Thoughts on LGBT marketing
In June 1969, members of the gay community demonstrated against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, NYC. Although there had been altercations and demonstrations prior to this, Stonewall is widely considered the start of the gay liberation movement. The following year the first Gay Pride marches took place in cities all across the US, organised by various gay rights organisations.
Since then, organised and funded, Pride parades have popped up all over the world. The first parade in Ireland took place in 1974[i]. Whilst the Pride movement started out as demonstrations against the establishment there’s a general consensus that they are now too commercial.
There is no official data on how big the LGBT community is. The best guesses range from between 1.2% – 10% of the population that identifies as LGBT[ii]. One thing everyone is in agreement with is that the community is growing and the Pink Pound is strong[iii].
So strong is the influence of the community that large companies such as Google, Burger King and Levi’s change their logo to feature the LGBT rainbow colours for the month of June to try and affiliate themselves with this market. And who can blame them? 68% of LGBTQ consumers are more likely to purchase from a brand with advertising that doesn’t just focus on straight couples, according to a Google Inclusive Marketing Study from 2019.
The gravy train
As more and more companies jump on the gay gravy train, how can consumers distinguish between the do-gooders and the say-gooders? It’s impossible to know, without research, which companies actually lead by example and which brands are simply hanging a rainbow in their windows without having the rest of their house in order. We’ve highlighted four examples below of brands and products that have courted the LGBT consumer, sometimes with less than successful results.
1 – The LGBT sandwich
M&S came under criticism last year when they launched a sandwich called the ‘LGBT’ (a classic BLT with Guacamole added). It may have been a clever play on words but the company was criticised for trivialising the many issues LGBT people still face. To be fair to M&S, they donated £20,000 to akt, a LGBTQ+ Youth Homelessness charity in the UK and €1,000 to BeLonG To Youth Services for LGBTI+ young people in Ireland. But it still feels like a sandwich was probably not the best way to make gay friends.
2 – Harry’s Pride
Harry’s is a men’s grooming company founded in 2012 with a long history of philanthropy. In 2018 they launched a limited-edition Pride shaving kit. The product included three blades, shaving gel, a blade cover and a unique rainbow-colored Winston handle. The handle was produced so that each one would be unique in colour – highlighting the fact that we’re all unique.
The box is designed by different designers / illustrators every year and is backed up by a great marketing campaign, including this video that includes a transgender man. The ad isn’t just shown at Pride month but throughout the year. 100% of the profits from the sale of the kit goes to LGBT causes, such as akt in the UK. Because Harry’s have a history of supporting good causes, no one questioned their motivation when they launched this product and it has been extremely well received.
The Harry’s Pride kit is a great example of how one business, with seemingly no direct connection to the LGBT community, has managed to market themselves (and their product) in a clever way to appeal to the LGBT market.
3 – Google
Google have been flying the rainbow flag for years. They are donating more than $40m to various inclusion organisations (including some focusing on LGBT) between 2017 and now and they’re usually very visible at Gay Pride parades. They even have a term for employees that partake in the annual Pride celebrations – Gayglers (a play on the word Googler ie. someone who works for Google). They also regularly score high in terms of employment equality. Despite this, there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding YouTube (owned by Google) in the past few years, with regards to LGBT content creators.
LGBT content creators have accused YouTube of hiding or ‘age-gating’ their content because they’ve included words such as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’. In 2017, some content creators saw their LGBT videos ‘demonetized’ (ads would no longer show on their channels and in effect stopping their revenue). One case in particular, shows that YouTube has a long way to go to prove that it’s a LGBT-friendly brand.
Crowder v. Maza
In 2019, Steven Crowder was accused of making deliberate and recurring anti-gay and racist comments in his videos (his channel has four million subscribers) against Carlos Maza – a gay, left-wing media commentator. Maza, a former producer with Vox who has since launched his own YouTube channel, argued that Crowder, through his videos, was inciting his supporters to harass or ‘dox’ him (publishing personal and/or identifying details about someone).
YouTube initially refused to take any action, stating that Crowders comments, whilst “hurtful” to people in the LGBT community, did not break their rules. Following backlash from media as well as their own employees, YouTube eventually took action and demonetized Crowder’s channel (following an internal review) and apologised for the situation.
Crowder’s videos are however still available to view and many people seem to think that demonetizing the videos is simply a slap on the wrist for someone with four million subscribers and that most of his income comes from selling merchandise (some of which carry anti-gay and racist slogans).
The reaction has been overwhelmingly negative towards YouTube and Google. Their own employees criticised the company for failing to take action and in January of 2020 the organisers of the San Francisco Pride Parade (SF Pride) banned Google from participating in future events.
4 – Absolut
The Swedish vodka brand has supported LGBT causes since the 80s and are estimated to have spent between $30-40m on sponsorship and marketing to the LGBT community between then and now. Charities and organisations that have benefited from their funding include The GLAAD Media Awards, RuPaul’s Drag Race, OUTserve, OUTFEST and Stonewall. Their rainbow-coloured ‘Absolut Rainbow’ can now be purchased all year round, not just during Pride month and for the design of the bottle they turned to the late creator of the rainbow flag – Gilbert Baker[iv].
Absolut’s advertising has always focused on the shape of their bottle. Originally shaped after a Swedish medicine bottle found in a pharmacy in Stockholm, the design is now so established that a simple outline is enough to communicate the brand. Limited edition rainbow bottles had been released since 2008 but always for a limited time. But in 2017 they released the permanent ‘limited edition’ Absolut Rainbow bottle – available to buy all year round. In terms of marketing it sent a clear message to the public that pride is ongoing, not just once a year.
Work in progress
One aspect that some ‘critics’ of the Absolut marketing effort point out is the fact that alcohol dependency tends to be higher in the LGBT community, compared to the general population – up to four times as high[v]. The company needs to address this issue, if they want to keep their status as a premium LGBT brand.
There’s no question that equality and inclusion has come a long way in the past 50+ years. But it’s not perfect. There’s still work to be done and brands have a part in this. They have a responsibility towards their market and LGBT are a part of that market, no matter what your business is. Showing that you care, as a company and brand, is more important now than ever before. Not just to sell more but to attract the right talent and inspire employees.
Marketing to a narrow segment of a market, such as the LGBT market, is a balance act. On the one hand you need to see results from your campaign, ie. it needs to make you money. Otherwise, what’s the point? But on the other hand you need to be seen as doing what you’re doing for every other reason that making money. If you don’t get your message right from the start you’ll be found out and find yourself in a hole you may not be able to dig yourself out of. But even if you get the message right – if your business doesn’t have the credentials to back it up – forget it! As we have seen from the recent BlackLivesMatter hashtag campaign – if it looks like you’re just jumping on the band wagon without truly knowing the reason behind it, you risk damaging your brand permanently.
Edit: if you need to contact someone about alcohol or other substance abuse there are a number of organisations that can help. The National Drug Helpline is based in the U.S. and BeLonG To is based in Ireland.