Brand Strategy

How are marketers thinking about Pride after right-wing anti-LGBTQ+ backlash?

Experts tell us brands can learn from Bud Light and Target’s responses to prepare for potential criticism.
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4 min read

This is why we can’t have nice, rainbow things.

In recent months, Bud Light, The North Face, Target, and Kohl’s have faced increasingly aggressive backlash from far right groups over partnerships and products relating to the LGBTQ+ community—or even the notion of inclusivity itself. In response to protests it faced for working with a trans influencer, Bud Light placed two of its top marketers on leave, while Target moved its Pride displays to the back of some stores and removed certain items after the retailer said it was experiencing threats.

With Pride month kicking off, experts told us that brands participating have a responsibility to not only stand by their Pride products and statements of inclusivity, but also show tangible support for the LGBTQ+ community at a time when attacks against LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans individuals, are escalating.

Hold true

Cait Lamberton, professor of marketing at Wharton, said brands should recognize that taking a social stance can often come with some risk, and “if you find that there’s no risk involved, you’re probably doing something that’s meaningless.” As a result, she said, brands should look to prepare for any potential opposition.

“It’s very strange to me that these brands are caught flat-footed when they get a negative response,” she said, adding that “it would be nice if we didn’t see that pearl-clutching every time there’s a negative response, because we know this is going to happen.”

In the case of Target, Lamberton said rather than move Pride displays to the back of some stores in response to threats to employees and damaged products, she would’ve preferred to see additional security or displays “less prone to destruction.”

A company like Target could respond to threats and damage to property by saying something like, “It’s unacceptable to destroy property that doesn’t belong to you,” Lamberton said. By moving the displays, “It looks as though [Target was] saying, ‘You’re right. It’s okay for people to respond by doing things we generally don’t think are acceptable because we did something that antagonized you,’” she added.

Lamberton said that this type of response can “create a situation [where] you really do empower” those who participated in aggressive, destructive behavior.

Make it real

In addition to not backing down in the face of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, Hannah Fishman, CCO of North America for agency network The&Partnership, said brands should work to ensure that what they do in support of LGBTQ+ causes is meaningful and not limited to one month of the year, which can allow for initiatives during Pride month to be seen as more authentic—not rainbow-washing.

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“In the past four or five years, I think it became really easy to participate [and] shift your logo to rainbow for the month,” she said. More intense anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, she added, is “forcing brands to stop and think” about what they stand for.

To help ensure Pride campaigns have a tangible impact, Fishman said The&Partnership has encouraged clients to do things like donate to nonprofits in support of LGBTQ+ causes. Given everything that’s happened in recent months, she expects some brands that viewed Pride as something more like a trend will drop off this year, while those that “truly support the community” will continue to participate.

Learn from precedent

OkCupid is one brand that has firsthand experience responding to backlash: In 2021, a video circulated of a small group of people tearing down NYC subway ads from its “Every Single Person” campaign, which included depictions of nonbinary and pansexual individuals looking for love.. In response to the video, the brand released a statement saying that while some people have had “shockingly vitriolic reactions to it…these reactions only serve to make it even more clear that we must continue to champion all people.”

Jane Reynolds, director of product marketing at OkCupid, told us that the backlash to the campaign served to “rally people around [the brand] more.” This year, the company is sending app notifications encouraging users to share their support for Pride in their profile pictures.

“Even if you don’t realize that you’re being influenced by a brand, you may be,” she said. “So brands have a real responsibility to stand up for the rights of the people who might be marginalized or might not be as represented.”

Reynolds said she hopes that rather than steer away from participating in Pride this year, more brands choose to get involved year-round, adding that she’s noticed a “positive shift” toward this in recent years.

“I hope that that trend continues,” she added.

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