More than ever, brands are signaling support for the LGBTQ+ community during Pride month. But experts say that true support has to come from more than a rainbow-hued post on social media.
A slew of giant brands this June have launched ad campaigns or marketed Pride-themed clothing and food. Kind Snacks has its own line of “Kind Pride” bars, for instance, while Skittles turned its packaging and candy gray to call attention to “the only rainbow that matters.”
But with consumers giving a more watchful eye than ever to the brands they buy from, it has to go deeper than rainbow packaging, experts say. For instance, brands are being called out for purporting to support the LGBTQ+ community even when the companies have a history of donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to legislators who sponsor anti-trans legislation.
Also, though brands might feature the community prominently during Pride month, many still have a long way to go in representing LGBTQ+ individuals in advertising the rest of the year. A study from Unilever released last week found that 66% of LGBTQ+ individuals between the ages of 18 and 34 believe people from diverse backgrounds are featured in ads “just to make up the numbers.”
The right approach
As soon as June 1 hit, brands switched social media avatars to rainbow-hued versions, made posts in solidarity and released a slew of Pride-themed products. But Rich Ferraro, chief communications officer at GLAAD, said it’s important to go deeper.
“There’s power in brands participating in Pride Month, and it’s important for their employees and their consumers to see support for the community during Pride Month. But it can’t just be during Pride Month,” he said. “If a brand doesn’t have a 365-day-a-year plan for LGBTQ inclusion, they really need to prioritize that over prioritizing a one-off Pride campaign.”
He said it’s important to also create marketing and advertising that’s inclusive of the community year-round, and go beyond just those efforts to take a stand on anti-LGBTQ legislation.
“That’s where brands can have immense power — is by using their influence in politics and stepping out and educating their stakeholders, whether it’s employees, or consumers, or politicians, about anti-LGBTQ legislation and pro-LGBTQ legislation,” Ferraro said.
He said he wished every brand participating in Pride promotions this year were also actively pushing for the Equality Act, and pushing for the Senate to move the act forward.
“Otherwise, the Pride campaigns feel very empty to our community. And it’s a huge missed opportunity,” he said.
Ferrero said Kellogg’s “Together With Pride” cereal is one powerful example of how a brand can help create change. The company is donating a portion of sales to GLAAD, and the cereal box also has a section that encourages people to write down their pronouns.
“This campaign is reaching parents that might otherwise not think about pronouns, or might not be experiencing media outlets that are reporting on pronouns in fair and accurate ways,” he said. “So I think Kellogg’s is helping to educate the general public, in addition to sending a pretty powerful message to trans youth that a beloved brand like Kellogg’s is supporting and standing with them and accepting them for who they are.”
Kind also says it’s donating $50,000, along with an additional dollar for every “Pride” text it receives at a certain number, to a nonprofit to help homeless LGBTQ+ youth. It’s also doing a rainbow light display near the Stonewall Inn in New York City.
Avoiding ‘rainbow washing’
If a brand opts to build a campaign around Pride, but has taken actions in the past that fly in the face of the cause, it can be viewed by consumers as shallow and opportunistic.
For instance, Popular Info this week highlighted 25 brands with Pride campaigns that have together donated more than $10 million to politicians who have pushed anti-gay legislation in the last two years.
So when a brand swaps its social media avatar to a rainbow version of itself, or otherwise shows some support in June, savvy consumers are aware of whether its ads feature the community year-round, whether it hires LGBTQ+ individuals and puts them in leadership positions, and whether the brand actually supports the community with resources and legislative support. And if the brand doesn’t, the sentiment falls flat.
Katherine Sender, a Cornell University professor who wrote “Business not Politics: The Making of the Gay Market,“ said brands at the very least need to have corporate policies to ensure management supports a safe and supportive environment for employees. Using corporate clout to make broader changes is where companies can be truly helpful, she said.
She used the example of companies pulling out of North Carolina because of legislation against trans people using bathrooms of their gender identity.
“It’s a very powerful move, and it caught a lot of attention in North Carolina, and hurt them in the pocketbook where they weren’t going to get corporate funds, they weren’t going to get people coming to watch athletics, they weren’t going to get jobs for their employees, because companies weren’t going to put factories and other places that were otherwise bringing money into the state,” she said. “I think that’s another level of support, which goes beyond the company itself into something that actually can have some more meaningful change.”
Danisha Lomax, senior vice president of paid social at Digitas, said brands are also better served if they remember the origins of Pride being protest.
“It started because queer and trans people were not able to have their rights and be taken seriously, and police brutality,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of brands have actually included that in their marketing efforts on a broad scale.”
Brands doing it the right way
Tamara Alesi, sector head of agencies and media for the Americas at YouGov, said other brands are honoring Pride in a way that is deeper. She cited companies like Tinder as working to build a deeply inclusive workplace culture year-round, while companies like Jagermeister are trying to support communities in a tangible way with campaigns like its “Save the Night” campaign to support lesbian bars.
Bombas, a seller of socks and other undergarments, has a socially conscious model for all of its sales: For every item sold, it donates an item to homeless individuals. CMO Kate Huyett said the number of LGBTQ+ individuals in the homeless population is significantly higher than the general population.
“This year … we’re focused on black transgender individuals who experience homelessness at a rate five times higher than the general U.S. population, which is just mindboggling,” she said. “So since 2019, we’ve done this with specific products and a specific giving focus.”
The company has a Pride product collection that it makes available year-round. Huyett says the company has donated more than 300,000 pairs of socks through the Ally Coalition.
Then there’s The Body Shop, which is encouraging its consumers to sign a petition supporting the Equality Act, and promises to donate $1 per signature to the Equality Federation, an advocacy accelerator to support LGBTQ organizations.
“We of course want to lend our platform, but we’re really focused on action,” said Hilary Lloyd, The Body Shop North America’s vice president of brand and values. “For us, often, it’s the case that action is fulfilled through policy change and legislation. And policy change and legislation are a super long game. It’s not a done-in-a-day thing.”
Inclusivity year-round in advertising
A 2020 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found only 1.8% of characters in ads in the Cannes Lions festival were LGBTQ, slightly down from the prior year. But representation is still a major factor when it comes to driving purchasing decisions for some consumers. In a survey by NPD Group, 21% of respondents said LGBTQ+ equality and inclusion influenced their decision to purchase when buying apparel, footwear, or accessories.
“There’s been a huge shift from a time when brands were hesitant to include LGBTQ people, because they worried that they would experience backlash from anti-LGBTQ voices,” Ferrero said. “Today, brands and advertisers are concerned about responses from the LGBTQ community over the authenticity of their campaigns.”
GLAAD recently partnered with Getty Images to create guidance for advertisers on how to use images to better represent the LGBTQ community.
“If you look around on some of the recommended images, they include LGBTQ people of different ages, of different gender identities and different races, to better depict the full diversity and intersectionality of LGBTQ people,” Ferrero said.
Procter & Gamble worked with GLAAD on the Visibility Project, which aims to increase LGBTQ representation in advertising. A minority of advertisers and agencies are actively recommending that LGBTQ people be included in advertising, Digitas’ Lomax said. That’s why it’s crucial for those in the marketing sphere to think about hiring and promoting people who are part of the community.
“If you’re hiring these people, if you’re paying the people, if you’re bringing them on board to your teams or… even using an outside resource if you need to, I think that’s what’s going to change the game, because then it’s going to be done from the heart, and it’s going to be real,” she said.
Through P&G’s own vast portfolio of brands, which include Tide and Charmin, it’s been using its own advertising and marketing to reflect common LGBTQ experiences. For example, the company’s research found that about 60% of people change their hair when they come out of the closet. The data point has inspired an advertising campaign for haircare brand Pantene.
“It’s a fascinating insight, but it’s based on a bigger human insight that hair is one of the biggest ways that people can present who they are in the world,” said Brent Miller, P&G’s senior director of global LGBTQ+ equality and inclusion.
But Miller says that the ultimate goal goes beyond just selling a product. He gave the example of a letter from a young man who was touched by P&G’s 2018 campaign with Gus Kenworthy, an Olympic freestyle skier. In the ads, Kenworthy talked about his experience as a gay athlete. The campaign inspired the letter writer to come out as well.
“At the end of the letter that he wrote Gus, he said ‘Thank you for saving another soul.’ When you have someone that responds in that way, you know that the work you’re doing goes beyond the product,” Miller said. “You have the ability to connect with people that haven’t been able to see themselves in the world.”