LGBTQ+ Culture Challenges Brands to Set New Goals Beyond Profit

Consider a future where you specifically redesign and publicly share goals with mutual business and community benefit

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When a campaign focused on LGBTQ+ communities wins on the awards circuit, the reality of industry rainbow-washing forces me to ponder: What was the motivation for entering this work?

Look, for example, to the Effie Awards. For those with an eye on market impact, they set the bar high for whether intended strategies become brand realities. You’d imagine this forum celebrating the proven fulfillment of consumer needs might include LGBTQ+ community representation, as we’ve made plenty of our needs known.

Yet their trends report shows that “more progress is needed,” as only 2% of entrants included LGBTQ+ group members. This is commensurate with the industry, sadly: Less than 2% of mainstream ads include queer people. 

Cast aside the glaring disparity for a moment, given that LGBTQ+ people are a self-reported 7.1% of the country, and that 34% of consumers say they’re more likely to buy from brands supporting LGBTQ+ rights. Then consider this number in the context of expanding marketing visibility: Yes, 2023 brought notable missteps and marketer trepidation, but we’re seeing more LGBTQ+ representation than we did years ago, and we’re being discussed more.

This begs the question: Are brands creating LGBTQ+ campaigns simply to placate the community? When work is put forward for recognition, we know the goal for the brand and agency, but what’s the goal for the community? If we’re actually advancing LGBTQ+ inclusion, but still face this low volume of entered queer cases, there are three scenarios to consider:

  1. Campaigns crafted for LGBTQ+ communities are not being designed with tangible, strategic goals.
  2. Campaigns crafted for LGBTQ+ communities are not created in a way that delivers on those goals.
  3. Both.

I’m going to guess it’s option 3, not out of cynicism but from a perspective that humans aren’t always great at stating objectives. People talk more about buying a house but less about contacting a realtor, more about having abs but less about finding a trainer. We know what we want, but the steps to get there feel daunting.

It’s easier for the humans who make brand decisions to say, “We want to support and uplift the LGBTQ+ community,” than to state a first step: “To do that, we’re ready to create a campaign that provides jobs to 25 underprivileged, young queer people.” Both statements are positive, but the latter makes you accountable.

As a gay man, there’s a mental disconnect between LGBTQ+ absence in advertising effectiveness standards and our community’s proven ability to get things done. We just witnessed a Pride month where celebration and progress advanced without any notable boom in brand support. Our U.K. friends at Outvertising led a worldwide pledge whereby partners held themselves accountable to new actions. But brands weren’t developing or sharing their own standards for proven progress.

LGBTQ+ communities provide prime opportunities to demonstrate excellence in effectiveness because we’re constantly at the forefront of meaningful social change. Because we have to be. If you’re a brand that likes to get shit done, it’s clear that we’re ready to collaborate. And if your creative efforts can engage LGBTQ+ people, you develop advantages in reaching everyone else.

So I ask brands and marketing leaders to consider a future where you specifically redesign and publicly share goals that have mutual business and community benefit to advance ROI conversations past sheer profit. Put the trainer before the abs, and discuss what those goals can look like.

Goals can mean the journey

A meme said it best: While the destination is important, “the journey is usually the part you remember anyways.” And while I’m definitely asking for a proven destination in terms of measured impact for marketers and communities, the consumer journey itself should certainly be a standout element of that impact. Think past well-worn summary goals of exposures, and reflect on the meaning of those interactions. 

Accounting for controversies around its pricing, Gilead is still a prime example of this principle in action. Their public commitments on LGBTQ+ education and transgender justice, and their contributions to help end the HIV epidemic by 2030, demonstrate that they’re working toward a very specific challenge, that they’re in for the long haul, and that the very nature of the work will be led with the community via the HRC.

Beyond coverage and exposure, partnership itself can be a metric if the stated objective is to connect to a community that’s leading progress. The journey will yield interactions, discussions, policy, personal sharing, community engagements, hand-raising and more—all of which can be quantified beyond media impressions relative to spend. Ask yourself and your teams, with an open mind: What elements of the creation and co-creation process are themselves proof of investment in a community?

Goals can mean connection 

While the journey speaks to meaningful interactions along the path to your destination, connection references who you’re with along the way. The Trevor Project, with all of its major brand partners, is a prime example. Connection and community can be a goal, too, and that means a lot to an LGBTQ+ community that still lacks united movements around vital concerns.

Every youth reached, every counselor trained, every story told is a strategic exercise in creating scale and formalizing audience. And relative to many efforts measured by how many people you paid to reach, the impact is measured in how many people step up to help this brand. We use the term “connection” in broad terms in creating our work, but can we envision goals in terms of how we formalize shared passions—connections that endure?

Goals can mean education

As one example, from a past SXSW session I was honored to be part of, sex in advertising has traditionally been a series of heterosexual stereotypes—and as LGBTQ+ people and sex culture are included in marketing, we realized it needed to look less like tropes and more like education. So, a larger question: What are impressions without education? What is brand exposure without learning and the changed behaviors that demonstrate learning?

Grindr has delivered work with local and digital communities to improve mpox education for the health of the larger community, taking steps to ensure key information about mpox reached LGBTQ+ people. A brand that’s all about local networks and discussion took steps to change those discussions and leverage those networks, creating knowledge amid disinformation. If your brand used its information and networks to educate rather than publicize, what would be the impact? What new objectives become possible?

All these efforts lead to impressions, reach, exposures, sponsorship assets and conversions. They build business and revenue. But they’re not architected solely to generate revenue; that’s why they’re effective. Ultimately, there’s a pretty simple solution to your goal: You could publicly commit to creating one LGBTQ+-focused case that is worth entering in the Effies this year. Or you can publicly declare what LGBTQ+ community organization will lead the way in co-creating your objectives in these efforts.

No, awards shouldn’t lead the creative process, but the statement would show that you’re willing to move accountability in new, tangible directions. Consider how few cases it would take to double the 2% status quo. Understand how far this advances you beyond rainbow logo efforts—which present diminishing returns at a time where our community faces greater pressures.

But, as young people say today, eff around and find out. Do it in December, to set yourself up for making a proven difference in the new year. Know that if you fall short, we’ll genuinely be glad you tried. Show that you embrace not only LGBTQ+ communities and their dollars, but that you also embrace our spirit. Show us that you’re ready to get things done for us, with us.