June is pride month. Every year in June we celebrate the rights the LGBTQ+ community has fought so hard to achieve, and bring visibility and awareness to the battles we are still fighting.
However, It is an important event on the marketing calendar too. You have probably seen your feed inundated with limited edition pride collections and “rainbow-fied” logos. And don´t get me wrong – this is great. But it has become such a common practice – even amongst companies known for not being the most progressive and inclusive – that it is starting to be seen mostly as a performative action.
So much so, that in the last few years we have seen articles talking about the need of a deeper commitment, and even questioning the positive effect of such initiatives. Plus I’m sure you have seen the memes…
As Raven Smith says on their article for Vogue earlier this month – ” it’s not awareness that the community still needs at this point, it’s action”.
Dear brands: I am afraid that joining in on the party is not the same as contributing to the efforts being made towards real progress. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to tell what is true allyship and what is just “woke-washing”. If you really want your brand to help move minds and rights forward, these are some important things you can do :
The main goal of the rainbow logo (or so they say) is to bring awareness and visibility. Fair enough. But do you know what really gives awareness and visibility? When you make sure to reflect the actual diversity of your customer base every time you produce an image that is intended to represent them.
We understand the world in the way we are exposed to it. When growing up, we do see how we are all different. Our bodies and faces are different. Our families and our relationships are different. There isn´t such a thing as a “standard human experience”. And yet, unfortunately, the picture that we see portrayed even today in mass media is tragically homogenous.
What message do you think your brand is sending to their customers when they don´t see themselves represented?
When you never see a person with your body type in a clothing campaign? A model with your skin tone on a makeup campaign? A family like yours shown every time a corporation is trying to sell a “family plan”? Willingly or unwillingly, brands are constantly creating a shared image of what is “OK”, and it is a rather narrow one.
Not only is this clearly insensitive, but it is also a terrible business idea. Research shows us that representation and personalization are key to drive engagement, sales, and brand loyalty. We want to see photos of people that look like us. Like our friends, our neighbors, the people we love.
Being “aspirational” can no longer mean projecting an unattainable image. It’s about representing aspirational values (freedom, success, family) our customers can relate to and thrive towards in their own life. Your brand needs to inspire your customer to be the best version of themselves – not shame them through an image of something they are not.
This photo is from a February 2019 campaign of the clothing brand River Island, #thisisfamily. The campaign made a point of showing different kinds of families, real families.
Labels without labels
Similarly than it happens with pictures, dividing products or collections by end-user is also sending out a message. It groups us out as humans, putting us in boxes.
I still remember the uproar I caused as a child because I wanted an Aladdin costume for my birthday. So much so that my parents got a Jasmine one instead. No offense, but Jasmine was kind of lame in the original movie – I wanted to be the hero! It was very shocking to me then and it is still now that we feel the need to gender things like toys, children´s clothes, or towels.
Luckily, it seems I am not the only one. Gender-neutral childrenwear has become increasingly popular in the past years and it is slowly becoming the norm. Not only that, California recently proposed a bill that if approved will eliminate the “boys” and “girls” sections on toy stores and clothing stores. And is not without reason.
The way we socialize when we are young strongly shapes how we feel as adults. Not only about our own experience, but also in the way we understand those who might be different than us. Discrimination and intolerance are acquired behaviors. Clothes don´t care about who is wearing them. A toy truck is equally fun to a boy or a girl, and so is a barbie doll.
We need to move towards grouping products based on exactly that – products. Not on the type of humans that should be using them. Take target as an example – their babywear collection is divided by age, and by category – not by gender.
Watch your language
Another thing that is extremely easy to implement and can have a potentially huge ripple effect is adopting a gender-neutral language.
If your brands main communication language is English…this is easy to do. Take it from someone whose first language (Spanish) didn´t have gender-neutral pronouns. We are having to create new ways to express gender neutrality on purpose.
In English is much easier, there are plenty of genderless words you can use. You can say child instead of boy/girl, or boys and girls. Refer to a spouse, significant other, or partner instead of husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend. Choose to say “dear passengers” instead of “ladies and gentlemen” in public transportation announcements.
Another relatively easy change to implement would be moving from inquiring customers about their gender and asking them about their pronouns instead when we ask for personal information (registration, check out, etc). It might feel a bit force for users from Gen X and older, but we can already see this slowly changing towards being considered the norm.
If you don´t know, ask.
If you are making the decision of working towards making your brand and your business more inclusive towards the LGTBQ+ community, there is an obvious first step. That is to literally include them in the conversation about how to do so. Good intentions can quickly backfire when you assume instead of asking.
As much as a person can try to relate as an ally, you can never fully understand what is needed and appreciated if you have not lived that experience. But what we can all do is ask, listen, and believe people when they tell you who they are and what they need. You can give them the platform to express their concerns and give you direction.
This is why if you are planning on running a pride campaign, you should have the LGTBQ+ members of your marketing team take the lead. And if you read this and think: “well, I don´t think we have any” ; then my dear you have a bigger problem. Either you want to sell inclusivity while being actively excluding people, or you have cultivated a working culture so toxic that your team doesn’t feel confident to express themselves as they are.
As a consumer, you can also make sure you support the companies who are indeed creating an inclusive and fair working environment. You can for instance look for their ranking on the Corporate Equality Index from Human rights campaign foundation. Amongst the 767 companies who scored a 100 in 2021 we have Fashion companies such as Adidas, Gap, and Nordstrom.
Put your money where your PR stunt is
As we were saying, changing your logo to rainbow for pride month is nice, sure. But how is this positively affecting the community you are allegedly trying to support? The truth is that as much as LGTBQ+ rights have advanced in certain areas and locations there is still a lot of work to do. Especially when we consider in the US, 2021 has seen a record of bills being introduced in order to restrict trans rights.
If a company wants to really become an ally, if they want to position themselves at the forefront of progress, they need to lead with conviction. And in corporate America (and let’s be honest, everywhere else in the world) this means check in hand.
It is a well-known best business practice to donate to charitable causes that align with the brand’s values. This is a clear win-win-win strategy. This doesn’t only give direct financial benefits for the organization thanks to tax benefits. It helps the development of the community, and it actually elevates the perceived value of the brand fidelizing the consumer. Studies show that consumers are up to 6 times more likely to choose brands with a sense of purpose.
And how do you show the commitment to the cause? Here are some ideas.
- Donate a part of your profits to reputed associations working towards LGBTQ+ rights, or create products and collections whose profits are fully directed towards these causes.
- Take the lead and directly invest in initiatives that benefit the community. You can do this either through a foundation or scholarship of your own or by funding specific projects. In Fashion and beauty, we have the Levi Strauss foundation and M.A.C Aids Fund as prime examples.
- Support the campaigns of regional, state, and federal leaders who are advocating for equal rights. Not sure who these are? Well, revert to point number 4 in this article. Check with your local associations and see which candidates they endorse. The HRC is a good place to start.
- Facilitate your team to donate their time to the causes they believe in. Many companies are implementing “Volunteer Paid Time Off“, allowing their employees to take a certain amount of paid days off they can use to volunteer for a nonprofit of their choice.
- Get creative. Think of which resources your company has and how can they be useful to your local community and the non-profits working to help them. Do you have a space that can be used to host a fundraiser? Maybe vehicles that can be used to reach at-risk communities? Maybe you have to change an otherwise perfectly good computer because your new software is not compatible with it.
- Use your platform for the common good. Share relevant news, interview LGBTQ activists, allow for an Instagram takeover by a local nonprofit. When a brand that has a solid platform supports a certain cause, it can help bring awareness and validation to said cause.
And last but not least : be honest.
The consumer is not stupid. And they are particularly critical about the issues that affects them the most. You need to work on your long-term plans and corporate responsibility policies first, and then announce it to the world. Being an ally, a positive-impact business, is much more complicated than changing the color of a logo.
It is also a journey, and not a destination. We can all always do more, and the engaged consumer will always ask for more. And that is OK. Instead of selling the absurd idea that you reached perfection, make the audience part of your journey. Let them know about the efforts you are making. Allow them to interact with you and ultimately help you make the most out of those efforts.
Once thing is clear. As businesses, we have a voice. And we use that voice not only to sell products, but also to express the idea of the world we believe in. To highlight the values we think are important.
It’s 2021. The fact that LGBTQ+ rights are human rights shouldn’t be political at this point. Yes still is. Which is why we need brands to use their voice, their platforms, and their money to try and change that.