Transitioning from allyship to brand activism in the LGBT context involves strategic alignment. How do brands navigate this evolution?
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Exploring pride month as a tool for LGBT brand activism

Transitioning from allyship to brand activism in the LGBT context involves strategic alignment. How do brands navigate this evolution?

Exploratory doctoral research reveals the complexities of participating in Pride Month celebrations through marketing. While seen positively, it is not obligatory for brands pursuing activist positioning or those taking public stands on contentious issues. This study explores brand activism within the LGBT community, examining inclusive marketing, awareness campaigns, and advocacy effectiveness for LGBT rights.

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The shift towards brand activism through marketing and strategic communication

The rise in brand activism has elevated LGBT rights in brand initiatives and communication. Brands are now key players in LGBT activism, engaging in movements like Stop Asia Hate, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and Fridays for Future.

Despite this, brand activism is still in its infancy.

This doctoral research, conducted as part of a Marketing and Strategy programme from the Universities of Aveiro, Minho, and Beira Interior, investigates the transition from allyship to brand activism. Titled “From the Allyship Status to Brand Activism: A Study about Collections and Rainbow-themed Campaigns during Pride Month,” it scrutinises brands’ engagement with the LGBT community. 

The study assesses their commitment through inclusive marketing efforts, awareness-raising, pledges, resource allocation, and advocacy for LGBT rights, particularly during Pride Month in June. This commitment is demonstrated through rainbow logos, themed campaigns, and Pride collections.

Brands and consumer preferences

Consumer preferences lean towards brands that embody human-like attributes. A 2018 empirical study found that 64% of global consumers either boycott or support brands based on their stand on societal issues (Edelman, 2018). Subsequent research indicated that consumers believe many brands exploit social issues as a marketing tactic to boost sales. Moreover, a report by the Edelman Trust Institute and GLAAD reveals that publicly supporting LGBT rights doubles the likelihood of Americans purchasing or using a brand.

The evolving relationship between brands and consumers underscores capitalism’s shift towards purpose-driven commerce, thus turning it into a commodity. Globally, citizens expect brands to contribute positively to social outcomes and not just prioritise sales (Champlin & Li, 2020; Cone Communications, 2017; Li, 2022). Nevertheless, the literature indicates that consumers also seek social responsibility, transparency, and authenticity from brands.

As the private sector engages more in social activism, marketing shifts from its transactional core to a more relational tone, aiming to build, maintain, and strengthen emotional bonds with consumers and audiences.

In June, many brands engage in discussions about LGBT rights. Pride month is a time to celebrate advancements in raising awareness and promoting rights, gaining popularity as an opportunity to advocate for respect and equality worldwide, and acknowledging progress while adhering to trends. However, merely producing rainbow-themed products without addressing the challenges faced by the LGBT community raises questions. The study explores the tensions surrounding brand activism.

Analysing pride brand activism

The research addresses the transition from allyship to activism within the LGBT context, supported by empirical evidence. It draws data from 58 in-depth interviews with activists, associations, marketers, researchers, and consultants globally, alongside secondary data from analysing 20 brands’ Pride campaigns on Instagram and websites during June 2021 and 2022, validating the conceptual model. This approach enabled the researcher to study the nuanced shift from passive support to active engagement within the LGBT community.

To deepen the investigation, the researcher examined the motivations behind brands incorporating rainbow imagery into their logos, launching Pride-themed collections, and developing rainbow-theme campaigns. This aimed to address any lingering doubts regarding the authenticity of brands as allies and activists. The primary research question focused on understanding the process of transitioning from passive allyship to proactive brand activism within the LGBT context.

Research results

The research investigates how brands participate in LGBT conversations, contexts, and communities through marketing. During the literature review, data collection, and analysis stages, several challenges emerged, including:

  1. Is pride being commodified?
  2. Are brands genuinely capable of making positive contributions to society?
  3. Are allyship and activism feasible for brands and the private sector?
  4. Is strategic communication facilitating meaningful discourse and social change or merely engaging in ‘pinkwashing’?
  5. Can corporate goals align with societal expectations?
  6. Is brand activism a tangible strategy or an idyllic notion?
  7. What are the effective and ineffective practices in ally and activist marketing messaging and actions?
  8. Can marketing and strategic communication drive substantive societal change?

The research findings show the widespread use of symbols, often combined with other popular elements like partnerships, collaborations, products, and donations. Rainbow-themed campaigns during Pride Month can take various approaches, showcasing diverse efforts. Nonetheless, these strategies ultimately share a common goal: reinforcing brand messaging and positioning by fostering connections with the audience, community, and consumers.

Participants share a common ground where internal and external commitments intertwine, forming an essential connection for brands to engage in LGBT dialogue authentically. This alignment is reflected in corporate ethos, culture, values, messages, actions, staff, stories, families, visibility, and awareness.

The primary data validated the premise identified in the literature as relevant for brands to enhance legitimacy: internal pragmatic dynamics or management. Internal commitment and change are milestones for effective strategic communication and public engagement. In other words, internal support directly influences external communication and marketing. So, brands must take tangible actions to substantiate their positions and effectively communicate their commitments.

Conclusions

How brands celebrate June hinges on their moral and pragmatic approach to establishing legitimacy and their stance on allyship and activism. This approach can either reinforce or hinder joining in LGBT dialogue. It also impacts both brand perception and community relations, either positively or negatively.

Contributing to the LGBT conversation requires:

  • Brand-community engagement.
  • Collaborating with partners to amplify LGBT voices. 
  • Seeking expert guidance to avoid stereotypes. 
  • Integrating community engagement through various approaches such as Queer Imagery, Product Orientations, and LGBT facts. 
  • Proactively addressing scrutiny from collaborators and the community.
  • Anticipating and preparing for scrutiny of public efforts. 
  • Collaborating with other companies to enhance efforts.
  • Contributing to addressing social problems, combating prejudice, and advocating for change.
  • Acknowledging the political roots of the LGBT movement and prioritising strategic action over mere advocacy.
  • Assessing brands’ readiness to take bold actions for inclusivity.
  • Recognising the importance of visibility and representation while avoiding tokenism. 
  • Ensuring that rainbow symbolism aligns with broader actionable commitments in Pride or marketing efforts.

The research suggests that the distinction between allyship and activism, particularly from a marketing perspective, hinges on the specific efforts the community expects from brands. Additionally, it emphasises the triad of expectations, validation or legitimisation, and stakeholder pressures as key factors influencing this differentiation.

The findings highlight a core strategy: brands seek compelling storytelling, promises, and statements. The transition from no public stance to active participation in the LGBT dialogue and from allyship to activism represents a significant leap. This transition is underscored by one undeniable factor: strong internal alignment between messaging and practice.

Limitations of the research

When considering the research limitations, it is pertinent to consider the following:

  • Data collection: Using a small, purposeful, and non-random sample limits the generalisability of the results. 
  • Research approach: The exploratory research employs a qualitative lens and an interpretative paradigm, thus yielding descriptive and interpretive outcomes. 
  • Research design: The unstructured and flexible research design lacks consideration for cultural, moral, and legal differences between countries.
  • Influence of Pride campaigns: The Pride campaigns analysed may influence the results.  
  • Brand orientation: The research primarily focuses on brands, thus limiting its scope to broader contexts.
  • Context dependency: The findings are contingent on specific contexts and may not be universally applicable.

Brand activism has emerged as a concept, but is still in its infancy. Consequently, Porter and Kramer (2011) advocate for businesses to help solve societal problems. This call is underpinned by the belief that the private sector possesses the capacity to act as problem solvers.

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Journal reference

Manuel, R., Grilo, G., de Marca Aliada, A. M. A., Campanhas, E. S. C. E., Do, A., & LGBT, O. (2024). From the allyship status to brand activism: A study about collections and rainbow-themed campaigns during Pride Month. http://dx.doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.30344.02569

Dr Ricardo Grilo is an expert marketing strategist, storyteller, digital marketing consultant, and social marketing advocate specialising in the retail, furniture, and cybersecurity industries. He studied at the University of Aveiro and holds a PhD in Marketing and Strategy.

His research spans brand activism, marketing strategy, consumer behaviour, social marketing, corporate social responsibility, and social innovation. His work has been published in journal articles and book chapters.