Bailey Calfee
May 25, 2024

Brands plan for a quiet Pride Month

Agencies report dwindling projects and an overall lack of communication from clients regarding Pride Month plans.

Brands plan for a quiet Pride Month

Earlier this year, marketers predicted Pride Month would be muted again, following a pullback from brands supporting the LGBTQ+ community last year. Recent conversations with marketers reveal this bleak outlook was correct. 

“Last year’s media coverage of brands’ indecisiveness and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation has caused unrest and insecurities regarding community support,” said Kate Wolff, founder and CEO of Lupine Creative and cofounder of Do the WeRQ, a nonprofit that aims to increase LGBTQ+ representation in marketing and advertising. 

Just ahead of Pride last year, an ill-fated partnership between Bud Light and transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney sparked violent backlash and calls for boycott. In response, parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev walked back its commitment to the LGBTQ+ community as its business suffered from the fallout. 

Other brands, including previously steadfast Pride Month supporters like Target and Starbucks, followed suit for fear of being put in a similar bind.

Last year’s retreat has led to “significant hesitation in the market to support the LGBTQ+ community during Pride this year,” Wolff said.

The effects are already visible. For instance, few brands have released Pride Month collections this year, and those that have aren’t heavily promoting them.

Target said earlier this month that it would no longer sell Pride-themed merchandise in all of its stores. Last year, misinformation about its product range, particularly in its Pride Month products for children, led the retailer to remove trans-inclusive merchandise and some Pride collaborations with small LGBTQ+ artists.

Diego Andrade, SVP and executive creative director at creative agency Orci, noted that Target’s decision to scale back its Pride line this year is a “bad omen” for what consumers will see from brands with “broader, mass-market appeal” this June.

In addition, conservative groups have upped the pressure on members of brands’ boards of directors, asking them to reconsider their LGBTQ+-inclusive marketing. According to the Wall Street Journal, Target, Mondelēz and Dell are expected to hold votes on these shareholder proposals.

Overall, Andrade said he sees “brands that have engaged [in Pride Month in the past] seem to be scaling back, and there’s a larger hesitation on the part of the brands that have yet to engage in a meaningful way.”

Ashley Cooksley, co-CEO of social media agency The Social Element, said the few clients that do have Pride Month plans are 'going lighter this year' on social media, which 'goes against the name of the month'.

“In terms of the big campaigns, we’re not seeing that as much,” she added.

In Andrade’s view, this is a reflection of the fact that “queer inclusivity in advertising is still seen as this provocative thing, despite all the data showing that the majority of non-queer folks look at brands more favorably when they're inclusive of queer people, and younger generations are increasingly queer.”

The impact on agency partners

Brands’ hesitation to engage in Pride Month is impacting the amount of work they’re bringing to agencies. 

Dominic Tremblay, co-founder and CEO of Tux Creative, said that unlike years past, the agency doesn’t have any Pride Month projects this year. He noted that last year’s Pride projects were assigned prior to the Bud Light backlash.

Wolff said her agency typically begins having 'extensive discussions' about Pride Month campaigns at the beginning of the second quarter. This year, she said, has been 'the quietest Pride Lupine Creative has experienced since its establishment'.

But while brands are retreating from Pride Month, they’re doing so quietly. Agencies report a lack of communication from clients about their Pride Month plans, leaving them unable to plan or work on campaigns. 

Andrade said he has not had decisive communication from clients about whether or not they plan to engage with Pride Month this year. Rather, the topic is treated as “the elephant in the room” and “any conversations that were in the works about doing a specifically targeted [campaign] have not progressed, or they haven’t been brought to the table.”

The Social Element’s Cooksley noted that many of the agency’s clients had still not finalised their Pride Month plans with less than two weeks until June 1 as executives drag their feet on final approvals. 

“I actually think a lot of our clients have plans, but they haven't told us yet because they're still waiting for senior leadership to be 100%,” she said. “I wouldn't be surprised if, come June 1st or 5th, we start to see a lot more than we expected.” 

Cooksley suspects brands are waiting to see what other brands do — and how consumers react — before finalising their own plans.

The hesitation around Pride may also be related to executives’ increasing reluctance to speak out on social issues more broadly. Wolff pointed to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, which found that 87% of executives think taking a public stance on a social issue is riskier than staying silent. 

“Essentially, nine out of every 10 executives believe that the return on investment for their careers is not worth the support during this turbulent time,” said Wolff. “This is clearly problematic for both the community and the progress we have made in recent years.”

LGBTQ+ inclusivity year-round isn’t a sure bet for progress

There could be another positive factor driving a lack of investment in this year’s Pride Month, as marketers shift toward year-round inclusivity of LGBTQ+ people in advertising and “reallocate funds outside of June to support less crowded months,” Wolff said. 

This is driving more visibility for LGBTQ+ people year-round, added Andrade. “It needs to become something that you start to make endemic to your brand, to your identity as a marketer,” he said.

“Give me a queer couple in your tier three retail regional targeted messaging,” he said. “That means so much more to me, as a queer consumer, than a huge flashy product activation once a year.”

Cooksley has also noticed a shift toward including DE&I values into overall brand strategy, a signal that brands are “starting to hear the message from the LGBTQ+ community, and hopefully having more diverse voices around the senior leadership table.”

But year-round LGBTQ+ inclusion doesn’t necessarily equate to substantive representation.

Andrade said he still finds that while many brands are comfortable including visible representation of diverse characters, they are falling short in inclusive storytelling and emotional resonance

“It's not a brave or provocative thing to have visibly queer people in your advertising anymore — it reflects the reality that we live in,” he said.

Graham Nolan, PR and communications consultant and co-founder of Do the WeRQ, added that brands now advertise 'in a world where people notice the difference between your words and your actions', meaning brands must 'add integrity' to their diverse storytelling.

Pride moves internal, which has its pros and cons

In contrast to the flashy, rainbow-coated marketing campaigns that were ubiquitous in June a few years ago, ad execs interviewed for this story have noticed a decrease in consumer-facing Pride advertising and a shift in focus on internal employee communications. 

Nolan said this could be an effort by brands to 'make sure their house is in order so that when they speak, their actions match their words'. 

He added that toning down the external communication 'isn’t necessarily a bad thing' if brands 'don’t have anything substantive to say.'

“If brands are being quiet because they think inaction will save them from having to make decisions, that will probably not pay off in the long term,” he said. “If they're staying quiet because they want to make sure that their words connect, and share actions when they come out, then we applaud them for making those efforts.”

It’s not just the queer community looking for substantial representation, noted Andrade. “It's everyone that they touch tangentially — everyone that has a queer person in their family, a queer coworker or a queer person in their life that they love.”

He added, “Folks want to see their communities reflected back at them in their marketing.”


Campaign US

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