HBCU Interns Drive Chevrolet Marketing to Fresh Perspective

A nearly decade-old fellowship program gives students and alumni mentors a voice in General Motors branding while broadening the automaker's

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If a company internship imparts some wisdom to the students it employs, that’s typically good enough. If those interns teach a company about itself, turn weaknesses into strengths and create a better future for everyone involved, that’s the ideal outcome.

Seven years ago, General Motors paired its Chevrolet brand with the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) to launch “Discover the Unexpected,” a 10-week internship and scholarship program that allows HBCU students to try marketing with Chevrolet and community-based journalism with the NNPA. This year, 10 students from Howard, Morehouse, Delaware State, Florida A&M and Hampton received a $10,000 scholarship and an $8,000 stipend while spending the summer developing their skills on the road.

Over the summer, Chevy’s DTU interns took a 2024 Chevy Trax across the U.S. while creating social-media content based on the vehicle’s safety features that multicultural agency of record Carol H. Williams turned into digital content for the NNPA site. With help from Chevy’s social, experiential and customer-relationship management teams, students took the Trax from a boot camp session with marketers and mentors in Detroit to the NNPA National Convention in Nashville, a Tennessee State University DTU content shoot, the HBCU Swingman Classic during Major League Baseball’s All-Star game in Seattle and behind-the-scenes at a Chevrolet Ride and Drive event.

So far, the program has given 59 students from 22 different HBCUs more than $750,000, but also an opportunity to advance their careers. Three former DTU fellows have since been hired by GM, with one returning as an intern in GM’s communications department this year. More have been hired by NNPA publications, with this year’s fellows contributing to the The Tennessee Tribune, Washington Informer, Philadelphia Tribune, Atlanta Voice, Houston Forward Time and Dallas Examiner.

“​​What we see as a huge opportunity is pipeline development,” said Charles Chapman, GM’s multicultural marketing manager who leads the DTU program. “In terms of bringing in these students, they’re green, they’re learning, but what we’ve done is uncover a number of gems.”

Chevrolet is taking some lessons from its interns as well. With people of color accounting for nearly half of GM employees while holding only 30% of company leadership positions, Chevrolet CMO Steve Majoros found that HBCU students contributed as much to the DTU program as they benefited from it.

“It exposes us to people who have, perhaps, a different life experience and mindset,” Majoros said. “It gives them exposure to the fact that, perhaps, big, monolithic companies aren’t so unapproachable, and are pretty dynamic places.”

No free ride

As Chapman noted of DTU, there’s a product baked right into the program.

This year, Chevrolet tasked its Fellows with selling the newly launched, roughly $20,000 Trax as a starter vehicle for students and graduates. The students targeted alumni in the market for cars, looked at brand lift and marked sales. They never took a straightforward, hard sales approach pitching price or payment plans, but they offered their view from inside the vehicle.

While Chevrolet wouldn’t share sales numbers attached to the DTU program, it noted that a big reason it has endured for the better part of a decade is “cultural capital.” Chapman and his team track online engagement from DTU fellows’ posts, they cull data from the NNPA website on content views, they see how it reaches a secondary audience and compare its effectiveness with previous campaigns—like the 2022 DTU program centered around the Chevy Bolt EV. 

“I can’t go in to our CMO and just say, ‘Hey, this makes you feel good,’” Chapman said. “You have to have metrics.”

But even the CMO admits there is a means of measuring the DTU program’s success beyond sales, engagement or hiring. One DTU fellow was asked to analyze a brand activation at a NASCAR race with minimal exposure to prior races. General Motors partners with NASCAR, MLB, the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) of HBCU schools to bring sports brands to the brand and increase awareness of its vehicles, but Majoros said the brand is seeking new audiences even within those sports—casual fans that may view them through the same lens as a DTU intern.

A fresh set of eyes is pretty enlightening, Majoros said. “I have never had an experience where one of these folks is shy about the way they present and their point of view on something, and that’s pretty refreshing.”

The HBCU connection

While General Motors has partnered with the NNPA and its founder—civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis—for 50 years, its spent recent years building a network of contacts within HBCUs and their alumni communities.

In 2021, GM signed a three-year deal to sponsor the SWAC and serve as the title sponsor of its SWAC Football Classic featuring Alcorn State University and Jackson State University. Chapman noted that not only has the DTU program pulled fellows from the SWAC’s 12 schools, but it’s tapped SWAC alumni to serve as mentors.

Chapman has collaborated with SWAC Commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland on DTU recruiting, asking him to contact university presidents, communications departments and marketing teams as Chevy looks for next summer’s class of fellows.

During its SWAC partnership, Chapman encountered ESPN reporter and Florida A&M alum Tiffany Greene and brought her in as a mentor. During the Swingman Classic at MLB’s All-Star Week in Seattle, Greene helped students prepare HBCU athlete interviews and acclimate to a professional sports environment.

Greene was joined this summer by a team of all-star HBCU alumni mentors, including actor and former 106 and Park/E! News Terrence J (of North Carolina A&T) and science show host and STEM advocate Justin MR. Fascinate” Shaifer (of Hampton University). Another fellow mentor Brandi Merriweather (aka TheGenZPublicist) gave students her thoughts on artificial intelligence in media while still enrolled at Clark Atlanta University. 

“It did not take a lot to convince them,” Chapman said. “[Terrence J]’s got a contract, and he’s approached us about doing more, like ‘I don’t know what the contract says, but how do I get more one-on-one time with these students?’ He has a passion for it.”

From Chevrolet’s perspective, Majoros said the DTU program’s fellows and mentors have made the brand and General Motors realize “there’s awesome talent everywhere.” Its dispelled the notion that the company needs to keep going back to the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Duke University’s Fuqua School or other more lauded business schools to find the level of talent necessary to fill GM’s marketing ranks. It also reinforced the need to provide opportunities to HBCU students, who’ve increased the number of applications to the DTU program each year and have sought second internships with the company after completing their first. 

By providing students that opportunity and successful training that actually results in employment—even at companies other than GM—the DTU program functions as its own form of marketing for Chevrolet. By connecting the brand with positive experiences, DTU introduces Chevrolet to students who may never have given it their consideration. Those same students may one day reintroduce the brand to a similarly indifferent world.

“These young folks produce great content, they are socially savvy, they give us perspective on the audience that they can help us engage with, but importantly they become someone who can look at a company like General Motors and Chevrolet,” Majoros said. “There are people that don’t have an experience with our brand, or perhaps have one terrible experience with a crappy 1985 Chevy Beretta or something, and it takes a lot to get people to think differently about a traditional legacy company.”

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