Pride: It’s not just for June
Brands need to engage year round with LGBTQ audiences if they're to win over the younger generation
The transparency forced on brands by social media today means that engaged consumers can monitor brand values and behavior year round. That channel isn’t just switched on in February for Black History Month, or one day a year for Martin Luther King Day or Juneteenth. It’s always on — and brands that forget that run the risk that their messaging, for Pride month for example, will be viewed as inauthentic, especially by younger demographics.
That’s what we learned in a wide-ranging conversation with Adriana Waterston, SVP of Insights and Strategy for Horowitz Research with special expertise in multicultural market research.
Deeply embedded stereotypes
Horowitz Research, founded in 1985, was one of the first agencies to help cable companies identify potential markets — and lobby for the right to lay cable (founder Howard Horowitz came out of a political science and polling background). It created a multicultural research division in 1992 because their research showed that, although Black and Hispanic audiences had high potential as customers for cable services, deeply embedded stereotypes led their neighborhoods to be redlined. “COVID revealed that we still have a digital divide,” said Waterston. “In the inner city, and where they have Black and Hispanic communities, those markets remain under-served.”
Horowitz Research thought it was important to advocate for these communities. “First, because there are business opportunities for our clients, but also because it’s the right thing to do.” Although the initial focus was on racial diversity, it became increasingly clear over the years that LGBTQ audiences were also being overlooked.
Gen Z’s strong embrace of LGBTQ rights
The agency recently conducted research on Gen Z (born roughly 1997 to 2015) — a generation brands are struggling to engage with, thanks to the fragmentation of the media eco-system. They found that 28% of those surveyed identified as LGBTQIA. “That’s a substantial proportion,” said Waterston. “The story of Gen Z,” she said, “is one of allies and being inclusive. The big message from our data is that for brands to really engage with Gen Z audiences, the tokenism of Black History Month or Pride Month or Asian and Pacific Islander — that kind of pandering engagement during these marketing months just really falls short.”
Younger people especially, she said, are interested in the brand’s voice, values and social responsibility year round. “If you’re keeping your company headquarters in a place that’s going after LGBTQ rights and trans rights, and yet you come out with fancy statements during Pride month, it’s going to come off as disingenuous,” she said.
There might be more cynicism among older audiences, she said. “Marketing works one way, business and politics work another. These young people — maybe it’s a real cultural shift, I’m not sure. Are these young people going to support brands they align with politically when they’re a little older and have other considerations? I don’t have a crystal ball.”
A new cultural sensibility
Despite a widespread perception (right or wrong) that the LGBTQ audience is a desirable demographic for brands, with high disposable income, it has still been sidelined over the years. Why? “I think it’s a lot to do with the way brands think about marketing and how they spend their marketing dollars,” said Waterston. “It’s not just LGBTQ, it’s multicultural and diverse in general. Brands would look at numbers like, less than 5% of the U.S. audience is LGBTQ, and think, this is not a sizeable enough audience for us to market to year round, forgetting that it’s also about the allies, about the families, about tapping into the Zeitgeist; a cultural sensibility of inclusiveness and progressivenes.”
When it comes to Gen Z, the issue becomes even more complex, said Waterston. “There’s so much fluidity. Older generations are just now learning that gender is perhaps not just binary. Young people today were born into this sensibility, and that makes it complicated for brands. People don’t feel they have to hide their preferences.”
Indeed, whether the Horowitz Research study shows an actual increase in LGBTQ numbers in the Gen Z demographic is moot; what it shows is an increased willingness to openly identify with that segment. There’s an analogy, of course, with Black Lives Matter. The more people are willing to be outspoken on an issue, even as allies, the more likely they are to demand consistent commitment from the companies they buy from.
Three actionable insights
First, as already emphasized, brands need to think about diverse audiences not just at certain times of the year, but year round. Second, having diverse voices at the table when marketing decisions are made creates the chance for authentic engagement. The third leg? “Brands needs to start thinking more creatively about engaging with audiences beyond traditional advertising. For example, especially with these young people, we saw how powerful something like TikTok is,” she said.
“It is about rethinking all of your marketing approaches,” said Waterston, “and it’s part of the whole conversation that’s happening in this country. It’s not just about LGBTQ; it’s about diversity overall. The marketing world has, for way too long, been very binary, meaning that what is white and straight is called the general market, and everything else is not. The reality is that what is white and straight is not only not the general market, but is actually a much smaller portion of the market than you would have thought.”
Diversity, said Waterston, should be the norm. And to be fair: “A lot of brands realized that what happened in 2020 was a wake-up call. We’ve been busier than ever, because brands have started to figure out that what they don’t know, they don’t know.