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Why brand tokenism during Pride month is a real problem

By 25th June 2019 No Comments

18th March 2019

Why brand tokenism during Pride month is a real problem


June is celebrated as LGBT+ Pride Month in countries across the globe, and it’s getting more and more common to see brands getting involved in various ways. However, just because they can get involved doesn’t mean they should – and this year, it’s more important than ever that brands realise the importance of avoiding tokenism.

Although Pride month is usually a time for celebration, this June has been marred by some concerning news stories. Less than a week after the beginning of the month, a lesbian couple was attacked on a bus in London, and then on June 14th, The Guardian released statistics that showed a 144% rise in the rate of LGBT+ hate crime per capita since 2013-14.

These troubling stories have brought into sharper focus one of the things that frustrates me most about Pride month; the rise of brands that treat the month as a money-making exercise. According to an article on Crunch, the purchasing power of the “pink pound” (the phrase used to describe the estimated purchasing power of the LGBT+ community) was estimated to be around £6 billion. This is not a huge amount compared to other segments, such as the “grey pound” (an estimation of the purchasing power of over 65’s) but is still significant enough to interest brands.

Not all businesses are in it just for the money. Vodka brands Absolut and Smirnoff have been supporting LGBT+ causes for over 30 years, with the former having invested over $40 million in LGBT+ support centres, while IKEA, the brand that is widely thought to have had the first commercial featuring an LGBT relationship, has launched a rainbow-coloured bag that sees 100% of the profits be donated toward the LGBT+ causes.

However there are still a number of brands that don’t get the real message behind Pride month; Bar chain Be At One released a “pride menu” in June 2018 that featured a number of specially designed cocktails – all designed to profit from pride, as Be At One offered no indication that any of the profits from the menu would go toward the LGBT+ community.

Whilst Be At One are at best lazy in their marketing, and at worst looking to turn a quick and easy profit, there are brands that take tokenism much further. American telecommunications giant AT&T are one of the brands that you might see change their logo, and even state they support Pride month; this is in stark contrast to their actions, which saw them donate over $2,750,000 to anti-LGBT+ politicians in the last American election cycle. This kind of tokenism stretches beyond money-making; no brand that promotes individuals that are actively involved in campaigning against equal rights in everything from marriage equality through to discrimination protections should ever be rewarded for aligning themselves with Pride month.

And that’s why we should be taking “rainbow-washing”, the term applied when brands attempt to wheel out products to target the LGBT+ community only when it suits their profit margins, more seriously than ever this June. Whilst it may be true that many historic victories have been won across the globe for LGBT+ rights, this year’s Pride month will be remembered more for reminding us how much we have left to do, rather than how far we’ve already come.

It is important to note that brands can play a key part in helping to raise awareness of LGBT+ issues, such as Ben and Jerry’s banning of same-flavour double scoops in their Australian shops during the marriage equality vote, and also provide fantastic support for LGBT+ charities and causes; but in order to move past tokenism and become true allies to the community, the commitment needs to be 365 days a year – not just a single month.

Brands need to consider a number of points when they’re looking to avoid tokenism and make a real difference. For one, there needs to be a true commitment to bringing real improvements to the community; making a one-off donation to a charity is all well and good, but brands should be looking to go further. A great example of this would be Smirnoff’s partnership with Manchester’s LGBT Foundation, which has seen the brand collaborate with the charity to support volunteer teams that offer “non-judgemental support and assistance to people in need in Manchester’s Gay Village”.

Other points that need to be considered include the brand’s attitude to LGBT+ issues inside their own business. Brands that take care of their LGBT+ employees are often the brands that are most likely to support the community at large. Finally, brands need to think of the long-term; real ally brands are ones that commit to improving the community for the foreseeable future – not just the next financial quarter.

Ensuring that your brand is not just tagging along for the ride is becoming increasingly important. As our Client Director, James Montgomery, mentioned in one of our previous blogs, consumers are looking to find brands that align with their own values and beliefs – they can see through a token attempt to capitalise on events such as Pride month, which is why ensuring that you think strategically about your engagement is becoming more important than ever before. It’s even more pronounced as we come toward the end of a Pride month that is marked by stories of hate crimes and rights rollbacks. Businesses can no longer be allies for just 30 days – they need to follow the lead of those brands that fly the flag for LGBT+ causes and become the supporters that we need all year round.

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