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The Drum: Has staying silent this Pride Month helped or harmed brands?

by | Jun 28, 2024

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Originally posted on The Drum by Audrey Kemp on June 28, 2024.

 

As Pride Month draws to a close, observers may have noticed a significant reduction in festive brand campaigns compared to previous years, as major players like Bud Light, Nike, Target and The North Face scaled back their once prominent creative efforts.

The shift appears to be driven, at least in part, by a fear of ’pinkwashing’ and ’rainbow-washing’ — the exploitation LGBTQ+ causes for profit rather than to advance equality or equity in impactful ways. It also reflects concerns about conservative-led consumer boycotts over perceived ’wokeness’ — something Bud Light experienced following its collaboration with a transgender influencer over a year ago.

But is a complete retreat from Pride the most optimal strategy, in a time marked by growing anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in the US and abroad? Experts weigh in.

A turbulent political climate

Many leading brands have put their Pride celebrations on pause for fear of potential backlash as the United States becomes an increasingly oppressive place for marginalized groups.

Jeff Levick, chief executive of marketing consultancy We Are Rosie, presents some of the stakes brands face: “The divisiveness of our current political climate and social media [creates] a potential landmine for marketers. Almost weekly, we see massive campaigns that miss the mark and have brands scrambling to do damage control.”

However, recent research from brand growth platform Disqo and LGBTQ+ representation platform Do the WeRQ, suggests that most consumers have resoundingly high expectations when it comes to brands during Pride Month.

The study found that 60% of consumers notice brands participating in Pride, while 80% of LGBTQ+ consumers favor such brands.

Graham Nolan, co-chair of storytelling & partnerships at Do the WeRQ, admits that he is “dismayed at the silence of brands” this year.

“Marketers need to take back their strategic decisions from the negative influences that have prompted inaction and reticence around commitment to an evermore diverse world,” says Nolan. “As adland continues to assert its allegiance to sound data and cultural insight as drivers for innovation, understand that both the stats and the sentiment are in favor of inclusion. Know that your voice will mean more when your words and brand align with your policies and actions – whenever you decide to speak up.”

Moreover, many experts argue that the LGBTQ+ community needs more public support than ever, in light of recent events.

Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and legislation continue to sweep the nation, where more than 500 anti LGBTQ+ bills are currently under consideration, according to the ACLU.

This prompted Human Rights Campaign to officially declare LGBTQ+ rights in ’a state of emergency’ in the US for the first time last year.

“The political climate is hostile and uncertain,” says Chandra Guinn, executive director of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion at McKinney, an ad agency. “Individuals are being targeted for their identities and beliefs, so much so that it can feel like groups of people with a right to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness are shrinking rather than expanding.”

Levick, agrees with Guinn, adding: “Now is not the time for brands and corporations to turn their backs; now is the time for us to put into action the values of allyship and inclusion that are so often touted on our corporate careers pages.”

Missed marketing opportunities

Politics aside, companies that shy away from Pride also risk missing out on a formidable consumer base with growing buying power.

According to 2021 US census data, the LGBTQ+ community is the fastest-growing minority segment in the country, comprising 7.2% of US adults, including 21% of Gen Z and over 10% of millennials. This demographic holds significant economic sway, with an estimated $3.9tn in global purchasing power, as reported by LGBT Capital.

Additionally, a survey by Edelman reveals that Americans are twice as likely to support brands that openly advocate for LGBTQ+ rights.

“If a brand seeks customer loyalty, it should know that customers seek the same in return,” says Guinn. “Corporations need to speak up for marginalized communities if they consider themselves good corporate citizens … [They] need to speak up if they consider individuals in said communities to be part of their consumer base, or if they want [include] this ever-increasing number of customers.”

Jasmine Dawson, senior vice-president of digital at BBC Studios, a content company that prioritizes representation, also underscores the necessity for brands to overcome fear and actively support marginalized communities.

She adds, “Without real, sustained recognition, progress for Pride will forever be stunted, and dissatisfaction will rise among a consumer base with meaningful spending power.”

The best practices to avoid pinkwashing

As brands consider re-engaging in Pride marketing next year, they might wonder: how can these efforts be genuinely well-received? The answer lies beyond adding rainbows to products or logos.

“Too often, we see brands say they support a marginalized group [without] doing the work within its four walls to build diverse and inclusive teams,” says Levick. “Authentic support starts with making sure the LGBTQ+ community is represented on the teams of marketers who are building your brand. They should be there all year round, not just during Pride. They should be seen, heard and appreciated all 12 months of the year.”

Experts also recommend looking to brands that have successfully executed authentic and effective Pride campaigns. Mara Einstein, a professor of media studies at Queens College, City University of New York, points to Levi’s as an exemplar.

“They have merch, they donate to LGBTQ+ causes, they were one of the first companies to have partner benefits, and their commitment goes back decades,” says Einstein. “That is how you do purpose. That is how you create impact.”

Dawson advises brands to anticipate and prepare for backlash to mitigate it effectively. She asserts, “Leaders and brands should not only be prepared to stand beside their people, but to also know when it’s time to stand in front of them.”

Guinn adds that even though Pride Month has ended, brands have ample time to support the LGBTQ+ community authentically.

“Brands need to seek genuine connections between their product or service and the needs and opportunities within a community. It is not merely celebrating during Pride Month but advocating during the other 11 months for respect and protection, rights and humanity.”

By embedding these principles into their strategies, brands may avoid the pitfalls of pink-washing and rainbow-washing, while ensuring that next year’s festivities are much more colorful.