How can brands get ready for Pride Month?

As Pride Month approaches, brands face a crucial choice: embrace genuine LGBTQIA+ representation or fall into the trap of tokenism. Industry experts offer insights on how brands can authentically and meaningfully represent the queer community without resorting to superficial gestures.

Sneha Medda
New Update
brands get ready for pride

In the realm of advertising, Pride Month often sees brands decking themselves out in rainbow hues, but beneath the surface lies a deeper question — are these gestures genuine or just performative? As consumers grow increasingly discerning, the call for authentic representation echoes louder than ever.

And as Pride Month approaches, brands stand at a crossroads. Will they succumb to tokenism and superficial gestures, or will they embark on a journey toward authentic engagement? 

In a world where token gestures are common, industry experts are calling for brands to go beyond mere symbolism and engage genuinely. Experts uncover the challenges, from fear of backlash to the power of authentic storytelling, highlighting the importance of true inclusivity in advertising and its potential to drive real change.

The backlash dilemma

R Balaji (She/Her) Talent Management Professional & Public Speaker said, “ Most brands are scared to enter this [Queer community] zone because they fear controversy.”

The reluctance of brands to feature the LGBTQIA+ community prominently stems from fear — fear of backlash from conservative audiences and fear of not getting the portrayal right. 

Leena Gupta (She/Her), Founding Member and Creative at Talented, adds, “Brands in India are afraid. They are hesitant to commit to LGBTQIA+ representation due to fear of backlash from both sides—conservative trolls and valid criticism from queer folks. The fear of being branded ‘woke’ is as real as the fear of rainbow-washing allegations.”

This fear often leads to half-hearted attempts that come off as insincere. Brands may update their logos with rainbow colours or release limited-edition Pride merchandise, but these efforts can ring hollow if not backed by genuine engagement and support.

Rishabh Shrivastav, Vice President of Brand Communications at PivotRoots, explains, “The internet is polarised. While a good chunk of my Internet audience wants this, it’ll only take 5% of them to create a negative wave about a brand, hence the reluctance.”

A prominent example of this is when, back in 2023, Starbucks India faced backlash for a campaign starring a trans character. The ad showcases a transgender woman meeting with her estranged family over coffee. The meeting is tense at first — the mother has already pleaded to the father, ‘Don’t get angry this time, please.’

As the daughter tries to reconcile with her father, he solemnly stands up — as if to walk away. But it turns out he is just ordering coffees for everyone — and as the barista calls out the daughter’s new name, Arpita, she realises this is his way of showing he has accepted her identity.

Although a heartwarming ad about acceptance and inclusivity, many Indian netizens were on the fence about this ad and accused the brand of bringing ‘Western culture’ into the country. But despite the massive backlash, the brand stood its ground and the campaign. 

Moving beyond superficial gestures

Consumers today are savvy and demand more than surface-level support. According to a recent study, 48% of Indian consumers want more inclusive representation by brands and ads. Despite this, only 1% of ads showcase the queer community.  

And often, these ads that do represent the queer community lack authenticity and resort to mere tokenism. The concept of ‘rainbow-washing’ — where brands use Pride symbolism without any substantial support for the LGBTQIA+ community has become increasingly scrutinised.  And these superficial acts are easily detectable to the consumer’s eyes. 

Gupta emphasises that during Pride Month, consumers expect brands to go beyond superficial gestures. “If brands produce advertisements for the express purpose of representing the queer community, the least they can offer is authentic narratives that borrow from queer lived experiences and not a heteronormative fantasy of the queer experience.”

A great example of borrowing from the lived experiences of the community would be This Coke is a Fanta by DAVID The Agency. In Brazil, the expression “Essa Coca é Fanta” or “That Coke is a Fanta” has been historically used as a slur and derogatory term against the queer community. So, in 2018, Coca-Cola launched a limited-edition Coke can with Fanta inside. By borrowing a hyperlocal insight, Coke attempted to reclaim the colloquial slur to empower the queer community of the nation. 

Praful Baweja (He/Him), Co-Founder, 6 Degrees Diversity Counsel notes that to move beyond and include the community in everyday conversation, brands need to stop treating the queer community as the ‘others’. He explains in detail the term ‘Othering’ and how this has been a phenomenon in ads when it comes to the LGBTQIA+ population. 

He said, “We call LGBTQIA+ communities - sexual minorities in advocacy spaces, and our representation in Ads is as much as they showcase a person from Manipur or Kashmir as a consumer of their product/ service. This kind of 'Othering' is a globally known cultural phenomenon. In simple words, Othering is an “us vs. them” way of thinking about social relationships. It is a dual process whereby the majority builds its inclusive group identity through constructing an excluded “Other”. As a result, the out-group individuals are perceived and treated differently from the in-group members. 

This can be avoided by self-awareness of the makers behind the campaigns.  We need more conversational spaces for advertisers to engage with the LGBTQIA+ community for them to remove this barrier of othering and perceive LGBTQIA folx as everyday persons found in every household.”

The power of authentic storytelling

The earliest representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in an ad can be dated back to Fastrack’s 2013 ad, which featured two women coming out of a closet (literally), giving the message of embracing homosexuality and moving on from societal norms and taboos.

Fast forward to 2021, Ariel’s ad featuring VS Priya told the story of Kerala’s first transgender doctor, and how she embraced her true self after 30 years. In this ad, the authenticity of a real-life story played an impactful role in connecting with the audience. 

Similarly, experts believe that storytelling can continue to be a powerful tool which can help brands connect with their consumers better. Baweja points out that storytelling can help undo decades of stereotypical narratives and foster genuine connections. “When we treat everyone humanely in our storytelling rather than a punchline or for impact, it would resonate with classmates, colleagues, cousins, and more queer folks.”

Giving the example of her own story and experience, R Balaji said, “Storytelling is incredibly powerful. When I came out, sharing my story helped many people understand and support me. Brands should adopt this approach by creating authentic, relatable narratives. Some brands do this well, showcasing real-life scenarios that resonate with viewers. This genuine approach can have a significant impact.”

And to achieve this, brands must include queer voices in their creative processes. Authentic representation comes from within, and involving LGBTQIA+ individuals in crafting narratives ensures that stories are told with the nuance and authenticity they deserve.

Gupta adds, “Queer stories of joy, of family, of chosen family, of heartbreak, of happily-ever-afters, these need to be told now more than ever.”

Shrivastav echoes this sentiment, suggesting, “If we bring real stories and let the brand only be a facilitator of these stories, it might work, rather than trying to make a pompous statement. There shouldn’t be a difference in how I tell a story about a particular community from another. 

Overall we should surely push for more and more content that is inclusive. Brands can start with Micro-conversations and needn’t make a hero campaign out of it. Little steps go a long way. Digital allows you to do that."

Avoiding outdated narratives

One of the most significant pitfalls brands encounter in LGBTQIA+ marketing is the reliance on outdated or stereotypical narratives. 

R Balaji aptly highlights the issue, stating, “Rainbow washing is a major issue. Brands should avoid just painting their logos in rainbow colours and conducting token workshops.” This superficial approach fails to address the systemic challenges faced by the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Real change, as Balaji emphasises, requires continuous support and efforts beyond Pride Month, focusing on initiatives that provide tangible benefits to marginalised groups within the community.

She added, “I hope to see more representation of all parts of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, not just gay men and trans women. There's a lack of visibility for bisexuals, lesbians, trans men, and intersex individuals. Brands should aim to include these groups in their campaigns and work towards genuine support beyond just winning awards.”

Moreover, Gupta underscores the importance of authentic storytelling by stressing the necessity of representation within creative teams. “The only way to tell these stories with the authenticity and nuance they deserve is to ensure the representation of queer folks in your creative, account, and client teams.” 

Pride narratives crafted solely from the perspective of straight individuals, no matter how well-intentioned, often fall short and risk coming across as patronising or out of touch. Queer experiences are diverse and multifaceted, extending beyond simplistic stereotypes or tokenistic portrayals.

Shrivastav mentioned to treat the queer community like any other story. He added, "Treat it like any other story. Why the difference? It’s people that we’re talking about. Outdated narratives cannot handle the subject well, and make poor attempts to use the narrative to make the brand a hero."

In essence, authentic representation requires a holistic approach that involves genuine engagement, diverse perspectives within creative teams, and a commitment to portraying the LGBTQIA+ experience in all its complexity. By moving beyond outdated narratives and embracing authenticity, brands can foster meaningful connections with the LGBTQIA+ community and contribute to positive social change.

Year-round commitment

True support for the LGBTQIA+ community extends beyond Pride Month. Brands must demonstrate their commitment through inclusive policies and practices. 

Gupta suggests brands ask themselves critical questions before launching Pride campaigns, “Are their hiring policies queer-friendly? Do they have appropriate sensitivity training to make the workplace safe for queer folks? Are enough queer folks sitting in the rooms where important decisions are being made?”

Baweja stresses the importance of consistency, stating, “We expect that brands show commitment beyond Pride Month. We would like to see campaigns and conversations that run deeper than just rainbow-washing and know our life choices and milestones.”

An example of superficial support backfiring is the recent uproar over an Indian CEO mocking they/them pronouns while his brand changes its logo to rainbow colours every June. Such contradictions reveal a lack of genuine commitment and can severely damage a brand's credibility.

Brands have a unique opportunity to connect with the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride Month, but this requires moving beyond tokenism and embracing authentic, year-round engagement. By telling genuine stories, involving queer voices in the creative process, and demonstrating sustained commitment through inclusive practices, brands can make a meaningful impact.

queer community pride month LGBTQIA+ Community rainbow washing authentic storytelling