “Merry Christmas” more jarring.

Besides, the essence of the holiday season is to make others feel good. And that’s exactly what you’re doing when you take into account Gen Z’s preference for inclusivity and diversity.

Use more inclusive imagery

If your campus is one of those melting pots, this couldn’t be easier. Just take some candid photos of your real students out and about on the quad. If not, you may have to do some extra work by hunting photo sharing sites like Pixabay, Flickr or Pexels.

Regardless, you want to paint a picture that meets your target audience expectations and ideals. And, in the case of Gen Z, a homogeneous cast of characters just won’t cut it.

There are additional pitfalls to consider. For example, you don’t just want to add one culturally diverse photo into a collage of images portraying mostly white students. Or, worse, include one student of color in a large non-diverse group. That may give the appearance of tokenism – fulfilling a requirement with a half-hearted attempt at being seen as diverse.

It may be best to institute a policy requiring images on your school website and in other marketing collateral to be representative of your campus’ diverse populations. You may also want to go further and undertake a review of images currently being displayed and making a concerted effort to bring the site in compliance with your new policy.

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About the Author:

Mark Bochkis
Mark joined Beacon in 2018, bolstering the Digital Marketing Services team roster. In previous roles, he's helped healthcare clients with website redesigns and multi-channel digital campaigns, managing content development, SEO, social media and other digital marketing efforts. A skilled communicator and passionate marketer, Mark takes pride in understanding his clients, identifying differentiating brand attributes and developing content with a consistent and clear brand tone and voice. Mark is a proud alumnus of the University of Maryland, where he earned a B.A. in Communication/Public Relations.