If brand Pride messages seem more subdued this year, it's not your imagination. With anti-trans legislation sweeping the country, brands like Target, Bud Light and Kohl's have already been stung by backlash -- sometimes from both the right and the left. Bob Witeck, who founded Witeck Communications in 1993, has spent decades consulting with companies on marketing to LGBTQ audiences. He tells Marketing Daily why this year is a minefield.
Marketing Daily: I've gotten far fewer Pride pitches this year, and some of my colleagues agree. Why?
Bob Witeck: We're in a very different moment. There's fierce militancy and fear in the community. Politicians in red states have put gay people, particularly trans people, in harm's way. I mean really in harm's way.
That's changing the mood. To get Pride right, a brand has got to be very sensitive to that mood. And all brands are vulnerable because the public that they're addressing is very changed.
Marketing Daily: How so?
Witeck: Social media influencers can campaign against any decision -- not just Pride, but anything -- particularly on the right. You don't have to be a "woke" brand for that to happen. There are sharp knives out for everyone.
Marketing Daily: How well do you think most brands do with Pride themes?
Witeck: As somebody who has been at this a long time, I want to give marketers all credit for trying to embrace and uplift the community. We desperately need all the friends and allies we can get. So companies should be praised for trying. They're not all going to get it right. They'll step on toes sometimes.
But this climate is so different. We're in a hurricane of political cross-currents and setbacks. It's not a joyful and light-filled Pride season. It's militant and angry and fearful. Brands need to understand that. If they do, they can enter it confidently, but they have to be aware there are real emotions out there.
Marketing Daily: Do you believe that that fear will translate into reduced participation in live events this year?
Witeck: Yes. Pride events are usually jubilant, fun and filled with families. I worry that feeling may not be here this year or in the near term.
Marketing Daily: Target and Kohl's face boycott threats for Pride clothing, and after in-store attacks, Target pulled a bathing suit made for trans women from its stores. Many in the LGBTQ are calling that move cowardly. What do you think?
Witeck: Retailers face a different situation. Stores in some communities were not prepared when people came in and made a ruckus. I give Target credit for making employee safety their priority.
But it's important to point out that the people threatening employees aren't regular Target shoppers. People are instigating these responses digitally and on the radio. When people burn merchandise or pour Budweiser out on the streets, they're like performance artists. Social media does that to us. But it isn't a naturally occurring reaction.
That said, brands can't have it both ways. They can't stay true to the community and cave in when criticized. Senior leadership has to make itself clear with their actions and the company's voice.
Marketing Daily: Gen Z activists seem especially outraged, which makes sense. More of them identify as LGBTQ, and their sense of allyship is much higher. How do the generational differences strike you?
Witeck: It's a very good thing. As a gay man in high school during the Stonewall uprising, I know our modern Pride movement was born from anger and a hunger for revolution. Today, some, if not all of those emotions are rising again. We should remember that militancy is a birthright, and complacency is our adversary.
Marketers should remain steadfast allies and community-builders. This season, we can see already brands will be judged even more by their actions, not just their words or sales pitches. The winners will be those whose values and policies resonate best to reflect this mood.
Marketing Daily: Are some brands perhaps more reticent because they finally realize it's better to be active all year, not just in June?
Witeck: I do think companies are beginning to get it that it's not just parades in June and that they should be engaged with LGBTQ audiences all year. That's finally sinking in.