May arrived, and MI Leggett, the visionary designer behind the gender-fluid sustainable clothing brand Official Rebrand, couldn't help but notice the conspicuous silence in their inbox. The usual influx of emails from companies seeking sponsored partnerships ahead of Pride Month was notably absent this year.
Leggett, who identifies as nonbinary, soon discovered that they were not alone in their predicament. Conversations with their peers revealed a shared experience of missed opportunities. "It wasn't just me," Leggett exclaimed, a mix of disappointment and bewilderment evident in their voice. "It's just been a really stark contrast from years before. Every single year, my friends, colleagues, and I always have these additional jobs coming our way."
In recent times, the arrival of June has been seen as a prime moment for businesses, both large and small, to position themselves as inclusive and demonstrate their support for LGBTQ+ communities through vibrant Pride Month campaigns. This brand allyship often took the form of collaborations with queer influencers and creatives who boasted substantial online followings.
However, this year, the landscape is different. The chorus of anti-transgender voices has grown louder as conservatives raise their protest against prominent brands that have shown support for LGBTQ+ communities. April witnessed a boycott of Bud Light after their partnership with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, leading parent company Anheuser-Busch to place two executives on leave and distance itself from Mulvaney. Last month, Target made the difficult decision to remove certain Pride merchandise from its stores due to threats against the safety of its workers.
The times we live in are marked by the clash between progress and regression, acceptance and resistance. As brands grapple with the decision to align themselves with marginalized communities, the stakes have never been higher. Will they cower in the face of opposition, or will they rise to the occasion, championing inclusivity and resilience?
The challenges faced by Leggett and their colleagues highlight the current struggles of LGBTQ+ creators and entrepreneurs. Their talents and voices, which should be celebrated and uplifted during this momentous month, are instead met with trepidation and hesitancy from brands that fear backlash.
Yet, amidst this turbulent backdrop, there remains hope. Hope for a world where diversity is embraced, where brands and individuals stand firm in their commitment to inclusivity, and where the authentic experiences of the LGBTQ+ community are given the platform they deserve. The absence of partnerships and collaborations serves as a rallying cry, a reminder that there is still work to be done.
Pride Month is not just about rainbow flags and catchy slogans—it is a time to reflect on the progress made, while acknowledging the challenges that lie ahead. It is a call to action for brands to recognize their role as catalysts for change, to amplify the voices that need to be heard, and to create spaces where everyone feels seen and valued.
The reverberations of backlash have sent shockwaves through the corporate world, causing numerous brands to retreat from their once-bold Pride marketing endeavors, according to experts. As a result, queer creatives and influencers find themselves caught in the fallout, experiencing the impact firsthand.
Daniel Korschun, an associate professor of marketing at Drexel University's LeBow College of Business, explains that companies are now engaging in a thorough reassessment of their sponsorships and partnerships, diligently trying to anticipate potential controversies. Consequently, they are opting to scale back on initiatives that could provoke backlash.
Hina Sabatine, a nonbinary TikTok creator, echoes this sentiment, noting a decrease in Pride-related inquiries this year. Sabatine observes that the brands they are collaborating with tend to be smaller or possess a distinctive queer identity, in contrast to the notable absence of major corporations.
Erik Gordon, a clinical professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, identifies a unique predicament for companies thrust into the center of the culture war, where they now face the risk of alienating both liberal and conservative consumer bases.
"They're scared to death," expresses Gordon. "I think some companies are whispering their support into sympathetic ears, whereas last year and the year before they were standing on top of the mountain with a megaphone. If that's your approach this year, you need less creative work ... you need a smaller group of influencers."
Rather than outwardly showcasing support for Pride, Gordon suggests that brands may be opting for more discreet methods, such as donations to LGBTQ+ advocacy groups. This shift toward subtler approaches allows companies to navigate the increasingly contentious landscape with caution.
While the current climate poses challenges for brand engagement with Pride, it also invites reflection on the essence of allyship and the most impactful ways to uplift marginalized communities. Brands must tread carefully, balancing the desire to support LGBTQ+ causes with the need to protect their own interests. The path forward lies in finding innovative and authentic approaches that transcend superficial gestures, ensuring that inclusivity remains at the heart of their actions.
In contemplating the changing dynamics of Pride marketing, one industry expert proposes an alternative approach. "Maybe the money gets shifted," he suggests. "You work with the influencers and creatives to create something that's really visible. If you don't want to be so visible, you just give money to the organization."
In the past, the most prominent criticism faced by brands during Pride originated from the left, with allies and LGBTQ+ individuals accusing companies of "rainbow-washing" or "rainbow capitalism." These terms refer to situations where businesses show support for LGBTQ+ communities during Pride month but fail to demonstrate a genuine commitment to those values throughout the rest of the year.
However, a recent surge in vocal opposition has emerged from conservative and anti-LGBTQ+ voices. Following the Mulvaney-Bud Light promotion, right-wing media figures and celebrities rallied for a boycott, leading to a significant decline in sales figures and toppling Bud Light from its position as America's best-selling beer. Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn even called for an investigation into Bud Light's actions.
This conservative backlash occurs against the backdrop of a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation at the state level. The Human Rights Campaign reports an unprecedented number of bills introduced this year, with 72 of them becoming law during the 2023 legislative session, as confirmed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
MI Leggett, the visionary designer, shares their experience of disappointment. Earlier in the year, they were engaged in discussions with various companies for collaborations tied to Pride. However, these companies, including a well-known hair care brand, abruptly "ghosted" them, leaving the designer feeling disregarded.
"They just stopped responding," Leggett recounts. "It just reveals the lack of genuine support."
The lost opportunities also translate into lost income, which has become a crucial aspect of their financial planning. Leggett explains, "We as queer people in business and in the entertainment industry all kind of rely on this every year and count on it for our budgeting."
Leggett further clarifies, "I don't mean to say that rainbow capitalism and corporate support is queer liberation in any way at all." However, they emphasize the significance of collaborations with major companies for Pride collections, as it provides "an amazing chance for people to see themselves in a larger media landscape."
As the dynamics of Pride marketing continue to evolve, it becomes increasingly vital to navigate the delicate balance between genuine support and performative gestures. Brands must transcend the ephemeral allure of rainbow-themed merchandise and prioritize authentic allyship throughout the year. By uplifting diverse voices, fostering meaningful connections, and supporting organizations dedicated to LGBTQ+ advocacy, companies can contribute to a media landscape that truly reflects the richness and diversity of the community.
Brands Struggle with Pride Criticism
Sabatine, the talented creator, disclosed a striking decrease in their Pride partnership earnings this year. On average, they typically rake in around $120,000 from brand collaborations throughout the month of June. However, they anticipate that this figure will be slashed in half.
Yet, for Sabatine, the issue at hand extends beyond financial implications. It's the broader message that brands convey when they retract their support that truly resonates.
"They have such a significant role in shaping our culture and influencing public perception on various issues," Sabatine expressed.
The TikTok star experienced disappointment when a long-standing partnership with a major retail chain for their Pride month campaign was abruptly canceled this year. They had collaborated with the company for three consecutive years, making the cancellation all the more disheartening.
The company justified their decision by citing concerns for the safety of their employees and the creators involved in the campaign. However, Sabatine emphasized that the company still fulfilled its financial obligations to the creators involved.
During a call with the company, Sabatine and other creators were given the opportunity to share their thoughts on the campaign's cancellation. They seized this moment to deliver a powerful message: "Rainbow capitalism is all fun and games until you actually have to show up and stand firm. To be an ally, you have to embrace discomfort because, as a queer person, your existence is inherently uncomfortable."
Sabatine's response encapsulates the complex reality of being an ally. It calls for brands to move beyond performative gestures and confront the discomfort that arises when supporting marginalized communities. True allyship requires genuine commitment, unwavering support, and a willingness to challenge the status quo.
As we navigate the ever-changing landscape of Pride marketing, it is essential for brands to recognize the profound impact they wield. By embracing discomfort, confronting systemic issues, and uplifting queer voices, they can foster a culture that celebrates diversity and empowers marginalized communities. Let us strive for a future where allyship extends beyond mere symbolism and becomes a transformative force that drives lasting change.