Marketing The Rainbow

The increasing power of the pink economy, or rainbow capitalism, is driving even the most conservative of brands to showcase their support for the LGBTQ community either through campaigns or products. But, is it enough?

Imagine this. The door of a pink cupboard opens. Two young women stagger out of the closet whilst fumbling with their pant zippers and skirts and walk away in opposite directions.

That was Fastrack’s 2013 TVC, aptly titled “Coming out of the closet”, an extension of the brand’s tag line, “Move on”. According to Arun Iyer, then national creative director of Lowe Lintas, the campaign’s creative agency, the TVC was “not controversial, but progressive”.

In Myntra’s “Bold and Beautiful” initiative to promote the Anouk apparel brand in 2015, “The Visit” TVC showed two lesbians, one restless and the other reassuring her girlfriend, before introducing her to visiting parents. Many hailed it as a serious attempt at showcasing homosexuality, which was considered taboo.

“Our campaigns and communications express DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) in a manner that encourages people to think beyond. The use of fashion to express identities is also recognised by Myntra. Hence, we have creators like Queen Andro, part of Myntra’s Style Squad, leading the change in perception about the community,” says a Myntra spokesperson.

In 2021, Ariel chose to celebrate heroes who overcame various odds to #MakeItPossible in its marketing campaign. The detergent brand from the house of P&G came up with a film that captured the aspiring journey of Dr V.S. Priya, Kerala’s first transgender doctor, and her challenges.

In the film, Priya states, “When we think of trans people, we imagine them dancing or seeking attention. We can hardly picture them as a pilot or a doctor. I wanted to change this and live my life on my terms. Conditions for transgender need to change; changes must start with families. If a family accepts a kid who is trans, that kid could grow up to be a better citizen. The best example is me.”

Sharat Verma, chief marketing officer, P&G Indian Subcontinent, says, “The story of Dr Priya is a story of resilience, courage and perseverance. It reminds us that no matter how difficult the circumstances, with perseverance, we can #MakeItPossible. We are inspired by her courage and glad to celebrate her journey.”

However, as heartening as these messaging may seem, they still make for a handful of the brands that took the brave step to showcase their pride in marketing campaigns, particularly so in India. Is this due to erring on the extreme side of caution and not wanting to rile popular opinion about their brands?

As much as one might want to pontificate about this, the companies’ caution might not be entirely misplaced. Paras Tomar, founder of Nuskhe by Paras and Studd Muffyn, remembers when he decided to put the pride flag on all his products, members of his legal team cautioned him against this move because a lot of homophobia was still prevalent in the country. “The management of other companies may get similar feedback from their teams,” he reasons. “I could still do it since I am the founder of the company, a strong advocate of LGBTQ rights, and my brands are an extension of my persona,” he says.

While a lot needs to be done to really make the LGBTQ community part of our “natural” society, few global brands have been making steady progress in bridging that gap. According to the Corporate Equality Index Report 2022 published by US-based Human Rights Campaign Foundation, this year 842 companies achieved a 100% score as compared to just 13 companies getting the perfect score in 2002, when the first edition of the index was launched. Companies scoring the 100% score all through these 20 years are Apple, JPMorgan Chase, American Airlines, Nike, Xerox Corp, Eastman Kodak and Replacements Ltd. The companies are judged on the criteria of nondiscrimination policies across business entities; equitable benefits for LGBTQ+ workers and their families; supporting an inclusive culture; and, corporate social responsibility.

Big Economic Opportunity

The power of pink is real, and worldwide, brands have realised the value of catering to it. Springfair estimated the LGBT community’s purchasing power in the UK to be at £6 billion per year in 2019. China’s gay economy is reckoned to be worth $300-500 billon annually, reaching some 70 million people, according to Daxue Consulting, making it the biggest gay and transgender market globally in terms of population.

Closer home, Out Now Consulting pegged the entire LGBTQ economy in India at $200 billion. This is unsurprising, says Priya (name changed on request), a Mumbai-based marketing professional who identifies as lesbian.

“I have a well-paying job in a leading corporate company and no siblings and I do not plan to marry. I have invested my earnings in real estate and other financial instruments for any rainy days and spend the rest on travelling, frequenting upscale F&B establishments and buying luxury products,” she claims.

She also says that she is likelier to buy from LGBTQ+ friendly brands. Once she finds a brand she likes, she remains loyal and encourages her peers to consider it. Her opinion is borne out in a 2014 Google Consumer Survey, which stated that more than 54% of consumers are likely to choose an equality-focused brand.

This is precisely why it makes economic sense for brands to sport the rainbow flag throughout the year. “Come June [the pride month], and brands don a rainbow-hued identity with pride. Consumers, today, are watchful of brands and their communication stance before even considering doing business with them,” cautions Sahil Chopra, founder and CEO of iCubesWire, a digital marketing platform. And yet, many brands do not go beyond doing token lip service to the community in their marketing activities.

Brands like Fastrack (left), Myntra (centre) and Bhima Jewellery have attempted initiating conversations about the need for gender inclusivity through their ads

Model, former Bigg Boss contestant and LGBTQ activist Sushant Divgikar agreed that brands often use tokenism to forward their business motives. Hence, he does proper background checks before indulging in any brand collaboration. “I table my conversations with companies that want to associate with me and try to understand what is it that they want to achieve with a particular ad. I prefer working with brands that give answers coherent with the message I want to put across, which is inclusion as a holistic policy, and not just an activity in June. After all, if you want to change things you have to work with, and not against people,” he reasons.

Step by Step

Brands play a pivotal role in shaping an inclusive culture through their communication. Marketing campaigns worldwide have given voice to the inclusivity of diversity and equality for LGBTQ communities. Globally, one of the first brands to advertise targeting the LGBTQ community was Absolut Vodka. In 1981, it took out a full-page ad in a gay magazine featuring its products LA Advocate and After Dark. It was the first brand to do so. During the AIDS epidemic, which jolted the community, Absolut once again showed its solidarity by publishing an ad featuring gay artist and activist Keith Haring in 1986, gaining huge support from the LGBTQ section in the process.

However, it cannot be a knee-jerk reaction with an agenda to push sales. Burger King Austria learnt it the hard way. To celebrate Pride Month, it offered burgers with two equal buns to symbolise equal love and rights. However, social media users accused it of rainbow washing, calling it “tone deaf” and “lazy”.

But, others have managed to get it right and initiate conversations in the right vein. Kerala-based Bhima Jewellery’s “Pure as love” campaign did just that last year. It features Meera Singhania, a trans-woman and activist, as an unshaven young man transitioning into a beautiful young woman and a bride with the wholehearted support of her parents.

“These kinds of ads do not just have a feel-good factor; they also show that we are progressing towards a more tolerant and inclusive future, which is much needed in the backdrop of homophobia in some quarters of the country,” states Priya.

However, most mainstream brands continue to steer clear of having a solid stance on sensitive issues, especially true inclusivity. “While we are becoming more accepting, most are still oblivious of the challenges around inclusivity,” Chopra states, while explaining why brands prefer to take the route of caution.

Last year, Dabur’s ad for Fem Bleach drew outrage from the right-wing groups. Not because it showed two women gushing over skin-lightening cream, but because the protagonists were shown as a lesbian couple celebrating Karva Chauth, a festival considered to be the privilege of married Hindu women. Dabur withdrew the advertisement and issued a statement and “unconditionally apologised for unintentionally hurting people’s sentiments”.

Instances like these have compelled companies to seriously calculate how far they can push the cultural needle in their public messaging. Taking a leaf from the Dabur case, most companies do not want to invite the ire of government officials—Madhya Pradesh home minister Narottam Mishra had initially picked up the Dabur ad, leading to its amplification on social causing the company to pull it down. “You cannot run foul with the administration if you want to survive in India and have to toe the populist tenor,” stated one entrepreneur.

Also, brands are equally concerned that the retaliation could result in violent reactions. A case in point is when Titan showrooms across the country were vandalised after the company released an ad showing a Hindu girl married into a Muslim family, which right-wing groups termed love jehad.

Tomar, however, has a counter, and a humorous take to trolling on such progressive campaigns. “These videos would have garnered millions of views because of all the negative attention it got,” he laughs. “Sometimes, the companies might want to have these kinds of ads where they can then say that they are getting backlashed and trolled; it is all part of an orchestrated PR strategy,” he adds.

Is Waving the Rainbow Flag Worth it?

Making noise about their support for gender pluralism and inclusivity could bring a brand to the attention of customers who view it as an entity willing to step out of its comfort zone. But does it give them any added value?

According to Chopra, the direct advantage is the easiest way to get more eyeballs and ensure likes and clicks on your brand. “Several brands have revamped their communication as far as corporate campaigns are concerned. This helps brands effectively communicate to their audience about the values they adhere to and the culture a brand is built on,” he says.

Myntra’s spokesperson adds that self-portrayal helps a brand position itself as being inclusive to a certain extent but it may not necessarily help in the long run. “The real value is when there are real initiatives and concrete steps taken in the direction of inclusivity, which shows up at the workspace and in their communications and attitude. A workplace, enterprise or brand can achieve and go places when its people are cared for and respected for what they are. This offers extraordinary benefits that are both tangible and intangible,” they claimed. The company employs members of the LGBTQ community for key roles as part of its policy to drive diversity in workplace.

A disheartened Tomar, however, states that there is no tangible benefit to showcasing a pro-LGBTQ stance. “Now, the conversation is that we do not care about your sexual proclivities, which is a huge step forward for normalising what this community wants. So, supporting pride is not a great marketing stunt because consumers feel that while brands are making a point, it is irrelevant, especially amongst the educated class in urban cities,” he reasons.

Say it as You Mean it

Mostly, people feel that the ads and campaigns done by brands are just to appease the community and that there are no deeper thoughts put behind them.

Tomar feels that it is because how brands promote these ads. “These social media ads are often targeted at the LGBTQ community. They spread the message to people who already know about these issues! They only try to appease this segment with their marketing campaigns. What will make a difference is when they start hiring these people, which will make a lot more impact,” he says.

Moreover, LGBTQ members are rarely included or represented in these marketing campaigns, making them less relatable. When asked to name some brands that are inclusive of the LGBTQ community in their messaging, Priya is hard pressed to come up with more than two.

“This is because most companies pander to gender stereotypes or have a tokenistic approach to advertising,” she explains. “They simply jump on the pride bandwagon in June and are AWOL [absent without official leave] for the rest of the year,” she says ruefully.

Divgikar recalls how he had lost many modeling assignments at the start of his career because he openly stated that he was homosexual. “During the auditions, they would gush that I was handsome but balk that I was gay. How does my gender have any bearing on the saleability of your product or service?” he fumes.

It is no longer enough for brands to slap a rainbow on their product or packaging as an effective marketing strategy. To truly walk the inclusivity talk, they need to understand the diverse challenges within the LGBTQ community, highlighting how they engage with each of them continually.

“Brands must adhere to the values they preach in their marketing campaigns throughout the year. Talking about inclusion is not enough; it must be reflected in the actions,” he reaffirms. “Brands must be willing to onboard candidates from the LGBTQ community to demonstrate their support and bring about a change by providing equal opportunities,” he adds.

Showing real stories with real people from the community is one way. Just posting a rainbow flag on social media handles will not cut it anymore. Nor will acts of tokenism, like launching multi-hued products in June. What is really needed is brands making the community part of their regular workforce and campaigns and setting an example for society.