Why Pride sponsors shouldn’t hit pause during Black Lives Matter protests

A movement for racial equality happening during Pride presents an opportunity to recognize how diverse communities are, one expert says.

Daniel-James-Pride Flag

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The number of brands throwing support behind Canadian Pride celebrations seems to grow every year. In fact, the wave of support has grown so tall that it may be starting to crest, with some members of the LGBTQ+ community calling brands out for “rainbow washing.”

For the many brands planning to activate around Pride, showing support can mean opening themselves up to criticism over past transgressions, empty promises and immovable corporate policies and practices. But it doesn’t end there. This year, the challenge of activating meaningfully during virtual Pride celebrations is rendered even more complex: brands will want to show support for the LBGTQ+ community while facing calls from Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) to address systemic racism in Canada.

“This is an opportunity for brands to recognize just how diverse the LGBTQ+ communities and just how diverse the ACB [African, Caribbean, Black] communities are by recognizing intersectionality,” says Jefferson Darrell, founder of Breakfast Culture, a consultancy focused on the intersection of marketing communications and diversity, equity and inclusion. At this moment, there’s an opportunity to “shine a spotlight on the QTBIPoC [Queer & Trans Black, Indigenous, People of Colour] communities, specifically by highlighting and acknowledging that Queer peoples come in all shapes, sizes and shades, in this case Black.”

In the U.S., where the killing of George Floyd by a police officer sparked Black Lives Matter protests that erupted into an international movement in support of racial equality, brands including Verizon, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire, PepsiCo’s Bubly and Boston Beer Co.’s Truly hard seltzer have paused their Pride efforts, Ad Age reports. As the CMO of Boston Beer told the news outlet: “We are fully committed to Pride and celebrating the LGBTQ+ community this year, but we know there are other voices that need to be heard right now.”

In Canada, brands seem less intent on pausing their Pride activities in light of the protests, based on interviews with several Pride sponsors that spoke to strategy. But that isn’t necessarily a negative thing, notes Darrell, provided they do it well. “There is an excellent opportunity for brands to still show their Pride, but be more inclusive with the messaging and the images.”

Issues arise when organizations without a range of perspectives at the table view different audiences (including BIPoC, LGBTQ+, women and people with disabilities) through a stereotypical lens, says Darrell. “If I, as a Black gay man, were sitting at the decision-making table of an organization that was thinking about Pride, I would advocate for a show of Pride through the intersectionality of both Queerness and Blackness.”

There’s a good reason to draw comparisons between the two movements, adds Darrell: “Pride’s roots – and this where I find some of the challenges happen for a lot of corporations to understand – are about protest. They’re about activism.”

In Canada, country-wide Pride celebrations kick-off in Toronto in June and are followed by celebrations in other cities throughout the summer. Many of the sponsors of those events have revised their marketing plans to align with the virtual nature of the celebrations, but none of those that spoke to strategy have halted or revisited their campaigns due to ongoing protests for racial equality. However, many have put out statements acknowledging the impacts of racism on BIPoC communities.

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This year, Bud Light is once again offering its rainbow-themed limited-edition cans and will donate up to $100,000 of the proceeds to Rainbow Railroad (a non-profit that helps LGBTQ+ individuals escape violence and persecution in their home countries), in addition to running social content throughout the month.

“Where we’ve had to pivot most is working with Pride Toronto on how to activate events through Pride month knowing the physical festival is not happening [or] being postponed,” says Natalie Lucas, director of marketing for Bud Light. “Pride continues to be one of our biggest priorities from an activation and media perspective and we’ve not taken our foot off the gas in terms of investment or focus.”

The Home Depot, whose employees have typically marched in regional Pride parades across the country, has planned a virtual celebration on June 29 through its associate resource group, Orange Pride. Funds that would have been used for internal celebrations and parade materials will be donated to local charity partners that support LGBTQ2+ youth, says Josephine Ho, the retailer’s senior manager of organizational effectiveness, talent and inclusion.

SkipTheDishes turned what was supposed to be a marketing campaign featuring Pride-themed menu items into a digital voucher promotion that includes donating $3 of the voucher to associated Pride organizations.

As a sponsor of Vancouver Pride, Social Lite Vodka originally planned sampling, parade and concert activities, but will now participate in virtual events, panels, happy hours and dance parties. It will also donate $1 for every six-pack sold in July to the Vancouver Pride Society, according to Social Lite co-founder Neetu Godara.

Men’s health charity Movember will host a virtual Mo Pride Trivia night on June 25 with Toronto Drag Queen Jezebel Bardot, who was featured in a mini-doc last year, and is participating in the digital Pride parade through an entry fee of a donation to the local LGBTQ+ advocacy group The 519. Content for Movember’s “In the Barber Chair” series that was supposed to roll out this summer was postponed to a later date, says Karli Kirkpatrick, director of marketing for the charity in Canada.

Meanwhile, Tourisme Montreal is currently “rethinking how to best support the virtual version of Pride in a way that makes sense for both our organizations and given our reduced budgets,” according to the tourism agency’s editor-in-chief, Lynn Habel. As a sponsor of Montreal Pride (Fierté Montréal), which takes place in August, the association anticipates learning from other markets. But, for now, Habel says “the racial justice protests do not really change our relationship with Fierté Montréal in the sense that they have always been an extremely inclusive organization championing equal rights for all.”

Brands that intend to show support for Pride and the LGBTQ+ community – especially at this particular juncture of the Black Lives Matter movement – should start by asking themselves two questions, advises Darrell. First, they must determine whether the cause will resonate with their stakeholders, allowing them to act authentically. Secondly, they must reflect on whether or not their organization has been regularly involved with the stakeholder group in the past – not only during Pride Month and Black History Month. Finally, they must be prepared to face some backlash, no matter what, he says. “But if you can answer yes to questions one and two your loyal stakeholders will support you.”

Outside of that, organizations need to consider who is at the decision-making table when it comes to these issues. “Are there LGBTQ+ peoples involved in making decisions to support their communities during Pride? Are there ACB peoples around the table when it comes to supporting these communities? Again, if the answer is no, I think you know what you have to do.”

Darrell points to Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s and Labatt’s Bud Light as examples of brands that put in the time needed to speak on both issues in their marketing.

In a strongly-worded blog post, Ben & Jerry’s has called for the need to “dismantle white supremacy.” According to Darrell, the brand has received little noticeable backlash over its strong stance, in part because it has a long history of speaking out on human rights issues. “For them to come out and make a statement, I personally don’t have an issue with that… because that’s what their brand has always been about.”

Similarly, Bud Light in the U.S. has been involved with the LGBTQ+ community for many years. For example, its work with GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) spans two decades. In Canada, Bud Light has been a partner of Toronto Pride for the past six years and of Pride in Canada for more than 20 years through Labatt, according to the company.

However, Bud Light’s relationship with Rainbow Railroad is likely less established in the minds of Canadians, says Darrell. As a result, he says he saw a few LBGTQ+ people question why the brand’s donations were being based on product purchases. “Why don’t you just make the donation and tell me about it?”

“[Last year], there was a small backlash in Canada from the LGBTQ+ community, but there wasn’t really a backlash in the U.S. Again, that speaks to being present and being authentic.”