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The problem with Pride marketing

Author's avatar By Expert commentator 04 Apr, 2019
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Opinion: The rainbow washing of marketing campaigns during Pride may seem like a positive, but are those bright colours really supporting the LGBTQ+ community or just fulfilling a brand purpose?

We’re fast heading toward summer, which to most means sunshine, holidays and ice cream. But to many in the marketing and advertising world, it means incorporating rainbows into campaigns ahead of Pride month in June.

Throughout June, July and August, rainbows seem to appear everywhere as brands show their apparent support for the LGBTQ+ community. While this may seem like a positive thing - after all, supporting a marginalized community can only ever be a good thing, right? - the rainbow washing of everything from fizzy drinks to bank windows doesn’t really tell the whole story.

The problem with Pride marketing (1)

Support versus brand purpose

For starters, there is a big difference between supporting a community and fulfilling a brand purpose. Throwing a rainbow on something or posting a generic “we support…” message is a lazy attempt at “seasonal” marketing, effectively taking advantage of what still is a political event - despite the belief by many that Pride is just a party.

It effectively erases the importance of Pride month and the reason June is an important month for the LGBTQ+ community, which is because the Stonewall riots occurred at the end of June 1969 in Manhattan, and instead makes it about selling something.

While Pride is a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, it is still about fighting for acceptance across the world, including the 72 countries across the world where being gay is still illegal, which is something every person and brand that gets involved in Pride should remember.

Companies who ignore the political aspect of Pride in favour of an easy marketing campaign are not representing what it’s all about. Similarly, those brands who claim to support the LGBTQ+ community and yet don’t have policies in place that actually practice what they preach should steer clear of any form of advertising that takes advantage of Pride.

If you are going to launch a rainbow campaign this Pride month or in anticipation of the Pride march in your area, you should first consider the following:

  • Is my company/brand really supportive of the LGBTQ+ community?
  • Are there policies in place that create an inclusive and safe working environment?
  • Are all other campaigns LGBTQ+ inclusive?
  • Does my company actively support LGBTQ+ charities/groups/movements?

Looking at your company as a whole and assessing whether it is a safe and inclusive place to work will give you a better idea as to whether you should be flying the Pride flag. After all, a big part of successful marketing campaigns is a believable and genuine story. Can you really deliver this if you’re talking about something your company doesn’t actually embody?

Support with substance?

One brand that has supported Pride month with an interesting campaign is Skittles. In 2017, the brand announced that it was removing the rainbow from its sweets in the run-up to Pride month, saying that at that time of year only one rainbow matters.

This meant that its packets were simple and monochrome, as were its sweets. On top of this, 2p from every packet sold was donated to an LGBTQ+ charity. The brand repeated the campaign last year with the same messaging, with more positive responses.

While the notion of removing a rainbow rather than adding one is an interesting take on Pride marketing - even if it did lead to some claims of racism due to the fact the promotional packs were mostly white - you can question whether the company really is supportive.

But is this true support?

Examining the Pride campaign and Mars as a company (which is the maker of Skittles) brings up some interesting points that suggest that the support might not have as much substance as implied.

For starters, when the campaign launched in 2017, the promotional packets of Skittles were only available in one store in the UK - Tesco. While they were broadly available in 2018, this made it seem like the company was testing the waters rather than actually showing its support. Surely if the Pride rainbow was the most important rainbow, this would be reflected across Skittles’ full range?

The first year the campaign was live also saw minimal social media support for it from Skittles. In fact, it wasn’t until the campaign made a return in 2018 that Skittles started posting about it.

Looking into the company’s policies in an attempt to see whether it is a supportive and inclusive place to work also brings up something interesting. While Mars openly has its Human Rights policy on its website, this is a general policy that doesn’t reference its LGBTQ+ workers. It also does not have any information about inclusivity, which suggests that maybe the company is not as supportive behind the scenes.

In comparison, Vodaphone was open about addressing its policies to be more inclusive and supportive. In 2018, the company announced that it was overhauling its recruitment processes to appeal to a broader range of sexualities and genders. It also changed its code of conduct and developed a support programme for LGBTQ+ graduates. It also launched its LGBT+ Friends Network as a means of support.

This information is easily accessible and the changes have become a part of the company, even though Vodaphone isn’t the first brand you think of when considering who slaps a rainbow on everything (or removing rainbows that were always there) come Pride month.

Prepare for the political

I’ve touched on the fact that Pride is political, but this is something marketers and companies as a whole need to remember. Yes, your campaign will probably get some big thumbs up, but we all know that you can’t please everyone. You need to be ready for uncomfortable questions and for the comments that you’d rather didn’t get posted on your Facebook photos.

When Pride first started, the people watching parades were more likely to be there to throw abuse or to actually throw things at those marching. It may now be more celebratory and more people come out in support than hatred, but the negativity is still there, which means you should be prepared to deal with it.

Supporting Pride is very much a political move and forgetting this fact can leave your brand open to irreversible damage. You need to address this fact and the negative backlash your campaign might receive in order to plan for all eventualities. This means getting the buy-in of all decision makers so that if things do go wrong, they don’t pull the plug and leave your brand to get backlash from those who were previously praising it.

As with anything political, you need to pick a stance and keep with it. Failing to do so will show that your Pride campaign, and your brand in general, is inauthentic. Showing your support through your response to negativity is just as important as doing so with a rainbow flag.

@Denver_Kristin Target Pride tweet

Negative backlash to inclusivity

In 2016, when Target announced that it would allow transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponded with their gender identity, there was uproar. Over a million people pledged to boycott the store for its inclusive policy and hatred toward the trans community was far too visible on Target’s social media and in the news.

While Target denies that the boycott led to any financial impact, it was largely reported on and many brands in the same situation would have thought very carefully about whether the backlash was worth it. Rather than bowing out and admitting defeat, Target continued to pledge its support to the LGBTQ+ community and launched a range of Pride products, as well as its #TakePride campaign.

This decision showed that the brand was serious about its belief in inclusivity, showcasing the right way to support the LGBTQ+ community. As Target CEO, Brian Cornell said: “We took a stance and we’re going to continue to embrace our belief of diversity and inclusion and how just important that is to our company.”

Target has since continued to be supportive and to launch a Pride range every year, showing brands the right way to deal with the political tide and to truly represented inclusivity.

Unexpected negativity 

While you expect a certain degree of negativity from some people no matter what the Pride campaign entails, it isn’t just those who are anti-LGBTQ+ that may react badly to your marketing. If your Pride campaign is deemed to be problematic for a number of reasons, the LGBTQ+ community may well be vocal about their issues with it.

One recent example is Primark, which joined forces with LGBTQ+ rights charity Stonewall to launch a Pride range in 2018. As part of the partnership, 20% of profits from the range donated to the charity.

However, problems arose from the fact that the range was manufactured in Turkey, China and Myanmar, all of which have a poor history when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights.

In China, same-sex relationships are banned from TV, as are online mentions of homosexuality. People have also been arrested for holding LGBTQ+ plus results. When it comes to Myanmar, same-sex activity is illegal and can result in a prison sentence of 10 years to life.

There is no protection against discrimination for the LGBTQ+ community in Turkey and attempts to march in Pride events have resulted in a number of issues, including the police shooting at people with rubber bullets in 2017.

This caused members of the community to criticize both Primark and Stonewall. Steve Taylor, the co-founder of the UK Pride Network said that Stonewall "needs to answer questions about how they could have had such little regard for the human rights of people in Turkey, Myanmar and China.

"An organization of their size and scope should have spotted the huge issues people are having with how these products are produced.

"I’ve no problem with big business being involved in Pride; quite frankly, without the income and sponsorship these companies give, there wouldn’t be any Prides. But you can’t celebrate LGBT equality in the UK while oppressing LGBT people elsewhere - that’s just hypocrisy. The ethics have to be clean."

Failing to take into account any aspect of your business or campaign that could have backlash - even down to where your products are produced - can cause the audience you are trying to reach to turn on your brand. 

The best way to rock Pride marketing - Always be an advocate

So exactly how do you get Pride marketing right? The best option is to always be an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community.

Rather than just trying to get the ‘pink pound’ with a Pride-themed campaign at one point in the year, ensure that all campaigns are fully representative and supportive. This doesn’t mean you have to be really overt about your support or put a rainbow in every campaign.

Simple steps like showing a same-sex couple in ads, having products that say ‘Mrs and Mrs’ rather than just ‘Mr and Mrs’ and showing that any member of the the LGBTQ+ community is just a normal person who deserves representation. It doesn’t need to be a whole song and dance.

It’s also important to make sure that this public support is reflected throughout the rest of your company. Putting inclusive policies in place, addressing the language of your brand, and offering support to anyone within your company who is part of the LGBTQ+ community are all options that can ensure you really are an advocate.

A Drop of Love

One brand that has positioned itself as the ultimate advocate is Absolut. Since 1981, Absolut has been advertising to and supporting the LGBTQ+ community, starting at a time when brands were more worried about alienating the largest market. The brand has since been a continuous presence in gay media - including being the first sponsor for RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is now a mainstream show - and advocate for the community.

While it is a big part of Pride celebrations - especially in the US - it also supports the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized communities through its advertising, showing that it is more than a drink.

One of Absolut’s most powerful campaigns is its "Drop of Love" limited edition bottle. To create the bottle’s design, Absolut travelled to protests around the world that were promoting negative views, including anti-gay, racism and sexism, to collect as many “hate signs” as possible. It extracted the ink from these signs and used it to print its labels, spreading a more positive message.

While you may not have the budget or resource for this type of global campaign, you can still be an advocate and create inclusive marketing campaigns throughout the year and not just ahead of Pride month. You can also effect change within your broader organization to make it an inclusive, supporting and LGBTQ+-friendly brand and place to work.

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