It’s February, and for the past 19 years, that has meant the UK recognition of LGBTQ+ History Month. Established in 2005 by founders of charity Schools Out, an LGBTQ+ education charity, LGBTQ+ History Month was established to remind us of the vibrant history and accomplishments, as well as the struggles the community has been through, in order to be living and thriving in the UK today. 

To commemorate the occasion this year, our Account Executive, Katie, is doing a deep dive into the phenomenon known as ‘Pride marketing’ – AKA, marketing campaigns by brands that aim to show support for the LGBTQ+ community, which typically occur during Pride Month (June). In this blog, Katie is taking a look at when it became socially acceptable for brands to use the rainbow flag in their branding as a show of support, when it works well, and when it’s not received kindly by the community it targets.

How it began

Mainstream recognition of the LGBTQ+ community really kicked off after the 1969 Stonewall Riots, in which the NYPD raided one of the few openly gay bars in NYC and were met with pushback that led into a full-blown protest. A year later, the first Pride marches took place in US cities, with London following in 1972. 

Alcohol companies were among the earliest brands to reach out to the LGBTQ+ community specifically, recognising their rising presence in gay bars and nightclubs, and fitting with the origin of the Stonewall Riots. Miller Lite, Budweiser, Coors Light and Jägermeister’s ads started to appear in US regional queer newspapers, though this marketing move got riskier during the 1980s AIDS epidemic which demonised gay men in particular. With little insight into the LGBTQ+ community’s spending preferences, as well as the higher risk of associating with an ostracised minority, other major brands didn’t come forward to align with the community until the 90s. 

As TV began to see prevalent queer characters such as famous American sitcom ‘Ellen,’ whose main character came out on TV in 1997, the profile of the LGBTQ+ community began to rise too. Early research of ‘the pink pound’ (the worth of the queer community’s spending habits, estimated to be £6bn a year in the UK today), as well as queer consumer market preferences, encouraged companies to start reaching out to this demographic. A 1994 ad from Ikea, showing a same sex couple shopping, is considered to be the first major TV advert featuring queer representation—though it wasn’t without major backlash, and wasn’t shown for long. Unilever was reportedly the first brand to do the same in the UK in 1998, for Elida Faberge’s Impulse body spray. 

The 2000s saw a shift in cultural attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. More corporations showed up to in support of major changes amidst political tensions, such as the legalisation of gay marriage in the US and UK, including big names like Nike and Microsoft. Pride celebrations became more commonplace and accepted, which also gave corporations an opportunity for increased corporate sponsorship—and the beginning of the ‘rainbow-washing’ or ‘rainbow capitalism’ movement. 

How it’s going

Now, though much more common, LGBTQ+ themed advertising is still considered a bold and contentious move. 

The rise of social media made it easier for advertisers to cater to specific audiences online, but the rise of concern around transgender issues also provides a platform for public backlash. We’ve seen this emerge as a common talking point in the last few years, with the famous Bud Light-Dylan Mulvaney partnership being a prime example. The trans influencer promoting the brand last year caused outrage from some consumers, who proceeded to boycott the company for promoting a ‘political agenda’. The company’s lacklustre response, as well as failing to stand by Mulvaney, then caused queer audiences to join in on the boycott too, which caused a huge dent in the company’s earnings in 2023.  

As the discussion around transgender rights has become mainstream in the last few years, it’s been found that the contentious topic might have had an impact on corporate willingness to pitch in on Pride marketing last year. According to Bloomberg News, companies in the US referenced “Pride Month” nearly 40% less in 2023 than the previous year. This is the first decline in five years.

How it’s received

The potential wider backlash is certainly worth considering if you’re planning to take a shot at Pride marketing. But when all this is said and done, what does the LGBTQ+ community actually think of these efforts? It’s all for naught if you’re not actually reaching the audience you’re trying to connect with. 

Reportedly, 10% of the LGBT+ community think that today’s brands engage in promoting Pride Month only as a way to make money, and 31% of the LGBT+ community feel that Pride marketing portrays them badly. There is no longer the grace to be happy with any old representation slapped onto your marketing—it has to be done with care, lest you end up as mocked as the M&S LGBT sandwich in 2019, a product that did nothing meaningful to cater to the community beyond the name and the rainbow packaging. It only served a sense of, ‘is this all I am to you?’ and nobody wants to be told they are the equivalent of a pre-packaged sandwich. 

Accusations of ‘rainbow washing’ come around every June, and it’s very easy to become a social media spectacle if your product or service is seen as ‘monetising the rainbow’– partaking in Pride marketing to appear more progressive while also increasing revenue, without offering anything of value to the community at hand. Vaseline’s ‘Pride aloe’—the same product as its standard aloe, but with a rainbow on the tin—which was sold with nearly a 100% increase in price, is just one example

This sort of marketing isn’t seen as legitimate allyship by the community and can backfire on you. Donating a portion of the profits to LGBTQ+ charities is the bare minimum you can do to show real engagement with the people you’re targeting, but it still needs more thought than that to avoid becoming another name on Vice’s yearly list of the Cringiest Pride Brand Tie-Ins, Ranked!

At best, you’ll be laughed at. At worst, you’ll be the next Bud Light.

How to do it right

So how can you get involved with Pride marketing in a way that’s sensitive and helpful, as well as creative? Here’s a checklist of ways any self-respecting community loves to be recognised. 

  1. Bring LGBTQ+ people on board to help bring an authentic campaign to life 

The same as you wouldn’t comment on Black History Month without an informed advisor, don’t go in there armed with just Urban Dictionary and Google! Having an informed voice at the table will avoid any mishaps like the confusing Burger King ‘Pride Whopper’ featuring ‘top buns’ and ‘bottom buns’. Having this sort of insight on hand will go a long way to make sure you’re using the right terminology, in the right way, to hit the right tone. 

  1. Make sure the message you’re putting out there is one you actually believe in, and care about 

Do you have workplace values in place that protect and promote LGBTQ+ employees, the way your marketing claims to care about? Do you actually have resources to hand to support same-sex couples, to safeguard against homophobia and transphobia in the workplace? If not, maybe this is a topic you shouldn’t be shouting about just yet. 

In 2018, Vodaphone was open about how it was overhauling its recruitment processes to appeal to a broader range of people, as well as updating its code of conduct, developing a support programme for LGBTQ+ graduates, and launching its LGBT+ Friends Network to “connect and support all colleagues who seek advice on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans matters,” for anyone needing advice, not just those in the community. Recognising historical inadequacies and showing a commitment to rectifying it can go a long way to get across your message with actions rather than words.  

  1. Does your campaign actually contribute anything to the audience you’re targeting? 

Reaching out to partner with LGBTQ+ organisations or sponsor LGBTQ+ events and organisations, empowering the people you claim to care about, is a great way to make a direct difference to your desired audience. It’s also seen as something of a necessity to make a contribution of some kind to said audience, if you’re going to capitalise on a marginalised group for marketing. 

  1. Make your show of support a year-round commitment, rather than a Pride month splash of colour 

Queer people are queer all year round, and while that is nationally celebrated in June and February, it doesn’t mean harmful behaviour will be ignored the rest of the year! When Primark launched a Pride range in 2018, it was criticised for the fact that the range was manufactured in Turkey, China and Myanmar, all of which have poor histories (and present days) when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. 

The workers in those countries were not included in the LGBTQ+ people the company cares about, it seems, and the move made the brand appear hypocritical and shallow. 

  1. Prepare to stick by your guns 

As demonstrated earlier in this blog, it is still controversial in the year 2024 to present your brand as supporting the LGBTQ+ community. No matter how perfect your campaign is, you may well receive backlash for your stance from one group or another—be prepared to stick by your morals, because by backpedalling on your messaging, you end up pleasing nobody. It’s so crucial to get the messaging right first time, and stand by it! 

Pride isn’t just a celebration of the community—it started, and remains, a protest against the oppression of LGBTQ+ individuals, not just in the UK but in the 72 countries around the world where being gay is still illegal. If you’re going to take a shot at Pride marketing, you’re coming on board to stand with that ethos!

What should you do now?

All this being said, don’t be scared away from supporting the LGBTQ+ community in your marketing!  

The key thing to take from this is that you shouldn’t fall back on using the rainbow one month of the year to signal vague support. It’s much more authentic to show consistent support throughout the year—showing same-sex couples in ads, for example, is a straightforward and healthy inclusion in a campaign to show your allyship without making a big song and dance of it. Alongside your own healthy company culture around supporting minority groups, you position yourself as a genuine brand that supports and cares about the LGBTQ+ community, rather than simply using it as a marketing point. 

Need help striking the right tone on a sensitive campaign or marketing strategy? Get in touch with us today to see how we can help. 

author avatar
Katie Sessions Account Executive
At Faith, Katie is responsible for helping to manage client accounts and deliver communications plans, alongside continuing to craft compelling stories that resonate with audiences.