Work & Wellbeing Brand Purpose Diversity & Inclusion

How brands can help support the LGBTQ+ community in Asia Pacific


By Shawn Lim | Reporter, Asia Pacific

December 7, 2021 | 8 min read

There are still many countries in Asia Pacific where being LGBTQ+ is illegal. As part of The Drum’s Marketing and the Marginalized Deep Dive, we find out how brands in the region are campaigning for equality.

From Sydney to Seoul, Asia Pacific is a big place with a multitude of faiths, identities and laws. And so when it comes to brands in the region addressing the LGBTQ+ community, a one-size-fits-all approach was never going to be an option.

In countries such as Taiwan and Australia, there’s a more progressive outlook, reflected in the more confident ways that brands communicate. Elsewhere, brands have to be more subtle or nuanced in how they engage the LGBTQ+ audience.

While challenging for many, these complexities mean it is important that those brands with the weight of a Unilever, for example, show up with consistency says Sherawaye Hagger, the consumer goods giant’s head of public relations for its skin cleansing and oral health categories.

“Today we have a consumer – both in the east and west – demanding that brands take a stand on societal and environmental issues,” Hagger says.

”At Unilever, we have always led with our purpose and I believe an important way for brands to support LGBT+ communities in Asia is to continue to find ways to shine a spotlight and be a voice. This may come through social posts or by driving inclusivity at work, but the simple truth is that brands must use their power to amplify the challenges and solutions.”

For example, Unilever-owned toothpaste brand Closeup (together with its agency, Vice Media’s Virtue) has been exploring LGBT+, inter-caste, class and race relationships in the Philippines, India and Brazil for its ’Free to love’ campaign and championing a future where everyone can choose to be with the one they love, regardless of their cultures, family or differences in background.

Closeup took a 360° approach for the campaign and, at a grassroots level, worked with non-profit and LGBTQ+ communities to challenge the social psyche on what are acceptable forms of love, representing diverse couples in its advertising and storytelling.

As part of the campaign, a resource site called ’Love for all’ was created to house expert advice, real stories and local support for all relationships. It also features love stories of real people whose lives were impacted by these societal perceptions to encourage them to speak up against narrow-minded cultural norms of love and relationships and champion the freedom to love for all.

“Unilever has a vision for our entire business to work towards the transformations in society that will tackle social inequality and unfairness and end the marginalization of individuals and groups who are under-represented simply because of who they are,” says Hagger.

Lesley John, who is the managing director for APAC at Virtue, adds that the role of effective marketing is to reflect people, place and culture, and for brands that are supportive of the LGBTQ+ community in their communications this represents an opportunity to increase visibility and champion greater representation to broader audiences.

“It can be a catalyst for acceptance – which is more ’traditional’ societies is an important first step in creating meaningful change,“ she says. “While there is positive movement from some brands in recognizing LGBTQ+ diversity, there has been a tendency to focus marketing activity around specific occasions, such as Pride month. This can be seen as opportunistic by the LGBTQ+ community and opens brands up to accusations of rainbow washing rather than developing a more consistent and long-term marketing strategy that is rooted within a brand’s values.

“APAC is a much more diverse place from an LGBTQ+ standpoint than traditional media reflects. Loud conservative voices in the region make it difficult for LGBT+ voices to enter the mainstream conversation. This offers an opportunity for brands to be a counterpoint and provide a platform that normalizes marginalized voices in the mainstream, as well as challenging the notion of traditional Asian family structures.”

John goes on: “While some markets are more conservative than others, the reality is that diversity and difference exist in all and always will. Brands can play a significant role in saluting and celebrating these alternatives, fostering greater empathy and making those who don’t fit into the narrow, mainstream narrative, feel seen, recognized and validated”.

Breaking down stereotypes

Over at Singapore-based telco Circles.Life, the brand is tackling “implicit exclusion“ policies that while not necessarily designed to exclude, end up excluding anyway. For example, shared telco plans for families may require documentation to prove familial ties, which immediately disqualifies those who do not fit the traditional definition of a family unit.

Delbert Stanley Ty, the group head of marketing at Circles.Life, says it wants to champion the idea that ’family’ should not be so narrowly defined. Instead, it believes families can be any group of people brought together by blood, circumstance, love or even shared interests. “It is why our Family Plan is the first family telco plan in Singapore to allow individuals to enjoy and share the same plan without the usual restrictions.

“In addition, Circles.Life is a proud supporter of PridePass, a platform that brings together inclusive companies and connects LGBTQ+ talents with the right employment opportunities.”

Mehul Gupta, chief executive officer, and co-founder at SoCheers notes progressive global brands like Tinder, Bumble, Levi’s, and some local brands in pro-LGBTQ countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, India to some extent, that is built on individual beliefs are championing the message through different lenses and bringing cultural awareness in their target markets.

"Since social media is where the most conversations happen and awareness about LGBTQ+ travels the fastest, brands have been using digital platforms to explore and open up newer narratives that the country is grappling with, for example, LGBTQ+ people in the Philippines say ‘sorry’ more times than they mean to, which was highlighted in a campaign by Lazada Philippines," he explains.

"While the progress towards a more inclusive narrative has been slow, brands are trying to reflect the rapid social change that is happening on social media in their ads and campaigns. Brands are understanding that media and advertising on digital and TV play an important role in educating and driving social acceptance and are up for the challenge."

How are other brands supporting the LGBTQ+ community?

Oogachaga – a community-based and non-profit professional organization working with LGBT+ individuals, couples and families in Singapore since 1999 – has been collaborating with brands in ways other than campaigns and products.

It started an Asia Pacific Rainbow fund with Gilead, a large pharmaceutical company, and has been hired by other companies to conduct training workshops on LGBT+ allyship in the workplace.

For its fundraising trivia quiz in early 2021, it received product donations from The Body Shop, Sephora and Collins Debden. Oogachaga has also previously collaborated with private healthcare provider Dr Tan & Partners to provide free healthcare services specifically catered to the local LGBTQ+ community.

Oogachaga’s partnerships with these brands are significant because in Singapore there is a clear signal from the government that there should be no ”foreign interference” on sensitive or controversial domestic issues in the public domain.

Examples of what this means are that a multinational financial institution would not be able to make a public statement about repealing Section 377A (a law preventing gay sex) and that a global tech firm would not be able to launch a media campaign to change existing policies and practices about legal gender recognition for transgender and gender-diverse Singaporeans.

However, it is still possible for international and local brands to support the local LGBTQ+ community in Singapore in many ways says Leow Yangfa, the executive director of Oogachaga and a registered social worker. “Brands can create safe and inclusive workplaces for LGBTQ+ employees through HR policies and practices, such as equalization of benefits for same-sex partners, medical coverage for gender identity-related treatments and procedures, and providing in-house diversity training that includes the LGBTQ+ community.

“Also, recognize that many LGBTQ+ activists in Singapore are volunteers and need full-time jobs too, and acknowledge their contributions in those areas as part of the recruitment process.

“Brands should also conscientiously connect, consult and collaborate with local LGBTQ+ community groups on what they need from brands before launching any LGBTQ+ related products, services or campaigns.”

Yangfa concludes: “Brands can create safe and inclusive environments for LGBTQ+ customers and consumers, which should not just stop with rainbow-themed merchandise during Pride Month. It should also include a bank allowing a same-sex couple to open a joint bank account and their relationship to not be reflected as ’friends’ but as a married couple.”

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