Taking Pride: Brands Are Supporting LGBTQ Inclusion Like Never Before

This year’s Pride Month — which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — takes on heightened significance for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community. As diversity and inclusion dominate industry conversation, retailers and brands are stepping up en masse with missions of purpose over pushing products. But cashing in on the rainbow without giving back to the community sends a tone-deaf message that could damage a brand’s credibility with LGBTQ shoppers — and its bottom line.

“The days of simply slapping a rainbow on your packaging and calling yourself ‘LGBT-friendly’ are long gone,” said Justin Nelson, president and co-founder, National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. “The community demands a yearlong, enterprise wide commitment to the LGBT community within the company and in every market the company hopes to engage.” 

One of the key drivers of consumer loyalty is when a business demonstrates support for pro- LGBTQ anti-discrimination policies, Nelson added. This month, Congress passed the LGBTQ Equality Act, which will give civil rights protections to such individuals if the measure is later approved by the Senate. Converse Inc., Macy’s Inc. and Under Armour Inc. are among the 161 corporate sponsors — a stark contrast to when the bill was introduced four years ago and the only companies publicly supporting the measure were Apple, The Dow Chemical Co. and Levi Strauss & Co.

During the fight for same-sex-marriage equality in 2015, the cause also received elevated support from major companies — no doubt fueled by greater public interest in the issue. Nike Inc., Amazon and Target Corp were among the 379 corporations that petitioned the Supreme Court in a friend-of-the-court brief to strike down state bans.

“All of these companies understand in various degrees that [issues-based activism] is a business driver,” said Todd Sears, founder of Out Leadership, an advisory firm that helps companies grow business through LGBTQ inclusion. In fact, a majority of Americans look to corporations to take the lead on social causes as public trust in government has waned to historic lows; only 17% of Americans say they trust politicians to do what is right, according to the Pew Research Center.

Nearly 75% of all purchases made by LGBTQ constituents are influenced by the company’s public support for the community at all levels — including charitable contributions, inclusive work environments and advocating for equality on national policy levels.

“Ten years ago, you did not see companies and CEOs weighing in on issues that are social,” Sears said. “It would’ve been a risk as a corporate driver, and now there’s risk of not doing anything.”

In the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer survey, which annually polls individuals on their levels of confidence in institutions, 76% of people agreed that CEOs can facilitate positive changes better than the government.
Deckers — parent of Ugg, Hoka One One and Teva — affirmed publicly in 2017 its corporate purpose as inclusion for all, spanning issues such as diversity, gender equality and female empowerment.

CEO Dave Powers recalled at FN’s CEO Summit in May that being transparent with its mission and strategy “made it so that we had to hold ourselves accountable as a leadership team.”

“We put this into our corporate responsibility report, and we said it’s time for us to put a stake in the ground with some goals around diversity and inclusion,” Powers explained.

Assessments on where objectives could be advanced showed that the company needed to include more minorities in marketing — and this year, those efforts will feature its first transgender influencer.

Product With Purpose

Toms founder Blake Mycoskie built his brand on a social purpose model — for every pair of shoes sold, the label gives away a pair to those in need.

After focusing on the gun control fight during the first few months of 2019, the Playa Del Rey, Calif.-based company’s giving programs continue to evolve.

One of the brand’s latest initiatives is its first Pride Month Unity Collection capsule, which helps support homeless youths — 40% of whom identify as LGBTQ — with free eyecare in partnership with Helen Keller International’s Childsight Program.

“This year being the first year we decided to do a public-facing product, we wanted to make sure we were established [in the LGBTQ community] before doing something commercially facing,” said Amy Smith, chief giving officer. On a local level, Toms has partnered with the Los Angeles LGBT Center since 2015, providing its commercial shoes available at retail (a first for the company) to homeless youths.

Authenticity and fostering long-standing relationships with LGBTQ constituents have been imperative for Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. for decades.

Since the 1980s, the footwear and apparel brand has helped raise funds and awareness on many social causes, including HIV/AIDS, homelessness and same-sex marriage. For June, the lifestyle label will release its third limited-edition Pride capsule collection to support the United Nations Foundation’s UN Free & Equal — a program dedicated to fair treatment and equal rights of the LGBTQ community globally. Along with product, the company donated $40,000 to the cause.

Being a Good Sport

Pride sneakers have become a part of annual collections for some sportswear brands, and they are increasingly attaching financial support to causes that resonate with those consumers.

“Before you’d have a brand say they support [the LGBTQ community] and do so because ‘we printed a rainbow’ — it’s been marketable support with not much substance,” said Will Lanier, executive director at The Out Foundation. The organization works to remove barriers to health, wellness and fitness for LGBTQ individuals.
“It’s important for brands to connect their sales with a nonprofit, especially in the queer space, because a lot of the LGBTQ community sees the rainbow stuff as exploitation if it’s not going to a bigger purpose,” said Lanier.

Puma released a Pride collection last year, but it has opted not to do so in 2019. Instead, the German brand will focus on building more relationships with global organizations and grassroots charities, a representative explained, adding that it will “develop product when we believe it will benefit these organizations directly.” Some of Puma’s outreach efforts this year include working with the ACLU and raising funds to support LGBTQ sports inclusion.

Brooks introduced Pride product this year with its Run Proud Collection in addition to partnering with International Front Runners, a global network of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer running groups, on funding opportunities with local clubs. “Though running is more diverse than ever, we saw an opportunity to be more deliberate in our support for subcommunities that have not always felt welcome or visible within running and sport like the LGBTQ+ community,” said Melanie Allen, Brooks’ SVP and CMO.

converse pride 2019, shoes, collection, trans flag
A glittery sneaker from the Converse Pride 2019 collection.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Converse

Converse has been making big strides in the LGBTQ inclusion space through product, marketing and financial support ($1 million since 2014). In May, the brand introduced its first sneaker inspired by the trans flag as “a small way to pay respect to the rebels and heroes that paved the way and to ultimately celebrate who we all are as individuals,” the brand said in a statement. Its Pride products were born out of its LGBTQ employee network, which was formalized in 2015.

Internal Strides

Reebok, Adidas, Brooks, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s are among the companies with dedicated teams for LGBTQ inclusion at the corporate level. These employee groups have been drivers in leading commercial products, activism, charity, volunteerism, education and messaging.

Under Armour looked to its employee network for guidance when it released its first United We Win Pride collection last year. For 2019, the brand increased volume and distribution of its sophomore products, including a wholesale partnership with Macy’s. “We determined several years ago that it was better to approach this initiative thoughtfully, gradually and with a long-term vision,” said Perry Williams, manager of strategic execution — innovation and co-chair of Under Armour Unified Culture Club employee network.

“Last year, we saw an inspiring number of sales around the collection and even sold 90% of our UA HOVR Sonic Pride edition shoes within the first few weeks of the campaign. We hope to see the same results, if not better, this year.” For the second year, the company is partnering with Athlete Ally, which works to eliminate homophobia and transphobia in sports.

Employee-driven diversity teams have helped facilitate Bloomingdale’s company values internally and at retail, said Nicole Cokley, VP of central human resources, diversity and inclusion, and employee giving. For example, the team worked with the wedding registry group to implement tools that are inclusive to all couples. “Our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) act as internal focus groups to provide feedback and identify opportunities for us to attract and retain customers and talent,” said Cokley.

Similarly, Nordstrom’s LGBTQ+ ERG launched formally last year, and it has enabled employees to connect with each other and provide feedback for the retailer’s inclusion initiatives and community-outreach, said Christine Deputy, chief human resources officer. Prior to forming the group, the company’s work in the LGBTQ inclusion space internally has been praised by equality groups. “We’ve been longtime partners of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and in 2019, we scored a perfect 100% on their annual Corporate Equality Index (CEI) for the 14th year in a row,” Deputy added. “Our New York City-based partner, Hetrick Martin Institute, has partnered with us to provide valuable resources and trainings for our New York City-based employees on topics related to unique issues facing the LGBTQ community.”  

Community Relations

The trans community, long ignored in brand messaging, is more visible than ever as it experiences setbacks in equal rights under the current presidential administration — and brands are responding accordingly.

All-gender restrooms, email signatures that indicate preferred pronouns and ongoing education are some of the ways companies are integrating a sense of belonging for employees and consumers. Bloomingdale’s, for example, doesn’t designate gender-specific dressing rooms.

Adidas converted all single-stall bathrooms to be gender-inclusive at its North America headquarters in Portland, Ore., and more than 1,700 employees took part in Inclusion in the Workplace development summits. In 2016, the company added a clause to athlete contracts that underscores its commitment to LGBTQ inclusion.

In June, as part of Pride Month, the brand is hosting a gender identity workshop focused on the gender spectrum versus sexual orientation — and why this is important to the LGBTQ+ community, according to Emmy Negrin, director of diversity and inclusion at Adidas.

Mistakes are bound to happen as cultural shifts and consumer preferences evolve — and corporations need to work to catch up, added Lanier. “Even if they are not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction. It’s a conversation that needs to happen,” he said.

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