Brands come out: Is LGBT representation in marketing tokenistic or genuinely inclusive?

It’s ‘OK to be gay’, and more and more brands are realising that. But is the move to ‘go rainbow’ and come out in support of same-sex marriage just a little tokenistic, or are brands set to become genuinely inclusive? Gillian West takes a look.

Brands are awash with rainbow colours as recent high-profile events such as the US Supreme Court ruling in favour of same-sex marriage and Pride month provide the opportunity for marketers to align with the drive towards equality for the LGBT community, with Cheerios, Target, American Airlines and Airbnb just a few of those moving to a more inclusive approach with their creative.

But outwith these high-profile events, are brands making enough of an effort to be more inclusive of a consumer group worth an estimated one trillion dollars globally?

Creative from Coca-Cola, Tiffany & Co. and Matalan reflects a growing trend of LGBT representation in marketing, advertising and branding but still the group remains one of the most underrepresented in mainstream campaigns.

In March last year Graham Cracker brand Honey Maid launched ‘This is Wholesome’, featuring real-life families from all walks of life including two gay dads – a move which the campaign’s lead creative, Droga5’s Kevin Brady calls “brave”, adding that a lot of brands are too afraid to veer away from the traditional depiction of a heterosexual nuclear family.

Brady admits he was surprised when the brand agreed to the concept. “I remember pitching it and thinking it’d be a ‘no, but thank you’ and instead they wanted to know how they could get the idea through to the rest of the company. The challenge was then to make sure we didn’t end up with some ‘light’ version.

“We knew we had to do this right, the first scene is two gay men holding their baby because we wanted to do it in a clear way and not hide anything, but we weren’t naïve enough to think we could show gay men holding a baby in a commercial and no one was going to say anything.” Braced for negative reaction from conservative fronts rather than backing down when the storm hit, the brand and agency responded by creating a video that turned the negativity on its head.

“A lot of companies at that point would have said ‘sorry, we didn’t mean to offend you’ but we thought there was nothing to be sorry for,” says Brady.

“We came up with the idea of printing out all the comments and taking those hateful messages to spell ‘Love’. The haters came out fast, as you’d expect, but when the positive responses started they just kept coming and coming… I was really impressed with how America has evolved.”

Russia attracted controversy during the lead up to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games, when president Vladmir Putin signed the Russian LGBT Propaganda Bill into law. The move drew condemnation from around the world, prompting some to show their support, including Google, Chobani and global cosmetics retailer Lush – which has been putting LGBT rights at the forefront of its brand messaging ever since.

Alessandro Commisso, who works on global brand operations and digital development for licensed countries at the brand, tells us the brand’s stance is simple. “We believe LGBT rights are human rights and the right to love isn’t an option.”

When Putin signed the anti-LGBT propaganda law Commisso says the brand’s internal Facebook page “lit up” as staff members all over the world asked to make a stand. “Lush is a campaigning company. For us it’s not a marketing ploy; we try to use our power as a brand to put forward the message of not discriminating LGBT people,” he explains.

Since then there has been a change in the public’s attitude to the LGBT community globally, observes Commisso. “When we launched #SignOfLove in 2013 there was more countries than there are now where LGBT rights were illegal. In the last two years we have seen the community and the public become more accepting and more willing to listen about LGBT rights.

“With ‘Gay is OK’ [Lush’s most recent LGBT campaign] we’ve been able to run it in countries like Singapore and Ukraine, which two years ago would not have been possible.”

Despite a number of positive changes Commisso confirms that due to local anti-gay laws ‘Gay is OK’, at present, is not allowed to appear in “around 80 Lush shops” worldwide. While there are some brilliant examples of major campaigns celebrating LGBT individuals, the piggybacking on events like the US Supreme Court ruling and Pride month, however well intentioned, often appear to be shrewd, calculated marketing ploys.

“I’ve seen a lot of brands change their logo to the rainbow only to change it back after two days, and that’s not the right way to become more inclusive. It doesn’t send out the right message,” says Commisso. “It has to be a genuine commitment on the part of the brand, not just a strategy to attract the pink pound.”

Andrew Barratt, founder and head of Ogilvy Pride, Ogilvy & Mather’s LGBT consumer insights practice, claims the marketing industry is moving in the right direction and the sheer number of brands willing to ‘go rainbow’ in the wake of same-sex marriage rulings is as good a starting point as any.

“While the rainbows fade, brands are learning that diversity and inclusion is normal, and just plain good for business…we are in a new phase of marketing, whereby greater diversity in mainstream ads is now critical for good strategy,” he says.

“There are many ways brands can engage with the LGBT community… engaging with wider events and celebrating LGBT role models in advertising stretches far wider than just people identifying as LGBT. Straight allies, family, friends and many more are engaged when a brand shows support for LGBT rights.”

Droga5’s Brady echoes these sentiments, adding that in an era when it’s increasingly difficult to cut through, standing on the shoulders of important societal issues can make sense from both a creative and strategic standpoint, as long as the idea is appropriately sold.

“David [Droga, founder of Droga5], myself and the agency are in this for much more than just selling products. We like to impact culture in a positive way. We don’t think we can change the world but we’re a little more optimistic than others,” he says. “We want to create a culture and do things that are right and, of course, help clients along the way.”

Matt Horwood, communications officer at LGBT rights charity Stonewall, however, points out there is a marked difference in campaigns “devised specifically with LGBT consumers in mind and ensuring campaigns are inclusive and representative of LGBT people.”

“The brands getting it right are those that are approaching everything they do with an inclusive lens with equality and diversity at the heart of their work.” While it is not possible to represent all corners of society within one campaign poster or TV spot, brands can take an equally inclusive approach throughout their work to indicate they are not isolating any particular groups.

“Better representation of LGBT people in branding and marketing can act as a catalyst to improve the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and move towards a society where all people, everywhere, are accepted without exception,” says Horwood. Something which hopefully most would agree can’t be a bad thing.

This was first published in the 5 August issue of The Drum.