7 things for brands to consider ahead of Pride

Jo Franklin-Wright

30 May 2022

In the last couple of years we’ve seen diversity, equity and inclusion jump up the priority list for many businesses. The topic is front of mind because it should be. An informed DE&I strategy should become a company’s north star in its approach to people, clients, partners and effectively give it a blueprint for operating in today’s society.

When it comes to external comms around major “diversity moments” though, we know there is often a fine line to tread. Events like Pride month can cause consternation among brands who worry about being called out for issues like appropriation, overstepping, saying too much, saying too little or just being tone deaf.

But folks, we have got to do better.

A study from Unilever released in 2021 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.”

When it comes to Pride, it’s easy for brands to get swept up in the party and forget the politics. Let’s face it, the LGBTQ+ community has built a lot of its identity around being the “party people” and every year we see brands emulating this hedonistic approach to prove how fun and “like us” they are. This often now involves hiring a drag queen to do bingo or paint their logo with rainbow colours (sadly rarely not even the more up-to-date and inclusive progress flag).

Don’t get me wrong, celebration is a very very important aspect of LGBTQ+ culture – and drag queens do need gigs! Being able to be out and proud in a society that has previously demonised and ridiculed us is something to celebrate. But what came in between was protest, and the fight isn’t over. 71 countries still criminalise homosexuality. In the US, as the Guardian puts it “there have been a rash of laws concerning the teaching of human sexuality in school curricula, banning trans student athletes and stripping parents of the right to help their gender-variant children obtain appropriate care.” Not to mention the relentless transphobia within the British media.

Given this backdrop, for many in the LGBTQ+ community it’s tough to see brands papering over the pain and protest part for profit, without seeing them give back or support where it matters.

So how can businesses meaningfully get involved in Pride?

1. Be an active participant

It’s important that as well as marketing and selling to a community, that businesses take an active interest in events that are affecting the community they’re trying to reach, and have an external-facing point of view. Take a stance, have a point of view and own it. Along the way you have an opportunity to actively educate your employees, stakeholders and clients so they can take a stance and help drive change too. This might be around conversion therapy not covering trans people in the UK, the rights of trans athletes to compete on even a grassroots level let alone nationally or globally, or the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. Brands have a huge platform for change – this is where companies can really add value and clout to the global conversation around rights, so use it.

A lovely example here of quiet activism is Kelloggs’ Together With Pride campaign in the US. Kelloggs is donating a portion of its sales to GLAAD and the Together With Pride cereal boxes also have a section that encourages people to write down their pronouns, helping to reach and educate swathes of people who might not be engaging with media outlets that reporting on pronouns in fair and accurate ways.

2. Think beyond your business

Competition is rife in many industries, but collective action is vital to the success of any movement. If you’re serious about supporting LGBTQ+ rights then talk about action that the wider industry needs to take and suggest ways in which you as a key player can be held to account within that. It’s important to recognise that putting initiatives in place within the four walls of your company is an ideal first step, but you are part of an ecosystem – both in terms of partners, customers, suppliers – and also your competitors. Make it clear what your commitments are, make them measurable and invite people in to help achieve them.

3. Consult your audience

While I’m sure many people like to think they have their finger on the pulse of popular culture, groups like the LGBTQ+ community have their own language, references, things they find funny and offensive and this cannot be learned over night. If you have an LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group, this is the time to ask them to consult on your work. If you don’t, the great people at the Diversity Standards Collective will get your cultural insights and guidance for you from their panel of industry experts representing a cross-section of society.

4. Language is everything

Acceptance and tolerance don’t equal respect. We are past that now. The Pose actress Dominique Jackson said at the Human Rights Campaign national dinner after speaking about violence against trans people: “You do not have the power to accept or tolerate me… You will respect me.” The language of DE&I changes, but it only takes a few minutes reading to understand the shift in the conversation.

5. Represent diversity within the community

What about the folk who aren’t party animals? Representation is important to ensure people feel seen and validated, even if it’s an aspect you can’t float down Regent Street. Comedian Hannah Gadsby said, “My favorite sound in the whole world is the sound of a teacup finding its place on a saucer… It’s very, very difficult to flaunt that lifestyle in a parade.” Although, I personally would love to see someone try. More broadly, working with LGBTQ+ influencers where appropriate for your campaign is a hugely important factor in acknowledging and giving back to the community in a meaningful way.

6. Be authentic and generous

Acknowledge where your business and the industry needs to do better to support the LGBTQ+ community. As individuals, we are encouraged to do a lot of introspection and recognise that no one is perfect. Consciousness and dissection is the first step to acknowledging that prejudice is ingrained in individuals and society as a whole. The skew comes when business only talk about their successes – it’s not reflecting reality to say you’ve got it 100% covered, and it’s humanising to admit you’re on a journey. Be generous with your time to learn how to be better – and also monetarily to support the causes that really need help.

7. Keep it going, and going, and going…

Ensure that the work you’re doing is part of the fabric of the running of the business, is owned internally by people who really want to create a movement for change, and is not just an initiative or campaign that gets wheeled out at Pride or LGBT History Month. If you’re sending the message internally and externally that diversity is a thing that happens a couple of times a year, it will appear tokenistic and part of a checklist, rather than a priority.

In the spirit of authenticity and openness, I’d like to say I think Harvard is walking the walk on a lot of the guidance given here – particularly around representation, language and making sure  we’re not just using marquee moments to look at LGBTQ+ issues. But I also want to briefly reflect on where we can do better as an organisation. As the lead of the LGBTQ+ pillar of our DE&I strategy, I will be focussing on a couple of key areas this year:

  • Community engagement: I want to better understand how we can meaningfully contribute and “give back” in a way that makes sense for both the community itself and Harvard, so that it aligns to our tech comms focus and our mission to help people make their move.
  • Measuring progress: I am keen to understand what good looks like for Harvard and how to measure that – and help shape what success looks like for the comms industry too. Where do we want to be? To get here, we will be consulting organisations like Stonewall on how best to benchmark our progress and make real strides.