As Edinburgh Pride Week closes for another year, Account Executive Tomas Slater takes a look at how brands and businesses approach Pride. A hot-topic in the social calendar, he talks about the tricky relationship between brands and Pride and how companies can do better.  


It has become a summer tradition in recent years, as ubiquitous as BBQs and Pimms, for a raft of articles to emerge around June critiquing the relative merits of this year’s Pride campaigns: the good, the bad and the ‘gosh, have you ever actually met a queer person?’ Now - I am total sucker for these articles. You get that rush of righteous indignation at one horrifically executed campaign, only to start crying at the soppy message of acceptance of the next one. It’s heady stuff. But as these articles emerge, year after year, they start to lose something of their charm. It begins to feel like there’s something a bit broken about the whole approach of brands to Pride. 


Pride celebrations began nearly fifty years ago, and were set-up to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The choice of the word ‘Pride’ was very deliberate. The idea was that, even in extremely homophobic times, LGBT+ people could take pride in themselves, celebrate themselves and their community, and from that create a movement for change. But, of course, times change and Pride is no longer wholly about this, just as it is no longer an anti-Police riot. It is multi-faceted: a claiming of space, a political protest, a social event, a party. Pride is many things to many people, and that’s okay. Perhaps it is only natural and right that companies are some part of that. They certainly think it is. Pride, though, is the device used by brands to frame most of their campaigns aimed at LGBT+ people. And that’s where there starts to be a problem. 


Pride as an institution has so many aspects, and “pride” as a word is fundamentally about the individual’s relationship with themselves, not society. Those two factors mean that brands can say they support it without firmly committing to anything, beyond, I guess, being vaguely non-homophobic.  It’s so easy to make a Pride campaign that places the emphasis on the individual and how they should feel empowered, rather than on how companies or society should be acting to empower them. Of course, there are other aspects of Pride that make it appealing to brands. It is not just a positive message, it is also a party. It is glitter and colour and a gay ol’ march. Recognisable, feel good, non-threatening and easy to implement: Pride is the whole package for brands. 


And maybe the recent popularity of Pride with brands is a good thing. I’ve heard the argument that “all these Pride flags and brands saying they support LGBT+ people is good because it’s normalising LGBT+ people and that’s a good thing.” But honestly, the thing brands seem most interested in normalising is rainbows. From banks to fashion labels, sports teams to coffee shops, everyone seems keen to get in on the rainbow. And yes, the Pride flag is an important LGBT+ symbol, but how much does that symbol actually mean when brands quickly incorporate it into their social media logos? The power of a Pride march is not that it is a lot of people waving rainbows; it’s that it’s a lot of people waving rainbows. It’s about seeing boys in make-up, and butch girls and leather daddies, and people feeling comfortable in themselves, regardless of how near or far they conform to the mainstream.  



And frustratingly, these Pride campaigns, as meh as many are, aren’t even out there for everyone to see. Brands target their Pride campaigns at LGBT+ people, or places where LGBT+ people are more accepted – whether that’s Costa coffee only releasing its Pride cups in large metropolitan areas that already had Pride marches or targeting LGBT+ people through their digital marketing.  


Either way the visibility of queer people is not greatly increased by these campaigns, either online or in physical form. Of course, that makes sense: brands are not doing these campaigns to raise awareness and acceptance of LGBT+ people; they’re doing them to sell stuff to LGBT+ people.  


It is a sad truth that the vast majority of Pride advertising gives a far clearer idea of how LGBT+ people can support a brand – buying a (normally rainbow themed) product – than how a brand supports LGBT+ people. And sure, sometimes, some amount of money is being given to LGBT+ causes but how much that is, is often suspiciously vague.  Diesel have a range of 44 Pride products this year, but do not specify how much they actually intend to give to their chosen LGBT+ charity. Happy Socks and H&M are giving away just 10 percent of the profits of their Pride ranges. I could list many more. Brands are inviting LGBT+ people to construct their identity – to exhibit their Pride – through buying their product. And then also expect to be able to both look progressive and profit from this. It leaves a sour taste.  


The amount of progress the LGBT+ community has made in recent decades can make it feel like homophobia and transphobia are things of the past, and that all we need to do now is wave a rainbow flag and congratulate ourselves on how liberal we all are. That is a false impression. Take a guess at how many hate crimes against LGBT+ people were reported to Police last year in England and Wales. 11,600. More than one an hour. And, depressingly, double what it was five years ago. Hate crime is only the most tangible expression of the bigotry that still needs to be tackled. Sometimes having Pride is not enough. 


It shouldn’t be about getting clients to do better Pride campaigns, it should be about getting clients to just do better things. And maybe – maybe – that will sometimes include something related to Pride. But the presumption needs to start to be that we make it bigger than one campaign or one logo. We should be suggesting other, more impactful ways to show support: 


Are you featuring a diverse range of people in your advertising throughout the year?  Do you support LGBT+ charities all year round? Do you have a clear route where staff can safely report discrimination? Do you have a gender pronoun policy or gender-neutral toilets? Have you actually asked your LGBT+ staff how you should be supporting the community?   


If you crash our party, you better be willing to stay the whole year.