Ikea and LGBT+ activist marketer on how brands can avoid virtue signalling this Pride


By Shawn Lim | Reporter, Asia Pacific

June 29, 2021 | 6 min read

As the workforce today becomes increasingly diverse, organizations are seeing the benefits of hiring talent from various backgrounds and the contributions these employees bring. The Drum speaks to retail giant Ikea and campaigner Johnson Ong about supporting LGBT+ talent.

A marketer by trade and an LGBT+ activist outside of work, Johnson Ong has noticed a proliferation of brands in Singapore over the last few years that are starting to be more vocal and visible in their support of the local LGBT+ community, especially during Pride Month every June.

He notes while there has been a lot of criticism surrounding brands that engage in virtue signaling, he feels it counts for something when a brand puts out a statement on their social media platforms that affirms and commits to upholding LGBT+ rights, or includes a Pride filter on their logos.

“It’s a good start. One of the ways that could help companies move beyond just virtue signaling is to seek out opportunities locally where they can be involved in initiatives organized by the LGBT+ community. Red Dot 4 Pink Dot (RD4PD) is a good example,” the co-founder and director of creative digital agency BZNZ explains.

“This is an initiative in Singapore that galvanizes local businesses to sponsor the year’s Pink Dot via several sponsorship tiers. RD4PD also connects like-minded businesses through networking events, where brands can learn more about supporting the LGBT+ community without misrepresenting any groups or culture.”

One brand that tries to avoid virtue signaling is Ikea, telling The Drum it ensures it makes a conscious decision in its campaigns to always include a call to action for its co-workers and customers.

Ahead of Pride Month, the Swedish retail giant worked with Given London to launch a campaign on International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) in May to encourage its teams to raise the progress flag at its stores, and shared advice on how everyone could use their gender pronouns to make conversations about pronouns more commonplace.

The campaign also featured the chief executive of Ikea South East Europe (Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Ukraine and Slovenia), who has been advocating Ikea’s support for pending legislation that recognizes same sex marriage in Serbia.

“We try to make them as simple as possible but rooted in expert knowledge that these actions will help to create change. The key to any successful campaign at Ikea is co-creation with experts and our country teams. All our societal impact campaigns are rooted in the latest research and expert thinking of an topic,” explains Jessie Macneil-Brown, the head of global campaigns at Ikea Group.

“With Given London we spoke to the experts in our business and several external experts, like the Diversity Standards Collective, to understand the latest challenges and where we could have the best impact.”

She adds: “Our secret weapon, however, is collaborating with our country teams. We have incredibly talented, creative and passionate teams all around the world who are also very close to the issues we are working on. We work closely together to understand what campaigns will work in their communities and what impact is needed.”

Working with diverse talent

Ong says that being out doesn’t seem to matter most of the time in his professional interactions with clients. He reckons it could also be that for him, working in a creative industry, diversity and queerness seem to be more of an asset than a liability.

This is despite Ong filing a constitutional challenge against Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code, a law criminalizing sex between men, in his capacity as a LGBT+ activist.

However, there was one instance where a potential client had asked if he was “the one taking the Singapore government to court,” and ‘ghosted’ him soon after.

“That might not have been because I am gay, but perhaps more the fact that I may be seen as anti-establishment – which I am not,” he remarks.

For Ikea, Macneil-Brown says when working with agencies, the company is increasingly looking for diverse teams who represent the many cultures and countries where it operates, in addition to the demographic they are targeting or aiming to represent.

“Not only are we a global brand but for campaigns like our IDAHOT campaign, it is really important that we work with members of the community to ensure we are supporting and representing them in the most impactful and appropriate way,” she explains.

“That’s why with our 2021 IDAHOT campaign we worked directly with LGBT+ activists to understand what making progress means to them and to ask them for their advice on the actions our audiences can take to be good allies.”

Ikea also recently launched its global Transgender Inclusion Toolkit for managers that includes a global guideline for creating a trans-inclusive workplace and trans-inclusive teams. It has a global LGBT+ inclusion plan, ensuring that its entire company creates a workplace and environment that welcomes people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

In addition, the company continues to offer training for its workers about inclusion, unconscious bias and LGBT+ issues to further support allyship.

“We have joined Workplace Pride Foundation and Stonewall, two organizations focused on LGBT+ inclusion in the workplace. We have also co-created and endorsed the UN Standards of Conduct on tackling discrimination against LGBT+ people in the workplace and in the community,” says Macneil-Brown.

“We are proud members of Open for Business in 2020, a business coalition for advancing LGBT+ inclusion and providing a response to the growing backlash against LGBT+ inclusion in many parts of the world. In 2020, we made a global business commitment to racial equality, which includes increasing ethnic, racial and national diversity at all levels of leadership in 30 countries by 2024.”

Will change eventually happen?

Ong’s constitutional challenge against Section 377A was dismissed and he is appealing. He says that whatever the outcome, he will still carry on living his life as an out and proud gay man – he admits it took him many years to get to where he is.

He argues this challenge is so important because when this law gets abolished, it will signal to future generations of Singaporeans that their country does not regard them as criminals but accepts them, even if their religion or parents reject them.

“With homosexual sex not being outlawed, perhaps we will start seeing more varied and positive portrayals of queer people in the local media. I find it deeply encouraging that attitudes towards gay people in Singapore have been slowly changing and the younger generations seem more attuned and accepting of the LGBT+ community,” he says.

“Change will come eventually and perhaps in the future, the government, schools and more workplaces might come to recognize and include the LGBT+ community in its policies.”


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