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How companies can build trust with the LGBTQ+ community — during Pride and beyond

The Pittsburgh Pride parade, celebrating 50 years of Pittsburgh Pride, crosses the Andy Warhol Bridge from downtown Pittsburgh on June 3. Longtime Pride sponsors have come under attack by conservatives for their LGBTQ-friendly marketing.
Gene J. Puskar
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AP
The Pittsburgh Pride parade, celebrating 50 years of Pittsburgh Pride, crosses the Andy Warhol Bridge from downtown Pittsburgh on June 3. Longtime Pride sponsors have come under attack by conservatives for their LGBTQ-friendly marketing.

Just before the official start to Pride Month, The North Face announced it had teamed up with drag performer Pattie Gonia for its second annual Summer of Pride tour.

"Hi, it's me, Pattie Gonia, a real-life homosexual," the performer introduced herself in a video promoting the outdoor clothing and gear company's campaign.

Criticism from conservatives came quickly, among them U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who took to Twitter to criticize the company and call for a boycott.

But The North Face didn't back down, and Pattie Gonia will kick off the campaign in Salt Lake City in July as scheduled at the sold-out event.

The North Face has always believed the outdoors should be a "welcoming, equitable and safe place for all," the company said in a statement to NPR.

"Creating community and belonging in the outdoors is a core part of our values and is needed now more than ever. We stand with those who support our vision for a more inclusive outdoor industry," the statement added.

The backlash against The North Face is one of the latest skirmishes in a wave of conservative efforts to undermine companies' efforts to support the LGBTQ+ community. And the cost of these efforts is rising: Target and Bud Light both backtracked after conservatives took aim at their pro-LGBQ+ campaigns.

Now more than ever — as conservatives pushing a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation have created an increasingly hostile environment across the country — experts say companies need to show up consistently, during Pride and beyond, to establish trust with the LGBTQ+ community.

"For so long, LGBTQ+ marketing — specifically Pride-related marketing — has been kind of a 'check-the-box' initiative at a lot of corporations and companies. And there hasn't been a lot of thought and intentionality behind these efforts," Imara Jones, journalist and founder of TransLash Media, tells NPR.

Visibility, which such campaigns can promote, is important to the LGBTQ+ community, says Christina Ferraz, publicist and CEO of PR Professor.

But "representation can be capitalized upon by brands during Pride Month — eroding consumer trust in those who expect the brands they buy to embody the cultural values of the groups they represent and invest in their political interests," they told NPR.

The true meaning of Pride Month is often lost

An exterior view of the Stonewall Inn in New York City's Greenwich Village, site of the 1969 riot that sparked the gay rights movement. This photo was taken in May 1994.
Kevin Larkin / Associated Press
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Associated Press
An exterior view of the Stonewall Inn in New York City's Greenwich Village, site of the 1969 riot that sparked the gay rights movement. This photo was taken in May 1994.

Companies and brands have long supported Pride Month each June as a way to signal allyship and inclusivity and to market their products and brand to the LBGTQ+ community.

But in the last few weeks, conservatives have attacked major brands like Target and Bud Light for their LGBTQ+ initiatives, including threats against employees over the retailer's Pride-themed merchandise and a boycott after the beer brand's social media promotion with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney in April that was followed by a drop in sales.

But unlike The North Face, the two companies backpedaled on their campaigns. Target removed items from the shelves. As for Bud Light, the U.S. CEO of Anheuser-Busch released a statement calling for unity that some viewed as vague and inadequate.

And later, in a call with investors, the global CEO of parent company AB InBev downplayed the campaign altogether.

"We will need to continue to clarify the fact that this was one can, one influencer, one post and not a campaign and repeat this message for some time," Michel Doukeris said.

The responses dismay many in the LGBTQ+ community and highlight the lack of a thought-out, consistent commitment, experts say.

"It's so clear that Target and Bud Light did not have a plan," Jones of TransLash Media says. "So the minute they came under attack, they were caught flat-footed."

In the process, the true meaning of Pride Month which honors the Stonewall riots of 1969 that helped launch the gay rights movement can be lost to pure consumerism, which in turn feeds what's known as "rainbow washing."

The term describes when companies make short-term, superficial moves, such as using rainbow colors or images, rather than consistent and meaningful actions to indicate true support for the LGBTQ+ community.

"[Brands] need to show that they support the community not just this month, but during the entire year," Ferraz says.

"So campaigns can be kicking off this month, but they should be rolling around throughout the year and committing to charitable causes," they add.

And social media — which is a particularly important factor in how campaigns and companies are perceived by young people — is an added pressure, Katherine Sender, professor of media and sexuality at Cornell University, told Weekend Edition Sunday.

Young people are extremely attuned to issues of "authenticity and the value of commitment," she said.

"If that's perceived to be shallow, then it's actually really unfortunate for the company," Sender said. "So I think companies are really trying to work very hard now to produce committed and authentic LGBTQ media and marketing campaigns."

What allyship can look like for companies and brands

So what would an authentic commitment to the LGBTQ+ community look like? A few companies — who have quietly and consistently supported the LGBTQ+ community well beyond the month of June through their actions as well as donations — hold some clues.

Ice cream company Ben & Jerry's has a longstanding history of supporting the LGBTQ+ community — from celebrating the legalization of same-sex marriage to the fight for transgender rights.

Nike has also been a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community and Pride Month events for decades. The company — which has received a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index for 20 years is in the 10th year of its "Be True" campaign, a company-wide effort by Nike that focuses on creating more inclusive spaces in sports.

Pride month merchandise is displayed at a Target store on May 24 in Nashville, Tenn. Longtime Pride sponsors like Bud Light and Target have come under attack by conservatives for their LGBTQ-friendly marketing.
George Walker IV / AP
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AP
Pride month merchandise is displayed at a Target store on May 24 in Nashville, Tenn. Longtime Pride sponsors like Bud Light and Target have come under attack by conservatives for their LGBTQ-friendly marketing.

And Macy's, another major company that has rolled out a Pride Month campaign, also supports and showcases LGBTQ-owned brands in its stores year-round.

But beyond these efforts, perhaps one of the most important is what they do behind the scenes and with their money, especially in today's political climate, experts say.

"Corporate dollars can make a difference for the LGBTQ+ community by investing in political candidates that create legislation that supports their rights, donating to local, regional and national LGBTQ+ organizations, and working with LGBTQ-owned small businesses and consultants," Ferraz says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jonathan Franklin
Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.

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