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Marketing and Comms
Engaging with LGBTQ+ Consumers Offers Brands Both Risk and Reward

As brands grapple with their position on LGBTQIA+ issues and building inclusivity and diversity across their businesses, the latest Outvertising Consumer Report offers plenty of advice for being more effective.

It’s Pride Month. And as the world gears up for its annual remembrance of the seminal 1969 Stonewall riots and recognition of ongoing efforts to achieve equal rights and opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA+) people, brands are keener than ever to be part of the conversation.

However, as US brands including adidas, Bud Light, Disney, Kohl’s, Nike, The North Face, PetSmart and Target — which have each faced very public backlash because of their support of the queer community in the past year alone — can attest, remaining true to your brand’s values in a polarized society is easier said than done. And part of being an advocacy brand is understanding that you will never be able to please everyone.

Target, for one, has pivoted slightly in its effort to continue supporting the LGBTQ+ community — deciding this year to limit the number of stores selling LGBTQ-themed merchandise. Last year, right-wing activists did their best to hit the company’s bottom line by boycotting stores that stocked rainbow-colored product lines — something the chain has done at many of its stores for the last decade — and even threatening the safety of employees. This year, Target will only sell Pride-themed products in "select stores, based on historical sales performance." Despite its best efforts to communicate its ongoing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community, pointing to its presence at local Pride events throughout the month, Target remains embedded in a culture war.

Posting on LinkedIn, sustainability advisor/speaker and Net Positive co-author Andrew Winston called the decision a “big mistake:” “Target’s stated values are: inclusivity; connection and drive. Doesn’t avoiding the sales of legal, safe, useful merchandise based on complaints from anti-LGBTQ+ activists hurt all these values?” he said. “I feel for Target execs, honestly. It’s not easy. But in the end, this isn’t about balancing some different, equally valid perceptions on a complicated issue. It’s about the courage to protect human rights and the dignity of the LGBTQIA+ community.”

In response, ESG strategist Sandy Skees was equally sympathetic to Target’s position: “The challenge they face, especially in states with both anti-gay/trans legislation and open-carry laws, [is that] staff and customers [are] at real risk.” The answer, she said, is for brands to “show up strong” where it’s safe and be careful in places where it’s not. “Do I hate that these are the choices facing Target now that they are literally a target for homophobic violence? Yes. And I will give them grace with these difficult decisions. They’ve earned my loyalty.”

A real economic opportunity

As similar conversations continue across social media, and brands grapple with their position on LGBTQIA+ issues and building inclusivity and diversity across their businesses, the latest Outvertising Consumer Report (OCR) offers plenty of advice for being more effective.

“When representation goes wrong, it’s most likely due to a failure to connect the representational politics of the brand communications with sustained commitments,” Rodney Collins, Outvertising’s Co-Director of Intelligence and one of the brains behind the OCR, told Sustainable Brands®.

The organization’s research magnifies the economic importance of the LGBTQIA+ community. When brands advertise their products and services, the LGBTQIA+ community is more likely to be persuaded by advertising to guide purchase behaviours than non-LGBTQIA+ people (40 percent vs 31 percent), and then recommend items that they see in ads to their friends and family (31 percent vs 24 percent).

“If you want to know what to watch or listen to, speak to someone from the LGBTQIA+ community — they are in practice as individuals who enjoy and take pride in their cultural acumen,” Collins says. “For brands that get their voice, authenticity, values and message right, LGBTQIA+ people are ready to be your champions.”

Don’t fear the politics

To really engage with this audience, however, brands must be open, honest and willing to express their views on political and social issues, according to Outvertising’s research — which was developed with the Market Research Society and YouGov in the UK. Around 60 percent of LGBTQIA+ people in the UK believe that brands should express their views on political and social issues, compared to 41 percent of non-LGBTQIA+ people. The queer community also believes that brands should take this further and get involved with social issues (59 percent vs 37 percent). They are also more likely than non-LGBTQIA+ audiences to reject a brand if its views are not aligned with their own (64 percent vs 50 percent).

Collins says that representation and messaging are critical when it comes to appealing to LGBTQIA+ people — more than half of which claim that advertising affects how they perceive their body image, compared with just 1 in 3 non-LGBTQIA+. Young people are especially susceptible, with 68 percent of LGBTQIA+ Gen Z consumers agreeing: “Brands have a responsibility to ensure authentic and ‘real’ representation in ads is prioritized, even more so as the LGBTQIA+ consumer are more likely to favour seeing ‘real-looking people’ in ads than their non-LGBTQIA+ counterparts — 70 percent compared to 64 percent.”

As an example, he points to when UK retailer Marks & Spencer launched its LGBT (lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato) sandwich in 2019 to mark Pride and raise money for charity. While many lauded the rainbow-colored initiative, the campaign garnered plenty of detractors — many from within the queer community. “It was unfortunate, because the sandwich was in fact a fundraiser for a long-term charity partner for the brand,” Collins says. “Sadly, the public wasn't aware of that fact and the criticism was out there. This is simply a reminder to live your brand values in the world and in your comms.”

The right thing to do

But there are plenty of brands that are ingratiating themselves with LGBTQIA+ shoppers, not least the home-improvement retailer Wickes. Among the range of comments received to support the Outvertising report, one highlighted the company’s recent ‘No LGB without the T’ messaging, displayed at a recent Pride event in Brighton. “They got massive backlash. And let’s face it, their market audience is builders. It’s not even that they’re particularly marketing to a queer audience; they just did it because they said, you know what, this is the right thing to do.”

The Outvertising team hopes its latest Consumer Report provides brands with enough resources to more effectively stand by the queer community and their values.

“Some sectors, like technology and entertainment, benefit from high interest and engagement — yet not all brands in the category are keeping pace with the dynamics of culture,” Collins adds. “Other sectors, like sport, are burdened with a legacy of non-inclusive and, in some cases, harmful behaviors — and brands in these sectors sometimes do not know where to get started.”

As Gil Friend, a sustainability expert and former chief sustainability officer for Palo Alto, said in response to Andrew Winston’s LinkedIn post, “we may be entering an era of cowardice ... which presents great opportunities (and yes, risks) for the courageous.”