Aesop taught me I’m a bad queer strategist

The skincare brand not only showed Sarah Phillips how to do a great Pride campaign, but how any strategist can have blind spots.


By Sarah Phillips

I came out during the pandemic as queer. Pride 2022 was my first opportunity to celebrate and be celebrated as the me I’ve been evolving into. But that weekend wasn’t my first brush with the festivities.

In March, I received a Pride brief from one of my clients, a retail brand. I was jazzed to get the opportunity to work on a Pride campaign for my first time as a queer brand strategist.

But that campaign will never end up in my portfolio. Unfortunately, I believe the campaign failed. It’s not because it didn’t do well for my client or for the agency I was freelancing with at the time — it also raised funds for a worthy LGBTQ2S+ organization — but I’m still not proud of it. It could have been better.

It was well after my campaign was in market that I visited the Aesop Queer Library at the end of June at its store on Queen Street West. For Pride 2022, skincare brand Aesop devoted three of its stores to the pursuit of amplifying queer stories. The brand cleared its shelves of its toners, cleansers and gels and filled them with literature written by LGBTQ2S+ authors. The titles were not for sale, but offered as gifts to visitors of the store — regardless of purchase.

Here’s what they did right, and what I hope to get right as well, not just for Pride 2023 but for any brief serving a community deserving of more support and understanding from the corporate sphere.

Community partners > influencer partners

Aesop teamed up with Penguin Random House. The publisher donated many of the titles to the brand and others were purchased from Glad Day Bookshop, one of the world’s oldest queer bookstores. Rather than leveraging influencer audiences to build authenticity — a tactic with increasingly questionable results — the brand allocated funds to support existing institutions, acting as an effective ally.

IRL > social media

Aesop recognized any space is a potential media space. Whereas social is an increasingly crowded, and caustic, environment, Aesop leveraged its greatest owned asset, its real estate, to put community voices on the highest pedestal: its own shelves.

Creative insight > data analytics

“Conscious of the tendency for social justice movements to be co-opted by the corporate sphere,” read Aesop’s press release, “but also keenly aware of the resources at Aesop’s disposal, we hope that this gesture will have the meaningful effect of reifying queer identity and encouraging allyship.”

It doesn’t take machine learning to recognize that culture is losing its patience with corporate virtue signaling. Activating on that insight in an unexpected way is what brought the good vibes to this event. Interpreting the data, using it as inspiration — that’s the power of creativity.

We work in an oft-times ruthless industry, where efficiency is often a more important goal than effectiveness. Sometimes, between the parties and the good friends we make, we can get petty — pointing to other’s missteps to help steel ourselves against the grinding competition of relentless pitching, creative report cards and the constant drive for younger, cheaper talent. But at the end of the day, it’s not others failures we learn the most from, it’s our own.

I didn’t push my client. Not for a bigger budget, not for a longer timeline, and not for a brief with a clear problem to solve, rather than just a solution they’d already decided on. These are not the conditions for creativity. Advertising agencies are full of smart people who want to solve problems, not execute an idea. People who know when to call bullshit, but aren’t always empowered to do so. We want to bring brands to life and give something back to culture, but we’re rarely given the opportunity to use our creativity to do so.

This isn’t about me being an expert in queer culture. I’m “late” to the game, coming out in my mid-30s. And as a middle class white cis woman, I refuse to be considered an expert in anything my trans, non-binary, bipoc, financially insecure or less-straight passing friends experience.

It’s not my job to be a spokesperson for a community I’m just starting to feel I belong to. It is my job to be a good strategist, which means being a better student of human behaviour. I will continue to challenge myself to take a deep interest in culture, and ideally, find those intersections through which businesses can contribute positively and profitably to the communities they serve. It’s an ideal and lofty goal, I’ll admit, and this time I failed. Maybe though, these tiny revelations, born of my failure, can help fuel this effort.

I’ll keep at it. Perhaps you’ll learn from my mistakes too.

sarahSarah Phillips is a brand strategy director with over 10 years experience working for agencies such as Zulu Alpha Kilo, Juliet, The Garden, McCann, 123W and Jackman.