- With this year’s Pride celebrated primarily online, many brands invested in creative and provocative ways to showcase their support for the LGBTQ+ community.
- Analysing the media discussion around the celebration, we found that Apple, Netflix, Disney and Nike were the companies whose Pride campaigns got the most traction.
- Our research also revealed that Skittles’ “Give the Rainbow” campaign, which involved colourless limited-edition “Pride Pack” candy bags, overshadowеd others on social media.
This year marks Pride’s golden jubilee: it’s been 50 years since the inaugural Pride parade in 1970. For these 50 years, Pride Month has become a powerful economic engine, with big brands investing heavily in sponsorships, ads and merchandise to express their support for the LGBTQ+ community and to win over new consumers. In fact, many commentators argue that such corporate initiatives have played a positive role in “normalising” LGBTQ+ culture, even though some companies have faced accusations of “pinkwashing”.
But with lockdown measures still in place around the world, Pride-goers won’t be able to properly celebrate the anniversary as large gatherings in key cities like New York and San Francisco, along with around 1,500 Pride events globally, have been cancelled for the first time in history.
Most Pride organisers have tried to bring the spirit and mission of the celebration to online platforms: for example, InterPride, the overseeing body for World Pride, co-produced an international virtual event called Global Pride with content, performances and speeches for each timezone.
But, as digital events naturally don’t have the same appeal as the traditional live festivities, Pride’s corporate side was more tempered. Moreover, the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis made brands cut their marketing spending: according to research from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), 89% of large multinational companies deferred marketing campaigns in May, up from 81% in March, while 52% of marketers said they’ll now hold back ad spend for six months or more.
However, many brands still poured resources into Pride initiatives and took up the challenge to engage with consumers even in these unusual circumstances.
On traditional media
We analysed 2139 articles published in top-tier English-language outlets between 1 May-24 June to find which brands stood out with their Pride-related marketing efforts.
The media discussion was largely focused on how different this year’s Pride is, with journalists reporting on online events or preparing “virtual Pride guides”.
This focus on the very nature of the celebration was probably why specific corporate campaigns didn’t get as much coverage and brands in general were not mentioned that often. Thus, the overall volume of coverage and the amount of brand exposures has been more disproportionate than usual.
We found that Apple and Netflix had the largest share of voice. Apple released two new colourful watch bands and faces: one Apple Watch Pride band with a light-coloured rainbow and another with a twist on the existing Nike Sport Band with rainbow colours located inside the holes of the band.
Apple, one of the few global companies whose CEO is openly gay, began annually releasing new Pride-themed bands and watch faces in 2017. Since then, these products have secured the company’s share of voice in the conversation around Pride, with its loyal fan base repeatedly publicising the watches on social channels.
The sports band boosted the presence of Nike, which also pledged $500,000 through grants administered by the Charities Aid Foundation of America to more than 20 organisations advocating for LGBTQ+ inclusivity. Nike has been engaged with gender equality and inclusivity in athletics since 2012 through philanthropic donations via the brand’s BeTrue Collections.
Apple said in a release that its joint effort with Nike supports “LGBTQ organisations doing vital advocacy and community-building worldwide, including GLSEN, PFLAG, The Trevor Project, Gender Spectrum, The National Center for Transgender Equality, and ILGA World, which brings together more than 1,500 member organisations in more than 150 countries and regions”.
Apart from the iPhone maker, Microsoft was another tech giant with presence in the conversation, albeit much more modest. The company launched a Pride collection which includes t-shirts and hoodies, while its gaming brand Xbox created ‘Play with Pride’ collections and its social platform LinkedIn added rainbow colours to its logo.
Netflix had the same media exposure as Apple for putting on a digital event “for reflection and celebration” of queer artists, featuring LGBTQ+ headliners like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Hannah Gadsby, Queer Eye‘s Fab 5, Miss Major Griffin-Gracey, Chaka Khan, Tituss Burgess and Londynn B.
The event will be hosted by The Most, Netflix’s dedicated “Black Trans Lives Matter” account, and will support a number of LGBTQ+ organisations including OutRight, The Trans Justice Funding Project and The Marsha P. Johnson Institute.
With its Pride initiative, Netflix is consistent with its strategy to avoid advertising and rely on its original content, in which the company is investing $15 billion a year– an amount by far unmatched by the other players.
One of Netflix‘ biggest rivals – HBO – featured in the discussion with its first-ever Pride site that will include LGBTQ+ programming and virtual events such as drag brunch, DJ sets and comedy nights. Another rival – Disney – released a new collection of rainbow items while donating $100,000 to GLSEN, an organisation dedicated to creating a safe and inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ students.
Meanwhile, Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest advertiser, whose record for supporting the LGBTQ+ community is near-immaculate in its consistency, released the findings of its first-ever LGBT+ Inclusion in Advertising and Media’ study in collaboration with LGBTQ+ charity Glaad.
P&G also partnered with iHeartMedia for an hour-long virtual event, called “Can’t Cancel Pride: A COVID-19 Relief Benefit for the LGBTQ+ Community,” aiming to raise funds for the LGBTQ+ community, with a focus on organisations impacted by COVID-19.
P&G’s Brent Miller, associate director of global beauty communications, told The Drum: “Our voice won’t be in a parade this year, but it’s important to still bring it forward” confirming that P&G is “working to make sure that we maintain our level of investment in all the Prides around the world that we participate in. It’s important that, while a celebration isn’t happening, they still receive the support that they have from us.”
A big part of P&G’s communications strategy is value-based marketing: it’s one of the companies that have promoted their stance on topics such as gender equality, immigration and gun control via their advertising efforts. Their best-known marketing exercise in this domain is the “Like a Girl” campaign for feminine-care brand Always and “Stress Test” for deodorant brand Secret.
Last year, the company made global headlines and triggered strong consumer reactions with its “We believe”, which focuses on the #MeToo movement, bullying and “toxic” masculinity.
In addition to Nike, other fashion brands with a share of voice in the media conversation were Puma, which teamed up with English gender-fluid actress Cara Delevingne to promote its “From PUMA With Love” Pride pack, and Converse with its 2020 Pride Collection.
On social media
We analysed the top-trending Pride-related content around each brand from our study sample and compared how it performed in terms of engagement (likes, shares, comments) across Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Pinterest.
We found that an article on confectionery brand Skittles, published by American LGBTQ+ news magazine Out, significantly outperformed the coverage around other Pride campaigns.
The brand, whose iconic rainbow is recognised globally and whose tagline is “Follow the Rainbow. Taste the Rainbow.”, ditched their colourful symbol and introduced grey limited-edition “Pride Pack” candy bags. The campaign’s message is “Only one rainbow matters during Pride”, promoted online via the #OneRainbow hashtag.
The brand partnered with LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLAAD, and for every pack of grey skittles sold $1 will be donated to the group up to $100,000. “This Pride month, Skittles is removing its rainbow, but replacing it with much-needed conversations about the LGBTQ+ community and a visible stand of solidarity,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a release.
The brand has previously stripped away its signature vibrant colours to honour Pride in Canada, Germany and the U.K., but drew some criticism on social media for using a pure white design that some users associated with white pride and white supremacists, which is probably why the package for this campaign used grey.
The second top-trending article was about the launch of Nike‘s “BeTrue” collection, a range of three footwear styles adorned with emblems of the LGBTQ+ community, and the company’s 20 grants totalling $500,000 to organisations championing equality.
Meanwhile, a brand which didn’t get many mentions on traditional media appeared to be doing well on social: an article about Starbucks‘ classic studded cups with an underlying rainbow gradient, part of the coffee chain’s Pride collection for 2020, performed better than the top-trending article about Apple‘s watches.
But while almost all brands in our study sample have put rainbows on their products or logos, Skittles, which did exactly the opposite, reached more social media users, especially on Twitter, where it gained much more impressions and mentions, as per our analysis of the Twitter conversation around each brand during the last 30 days.
The brand gained so many impressions and mentions probably because the Twitter discussion was rather polarised. While a number of users welcomed the campaign, calling it “one of my fav things” and “so freaking cute“, there were also many who still perceived the bag as white and said that it appears as though it’s celebrating White Pride. Others asked how does a Fortune 500 company could make “stuff like this” and not stop to think whether putting the word “Pride” on a bag of white skittles is a good idea.
In this regard, there were also users putting the campaign in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, calling the new packaging whitewashed or tone-deaf at such a delicate time. Many defenders of the brand entered the debate, explaining that the grey packaging resembles cemented efforts of elevating the LGBTQ+ community during Pride which go beyond the use of a specific colour.
Although not to the same degree, almost all of the brands in our study sample were embroiled in similar Twitter debates, with the most popular accusation being “pinkwashing“.
For instance, Netflix was accused of putting an ally face on during Pride month and soon enough having more transphobic casting on their site, while a number of users asked whether Disney will have a gay prince/princess since the company is saying it wants to be more ”inclusive”. In the meantime, Pride products offered by Addidas, Converse and Nike were deemed too expensive.
But such accusations are commonplace for brands which take stands on topics that tend to polarise social media users. The allegations of “pinkwashing” could be compared to the allegations of “greenwashing” against brands hawking a sustainability ethos: the accusation here is that they are just engaged in to reap the market benefits of an eco-consciousness they can’t actually prove they’re practising.
Even some scholars have also argued that increased LGBTQ+ visibility compromises the original social justice agenda of the LGBTQ+ movement and that “going to the market” means abandoning the effort to challenge inequalities in society. On the other hand, many researchers have asserted that mainstream advertisers have contributed to the “normalisation” of depictions of LGBTQ+ identities – something referred to as “homonormativity” in the academic literature.
But academia aside, it’s clear that big brands will strengthen their commitment to issues related to gender identity and sexuality. A growing number of brands are trying to reframe their narratives so as to attract fresh clientele from the ranks of Generation Z and millennials, which are perceived to be the most important consumers, accounting for $143 billion in spending in the next four years.
This is especially pertinent for the fashion industry: the latest seasons have seen luxury brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent and Haider Ackerman combining menswear and womenswear runway shows, Others, such as Proenza Schouler and Rodarte, have started showing women’s pre-collections or women’s ready-to-wear during the back-to-back menswear and couture calendar. Meanwhile, fast-fashion labels such as Zara started releasing ungendered collections with models of both sexes dressed in the same clothes.
Moreover, findings from the LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Advertising and Media” study conducted by P&G and GLAAD revealed high comfortability around viewing LGBTQ+ images in the media, favorability towards brands with LGBTQ+-inclusive advertising, and that inclusive media images lead to greater acceptance and understanding.
The study also demonstrated that non-LGBTQ+ Americans who had been exposed to LGBTQ+ people in media were more likely to accept them and be supportive of their issues in comparison to respondents who had not been exposed to LGBTQ+ people in the media.
So the question for brands would be not whether to invest in LGBTQ+ marketing but rather how to do it. Authenticity is a key concern, especially since the LGBTQ+ community is more sceptical than the total U.S. population when it comes to brands’ Pride campaigns and is more likely to describe those campaigns as “inauthentic”, according to a survey conducted by data company Dynata.
The Pride initiative that resonated the most was “making donations or partnering with relevant nonprofits,” and more than half of these consumers said their purchasing decisions hinged on “how and when” brands got involved in the conversation. Indeed, research conducted by Edelman found that nearly 2 in 3 consumers are now belief-driven buyers – a trend which is now mainstream around the world, spanning different generations and income levels.
These developments could be attributed to the rise of consumer activism, which can take the shape of buying en masse to support a certain brand’s products or corporate messaging – a practice which some PR professionals call BUYcotts. This trend is also commonly referred to as “conscious consumerism”, particularly when it involves supporting issues such as LGBTQ+ rights.
Consumer activism has become the most common form of political action in the United States aside from voting, with more and more shoppers starting to understand their purchasing power not just only in economic terms but also as an enactment of practical ethics.