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The 3 pitfalls of LGBTQ+ marketing: failure to represent society both inside and out

Next up in The Drum’s three-part series about the biggest mistakes brands make when it comes to LGBTQ+ marketing and how to avoid them, we explore how advertisers can authentically and progressively represent society, both inside and out.

Pride season is upon us; cue a flood of brands sharing support by updating their logos to a rainbow. But is it, like the rainbow, a trick of the light, or are these companies actually making incisive changes from the inside out?

"What brands need to understand is it’s not enough to just 'go rainbow' – they need to earn the right," explains Jan Gooding, chairman of Stonewall, the LGBT charity.

To avoid accusations of being LGBTQ+ illiterate, brands should look inwards before jumping up to share solidarity with Pride, and ask themselves if they are being authentic in everything they do.

How do their LGBTQ+ staff feel? Could they do more for them? What are they doing for their LGBTQ+ customers? Thinking about LGBT inclusion should be a 24/7 thing.

In a world where authenticity is increasingly important to consumers, brands need to be careful that their LGBTQ+ marketing flies the flag in a way that actually drives change and supports LGBTQ+ causes in the process.

Brands that say one thing, but do another

Glossy Pride campaigns can fly the flag in solidarity with the Pride movement, but when you scratch beneath the surface, if brands don’t have any rules around how LGBTQ+ people are treated, then their actions are in vain.

Asad Dhunna, director of communications for Pride in London and founder of The Unmistakables says “people can see the bullshit.”

“They see it’s just a campaign that you’ve slapped a rainbow on. Do good by looking inside the organisation to see what stories you can pull out.”

And it’s been argued time and time again that brands who care about equality and inclusion do better as whole.

Recently retired Unilever chief executive Paul Polman has been vocal about the need to improve diversity within the workforce, calling upon the industry to have more inclusive environments. He contends that companies that do so perform better financially.

Talking at this year’s Advertising Week Europe, Polman said that within Unilever's subsidiaries in 190 countries, he could see the difference with companies that were further advanced in inclusivity. "You can read it in engagement scores, you can read it in innovation and ultimately in profitability and return on investment," he said.

Having a diverse and understood team leads to more informed campaigns that will resonate more authentically with the LGBTQ+ community.

Value of equality and diversity training

Increasingly, brands are waking up to the benefits of equality and diversity training.

Through his agency ‘The Unmistakables', Dhunna runs ‘Wokeshops,’ which he delivers to brands and senior marketers who want to avoid the reputational damage of tone deaf brand and campaigns by bringing in the voices rarely heard

What’s important is, as part of the workshops he invites people from minority communities to come and speak, allowing them to contribute and contradict, so leaders break out of their echo chambers and become aware of different opinions and ideas.

Working with LGBTQ+ charities and organisations

Smirnoff has been praised for its Soho Angels initiative, which enlists a team of specially trained volunteers to keep the LGBTQ+ community safe on nights out throughout the year. This year, the drinks brand is bringing the volunteers to Pride, to ensure the safety of its attendees.

“Our work with the Soho Angels helped us to develop modules within the Diageo bar academy,” explains Sam Salameh, head of Smirnoff.

Diageo’s bar academy is a customer facing tool that trains bartenders on how to make various cocktails. Now Salameh says it “has an always-on module which will train bars on how to work effectively and brilliantly with the community”.

In place for over six months, he believes it has “opened up really interesting conversations with our customers”.

Smirnoff also has a long-term relationship with the LGBT foundation. “It’s really happy to come in and talk with our employees,” Salameh says. The brand consults it when working on LGBT marketing campaigns to ensure it gets it right.

Smirnoff’s owner Diageo’s purpose is to ‘celebrate life, every day, everywhere'. As part of this pledge, it has an employee-led, 'European Rainbow' network who turned its offices into a hub branded ‘INC'.

During ‘INC Week’, Diageo hosts debates, Ted Talks and celebrations designed to accelerate an intentional culture of inclusion.

Ira Read, Diageo’s head of inclusion and diversity, says: “Our employees drive this event, which is hugely engaging for everyone of all levels across Diageo and provides a platform where employees can discuss topics close to their heart.”

Alongside its dedicated inclusion events, Read says Diageo is a proud member of Open for Business, an alliance of leading companies committed to supporting LGBT+ inclusion and signatories of the UN Global LGBTI Standards of Conduct for Business.

And it reflects in its marketing. Diageo has been commended for its ‘Made of More’ Guinness ad, where Gareth Thomas, the first professional rugby player to come out as gay, spoke a powerful soliloquy addressing his experiences.

“Globally our marketers across all brands are putting a concerted focus on progressive gender portrayal in all our creative work and initiatives that support diversity in advertising,” Read explains.

Never as an afterthought

Earlier this month, beauty chain Sephora closed its US stores for an hour one morning to hold diversity training.

The decision was in reaction to R&B singer SZA reported an incident of what she felt was racial profiling in one of its stores.

Although a seemingly progressive action, Sephora has been criticised for “sticking a plaster where there might be a deeper wound that the organisation needs to fix”.

Brands shouldn’t employ a one-day bit of training in response to an incident. They should be constantly challenging and having hard conversations with their staff to ensure the problem goes away for good.

Dusting off the cobwebs of old-fashioned ways

A lot of work still needs to be done to ensure businesses are LGBTQ+ friendly, both inside and out.

As the world becomes more attuned to the individual experiences of gender and sexual identity, businesses need to cater better to the needs of their LGBTQ+ employees and customers. Whether that be introducing gender-neutral bathrooms or introducing non-gender prefixes.

The best cases of businesses dusting off the cobwebs of old-fashioned habits stem from having an ear to the ground and listening to the individual experiences of staff.

HSBC was praised for making it's lesbian, gay, bi and trans employees and customers feel valued by highlighting real employees by sharing their lived experiences.

When its trans lead of HSBC’s UK Pride Network, Stuart Barette, told the bank that he found going to the bank "terrifying" because every time he did, he had to declare he was trans, HSBC listened.

While Barette feels that updating gender records should be as easy as changing marital status, his reality was that every time he filled out a form, he had to essentially "come out" and present himself as trans.

To overcome this, HSBC introduced non-gender specific titles for its retail bank accounts. Instead of Mr, Mrs, Ms or the gender-neutral Mx, customers could choose from nine titles including “M” and “Misc”.

HSBC UK's head of marketing, Chris Pitt, says "the gender-neutral titles allow people who don't identify as a particular gender to choose the title that works for them which simplified and streamlines the experience of those who wish to change their gender on their bank account".

"Employee videos around topics feature heavily on our intranet," says Pitt. "These videos play in our premises, in HSBC lifts, lobbies and coffee bars for employees, customers and other visitors to view" as well as being publicly available on its social channels.

Doing good beyond your business

Although we’ve come a long way, the journey to total equality is still a long way off.

Around the world, people are constantly under attack for who they love, how they dress and ultimately for who they are.

Early this month, two gay women were left covered in blood after being brutally beaten on a London bus after they refused to kiss for a gang of men.

Brunei’s decision to enact strict new laws that make gay sex punishable by stoning to death prompted widespread condemnation. Brunei is one of 14 other countries or jurisdictions that still prescribe the death penalty for homosexuality.

Therefore, there is still a lot of work to be done, and businesses are in an advantageous position to help.

Northern Island is one of 167 countries where same-sex marriage is still illegal.

Described by the LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell as “the most homophobic place in Western Europe,” it was the last part of the United Kingdom to legalise same-sex sexual activity and the last to end a lifetime ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men.

The first employer in the legal sector to work with Stonewall, Pinsent Mason, is actively involved in championing LGBT equality across the UK, and it has been ranked Stonewall's most LGBT-inclusive employer.

Last year, it partnered with Stonewall and the Rainbow Project to launch a workplace partnership supporting LGBT-inclusive employers in Northern Ireland.

More than 100 people from over 40 businesses across Northern Ireland gathered at the celebration to normalise an issue that has historically been difficult to address in Northern Ireland.

“It's quite apart from all the work they do with their staff," Gooding explains. "It can wrap its head in rainbow from head to toe as far as I'm concerned for the month of June."

Alongside the event, Pinsent Mason has also launched a #Business4LoveEquality campaign through its Belfast office, which called for equal marriage, as well as developing a range of inclusive policies and practices for LGBT staff.

It has also introduced specific trans-inclusive employee training to create a welcoming environment for trans colleagues, clients and visitors.