From London to Los Angeles to Paris, major metropolises in Europe and the U.S. are slowly reawakening and gradually shaking off the shadow of COVID-19. Public events that were called off or held online last year are slowly returning to the streets – the global Pride March in June was one of them.
Fashion, an industry that long been linked to the LGBTQ+ community in the general public’s mind, starting seeing this as a marketing milestone decades ago. From temporarily styling their logos in rainbow hues, to participating in parades and rolling out LGBTQ-themed products or collections – be it sincere or tokenistic, for-profit or for good – the fashion community has done it all.
The efforts of brands in trying to engage with the LGBTQ+ community have largely been applauded. Previously omitted, ignored or even suppressed, LGBTQ+ persons finally felt noticed and recognised by the mainstream market, with big name labels that endorsed and promoted their “different” lifestyle. Naturally, consumers started voting with their wallets. It seemed like a win-win strategy, albeit with risks of backlash from more traditional audiences.
These days, with inclusivity forming a huge part of a brand’s corporate social responsibility agenda and widespread media attention on the topic, Pride-related marketing campaigns have become a welcome part of the mainstream conversation. But companies tapping into such marketing practices are now subject to even greater scrutiny for their overall attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community (including their employees, clients and related stakeholders) – and not just what they portray in marketing initiatives.
The pink dollar is no longer something brands can ignore. According to LGBT Capital in 2019, the sexual minorities market is valued at over $3.7 trillion, surpassing that of the entire UK or France (according to IMF PPP figures for 2021).
Some brands have been inclusive in their marketing far earlier than others. In 1994, Swedish furniture retailer Ikea launched an advertisement spot on television in America’s East Coast featuring a gay couple shopping for a dining table. The advertisement drew varying degrees of backlash in conservative American society at the time, but essentially normalised the “alternative” lifestyle of homosexuals for the broader public. “We’re not trying to promote a certain lifestyle or make a statement,” said Peter Connolly, director of marketing for Ikea’s Philadelphia-based East Coast division at the time. “This is just part of our overall strategy to try to speak directly to all kinds of customers.”
While this might have been quite unusual in the past, it is now quite common for brands to depict the LGBTQ+ community or to feature them in brand campaigns. Calvin Klein’s #ProudInMyCalvins campaign this year spotlighted a range of individuals from the LGBTQ+ community including model Omar Ayuso, musician King Princess, actor Isaac Cole Powell, and featured their personal journeys – exploring their sexuality and the process of self-acceptance – on top of showcasing special edition products.
At a time when inclusivity has become a pivotal topic and essential for brands to stay relevant to their audiences, brands are coming under fire for not walking the talk. The term “pinkwashing” has surfaced, referring to hypocritical actions of companies attempting to showcase a progressive image through LGBTQ-related marketing but failing to internalise these practices. The difference here also lies in the sincerity coming up with strategies – is the brand merely trying to capitalise on Pride month, or is it truly trying to build an inclusive culture?
That said, as with most topics under the ESG umbrella – environmental, social and governance – initiatives undertaken by companies towards these issues are challenging, if not impossible, to evaluate in terms of impact. Some companies quantify their contribution to sexual minorities from a financial perspective. Brands across a range of categories such as Balenciaga, M.A.C and Banana Republic, for example, donate a portion of the revenue from its Pride Month collections to relevant minority rights organisations.
Others, however, have taken things a step further by incorporating a social responsibility agenda within their organisational structures and charting progress in different areas. For instance, Tapestry – which has earned the “Best Place to Work for LGBTQ Equality” rating by Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index – has published a Corporate Responsibility Report for three years in a row to disclose the company’s achievements on the equality, environment and community fronts in terms of numbers. In the luxury sector, conglomerates such as LVMH and Kering have also created Diversity and Inclusion positions within their management structures to implement and monitor the progress of their efforts.
More progressive brands have also started to roll out projects and initiatives that resonate with this consumer group a part of its long-term communications strategy instead of limiting it merely to Pride month. Luxury brand Dior recently unveiled Chinese transgender dancer Jin Xing as the face of its signature J’adore fragrance in a new marketing campaign in China – a market that is widely recognised to be more conservative than the West. The transgender celebrity has participated in several major Chinese television programmes and has her own prime time talk show, and has long been viewed as a trailblazing icon in the industry. The appointment was announced on the brand’s Weibo account with a video of Jin Xing discussing female empowerment. The video is part of the brand’s global #DiorStandsWithWomen and #DiorChinUp project that also features other famous celebrity ambassadors including Charlize Theron, Natalie Portman and Li Bing Bing. Her news has been well-received on local social media, with netizens expressing positive sentiments.
According to a poll held by Gallup in 2020, 9.1 per cent of American millennials and 15.9 per cent of Generation Z-ers surveyed identified themselves as LGBT. Having grown up a social climate that is increasingly inclusive, the proportion of these consumers is growing, and developing marketing and communication strategies that also consider the LGBTQ+ community has become a necessity for brands in this day and age. This is coupled with the fact that millennials and Generation Z-ers are projected to account for over 65 to 70 per cent share of the global luxury goods market by 2025.
This has raised the bar for brands’ marketing and communications strategies targeting the LGBTQ+ community moving forward, which have to be much more than rainbow-hued capsule collections. Brands that wish to be truly inclusive need to also start thinking beyond Pride Month, and look at long-term communications and initiatives that resonate all year round.