Global Retail   //   June 4, 2024

Queer influencers are feeling the Pride marketing squeeze

For many queer influencers like Alysse Dalessandro, Pride is the biggest month of the year for brand sponsorships. Throughout the month of June, Dalessandro — a plus-size fashion and lifestyle blogger — posts videos on TikTok or Instagram featuring sponsored products that cater to her LGBTQ+ followers. 

In 2022 alone, Dalessandro worked with 35 different brands, and one-third of her annual income came from Pride sponsorships. 

But this year, those figures are looking a lot smaller, and Dalessandro says it’s because brands’ appetites for Pride marketing have weakened amid widespread pressure from anti-LGBTQ+ conservatives. 

“This year’s Pride will just be a regular month,” said Dalessandro in an interview. “Whereas I used to make one-third of my yearly income, I would say I’ll make one-twelfth of my income this year.”

The pullback comes just after Target announced earlier this month that it would be scaling back its Pride Month offerings. The retailer said its Pride products would only be available in about half of its nearly 2,000 stores in the U.S. and online, and it would no longer sell LGBTQIA-themed merchandise for children.

Protests against brands with Pride Month products and marketing campaigns reached a fever pitch last year. Target reported “gut-wrenching” attacks of violence in its stores against employees, prompting the retailer to pull some of its LGBTQIA-themed merchandise. Target’s earnings took a hit, which the retailer partially attributed to the controversy.

Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light faced boycotts last year after the brand worked with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney for a marketing promotion. The boycott was so severe that sales plunged, and Bud Light was dethroned as America’s best-selling beer by Mexican lager Modelo Especial.

While some say the protests have cast a pall across corporate America that is still being felt this Pride Month, others say brands are continuing to celebrate Pride with merchandise and promotions – but it’s being done more quietly and in moderation now. 

A majority of corporate executives and Fortune 500 leaders reported to Gravity Research that they are not planning changes to their Pride strategy for 2024. Thirteen percent were unsure, and only 9% said they were definitely planning changes.

Indeed, grocery store giant — and Target’s biggest rival — Walmart has plunged ahead with its LGBTQIA-themed merchandise for Pride this year. 

Still, Dalessandro isn’t alone in reporting a slowdown.

Matt Skallerud, president of Pink Media, expects more brands will sit on the sidelines this Pride as companies try to navigate an increasingly fraught socio-political landscape. 

“Typically, we have several Pride projects in the works that we would have had ready for a June 1 launch. But this year, there’s nothing. Zero,” said Skallerud. “When I talk to others in the industry, whether they’re smaller LGBT media companies or other marketing firms, they say they’re all suffering the same thing.”

In the U.K., a similar chilling effect is also being felt, according to Chris Dunne, co-CEO at Outvertising, a non-profit that helps marketers connect with LGBTQ+ audiences. 

Although Pride Month is officially underway as of June 1, “you’d be excused for not knowing that by walking the streets or walking through the mall, or any of the touch points where you usually see retail support for Pride,” said Dunne. “It’s suspiciously quiet, and I think all the indicators are that it will be a quieter Pride month from a commercial and brand point of view.”

Yet, total marketing budgets in the U.K. reached their highest levels in almost a decade in the fourth quarter of 2023, according to a report. In the U.S., ad spend is similarly resilient. Three major ad forecasters have predicted improved U.S. media spend totals for 2024, Digiday previously reported. Retail is especially robust, with a 9% uptick in spend expected, according to IPG’s Magna unit. 

Brands, however, risk missing out on crucial dollars if these healthy budgets aren’t directed toward LGBTQ+ communities. Queer-identifying Americans represent $1.4 trillion in U.S. spending power, according to investment advisor LGBT Capital. 

“With one in five Gen Z identifying as LGBTQ, companies are really recognizing that it’s more important to have a relationship with this consumer segment than to perhaps respond to a vocal percentage of the population that’s actually quite small,” said Matt Tumminello, founder and president of Target 10, an agency that specialize in LGBTQ+ consumers. 

Moreover, many consumers support a swath of LGBTQ+ issues. For example, an Outvertising report found that 60% of queer-identifying people and 41% of non-LGBTQ+ people in the U.K. believe that brands should express their views on political and social issues. Meanwhile, 74% of Americans are neutral or positively impacted by knowing a company offers Pride merchandise, according to GLAAD, which advocates for positive portrayal of LGBTQ+ people in media and culture.

Despite this, marketers’ investment in the LGBTQ+ community is minuscule at only 2.5% of all advertising spend, according to ANA’s Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing.

“We know that there’s a fringe minority that is very loud, so brands’ messaging and tone has been modified because marketers don’t want to get caught in the middle,” said Carlos Santiago, co-founder of ANA AIMM. 

Different, not less 

According to Meghan Bartley, senior director of agencies, brand and engagement at GLAAD, brands aren’t pulling back so much as they’re retooling how they engage with the LGBTQ+ community. 

“Brands are reconsidering how they show up for our community. That may look like a change to a Pride campaign rather than the complete removal of a Pride campaign,” said Bartley. For example, she said brands are increasingly looking at how to invest in queer-identifying communities all year round as opposed to just Pride month. That can translate to fewer rainbow logos on LinkedIn, to appear less opportunistic, and investing more in LGBTQ+ causes rather than merchandising, she said. 

Bartley cited iHeartMedia and Procter & Gamble’s fifth-annual “Can’t Cancel Pride,” an event celebrating the LGBTQ+ community, as an example of how brands are supporting the community in ways other than merchandising.

When Target said it would be selling less Pride merchandise this year, the retailer touted its year-round investments in the LGBTQ+ community, including donations to organizations such as Human Rights Campaign and Family Equality. Target also said it would participate in local Pride events across the nation and that it would continue to spotlight LGBTQ-owned brands throughout the year.

“There are some brands that are doing the work behind the scenes because they’re aware of a growing backlash,” said Outvertising’s Dunne. “But I don’t think that’s the majority. I think that’s the slim minority.”

Bob Witeck, a consultant who helps companies such as Walmart develop their LGBTQ-friendly policies, also hasn’t seen a pullback from his clients. In fact, he said some were doubling down on Pride Month in light of last year’s backlash. 

“In all of my conversations with the clients I work with, they have not shrunk at all,” said Witeck. “In fact, the conversations internally are more like, ‘We feel a deeper need to amplify what we say.’”