June is Pride, an important time on the promotional calendar for brands.
They forge partnerships with queer talent, make donations to LGTBQ+ charities with the launch of Pride-themed collections and merchandise and participate in parades, parties, picnics and other celebrations of diversity and inclusivity.
Yet this year, there’s a dark cloud hanging over the month-long celebration. Any big brand’s activation, no matter how big or small, could face the physical or online vitriol of anti-LGBTQIA+ activists.
Empowered activists have already gone after Bud Light over its partnership with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, and its sales numbers have seen a steep decline since boycotts began.
More recently, Target has suffered the wrath of anti-LGBTQ activists. The retailer made the decision to remove some items from its Pride merchandise this year because of violent confrontations with its workers. In some locations, Pride merchandise was moved to a smaller section at the back of the store.
“Given these volatile circumstances, we are making adjustments to our plans, including removing items that have been at the center of the most confrontational behavior,” the retailer said in a statement. “Our focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year.”
The conflict isn’t just cultural; it’s also political. It has been a record year for anti-LGBTQ bills in state legislatures across the country. According to the American Civil Liberties Union’s Trans Legislation Tracker, more than 556 pieces of legislation have been tabled, with 79 of them passing into law.
The backlash means brands are unlikely to launch their first Pride campaigns this year, says Bob Witeck, president and founder of Witeck Communications.
“There is legitimate anxiety from brands,” he says. “These instigators seem to be having their day. The internet has given them undue power to light a fire, tell the public they should be angry at the Targets and Bud Lights of the world and create uncertainty in the minds of consumers about their [Pride support.]”
Anti-trans activists on social media have stirred up other users by saying that Target is selling “tuck-friendly” swimsuits for children. The reality is that the swimwear is offered in adult sizes.
The trepidation is palpable from large PR agencies and big brands that have been celebrated for their past Pride activations. Several did not respond to requests for comment for this article or said they aren’t ready to be a part of the discussion.
Witeck said he does not expect brands that have conducted Pride campaigns long-term to back away from their strategies, but their scope may be limited, particularly in terms of storytelling with trans people.
“Trans people are being victimized in such a profoundly cruel way and feel very deeply vulnerable right now in certain states where they are being denied healthcare, that it would be very anxiety-inducing for them to be in the public eye as part of a campaign,” he says. “In the near-term, it’s going to be harder for brands to tell their stories.”
For brands sticking to their values this June, the fallout from Bud Light and Target has made it clear that they need to brace themselves for pushback and prepare to respond strongly.
“Brands that show up for Pride in a huge way are going to have their values questioned, especially this year,” says Witeck. “They need to be prepared to stay consistent if activists rise up. They have to make sure their spine is straight when they walk into this situation.”
Valerie Berlin, principal and cofounder at BerlinRosen, agrees.
“[Brands should] be authentic, be clear about your values and stick with your convictions. Even if you’re feeling some heat, things tend to cool down pretty quickly,” says Berlin. “Bud Light hemmed and hawed, had a weak statement that appealed to no one, then threw their employees under the bus. Had they stood their ground and stared down the anti-LGTBQ+ activists, it would have gone away.”
GLAAD issued an Accelerating Acceptance study on Thursday showing record-high support for LGBTQ people, and for ads that include them. Yet GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis says brands, including Target, are kowtowing to a very small, vocal minority, and compromising their values in the process, particularly at a time when they should be celebrating inclusivity now more than ever.
"The test case is clear: Anheuser Busch and Target let themselves be bullied by extremists and backed away from their values, and the bullying continued," says Ellis. "Whereas, The North Face, Nike, the Los Angeles Dodgers spoke out against the bullying, stayed true to their values, and extremists moved on. The response to anti-LGBTQ threats against a company cannot be excluding LGBTQ people or products; moving merchandise back into the closet is a strategy of failure. The move should be, keep including LGBTQ people and products in all your campaigns.”
Berlin also says it would be helpful for brands “to engage supporters and allies ahead of time, both to make sure what they’re saying resonates with their target audience and to make sure that when the antis come out, the brands have people standing with them.”
Activists have cloaked their vitriol in concern for children. While there examples of how not to respond, Berlin likes how Bob Iger at Disney has been taking on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ policies.
“Bullies expect fear and retreat. Iger not only refused to be bullied, he punched back hard, wrapping the policy issues into a question about whether DeSantis is anti-Florida, anti-economy,” she says.
There’s an internal communications element that comms leaders also need to remember. Philip Nardone, president and CEO of PAN Communications, says brands also need to remember that their employees are watching their responses and how they celebrate Pride.
“It has become increasingly important for today’s workforce to see their employers speaking up and standing up for human rights and pushing for inclusivity,” he says. “I personally believe that we need to continue to depend on brands — as much as people — to push these issues forward and demand progress.”