Why Mainstream Brands Like Nike and Clairol Are Putting Trans Stories Front and Center

Keeping up with the cultural conversation

In early August, Nike aired a 30-second spot during NBC's prime-time coverage of the Olympics featuring triathlete Chris Mosier, the first transgender athlete to make a U.S. men's national team. That an esteemed brand like Nike decided to showcase Mosier's story of athleticism and courage while millions worldwide watched had both news outlets and marketers take note. Less than a week later, Clairol announced that Tracey "Africa" Norman, a trans model that had worked for the Procter & Gamble hair color brand in the early '70s, would grace its Nice 'n Easy ads again.

Clairol and Nike aren't alone. Marketers like H&M, Thinx, YouTube, even Bud Light, have either featured trans stories or trans-inclusive messaging in recent campaigns, reflecting the cultural conversation of the moment, according to industry analysts.

"The topic has become more mainstream, everywhere you look since Caitlyn Jenner [came out], the success of Transparent, Laverne Cox and Orange Is the New Black," said Chris Edwards, copywriter and author of the forthcoming memoir, Balls: It Takes Some to Get Some, about his transition. "And with these laws about bathrooms … it's become a topic of conversation in this country, and it is bringing transgender rights to the forefront."

         

        Caitlyn Jenner modeled for H&M this spring. H&M

According to an investigation of state and federal data released by research group the Williams Institute in June, the number of trans-identifying adults in the United States has doubled in the last decade, making up 0.6 percent of the population or 1.4 million adults. It's unclear if that's because the number of trans Americans is growing or if that's due to, as the study notes, "a perceived increase in visibility and social acceptance of transgender people, [which] may increase the number of individuals willing to identify as transgender on a government-administered survey."

"No doubt there has been an upsurge in trans acceptance in society that's filtered through to advertising," said Beth Avellini, global group creative director for Grey New York, the creative shop behind Clairol's new trans-inclusive work. "Advertising reflects society as a whole, and there's been a slow acceptance that's been happening in society."

While cultural acceptance has grown, so has buying power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. A new estimate from Witeck Communications said LGBT buying power is a hefty $917 billion, up 3.6 percent over last year. "There isn't much downside [to featuring trans stories in ads], unless you're a hard-core Bible belt brand," said Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer for brand consulting firm Landor Associates. "The biggest risk is being disingenuous. If it doesn't seem like a genuine or authentic message for your brand, that's a bigger risk than alienating an audience."

         

        Nike shared Chris Mosier's story during prime-time Olympic coverage. Nike

Authenticity, in fact, was key for Clairol, according to Grey's Avellini. The agency had tracked down Norman after reading her story in New York magazine's fashion vertical The Cut. Norman once had a successful modeling career—she even appeared on Clairol's Born Beautiful hair color boxes for six years—until she was outed on a magazine fashion shoot.

Fast-forward to more accepting times and greater opportunities. Clairol's Nice 'n Easy's "Color as Real as You Are" campaign featuring Norman will be in print and on TV in early 2017. "Tracey had already been part of the brand," Avellini insisted. "We weren't making an inauthentic statement."

Ads like Clairol's and Nike's that tell personal stories show trans people that they aren't alone, said Edwards. But as "terminology is evolving, it is important for advertisers to do their research and work with advisors to make sure copy and tone resonate with the intended audience," he noted. That's exactly what Nike's creative agency Wieden + Kennedy did, according to Nike chief marketing officer Greg Hoffman.

But industry analysts believe it won't be long before that trans inclusivity in ads isn't worth a news story. "I think we're going to get to a place where it's normalized pretty quickly," said Ordahl. "It becomes kind of a nonstory after a while."

This story first appeared in the September 5, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.