"As advertisers we have a really loud voice. £20bn a year is spent in the advertising industry. That’s way more than any government campaign or NGO campaign. There’s a fantastic opportunity to use that voice, not just responsibly but positively."
Michele Oliver, Vice President – Marketing, Mars
We live in very interesting times. With Donald Trump currently looking after the White House, Brexit discussions ongoing, Marine Le Pen making inroads in France and elections looming in the UK and Germany, we don’t have to look too far for evidence of political upheaval.
In this context, it’s understandable that many within the LGBTI community are concerned about the impact these developments will have on many of the hard-won rights the community has secured over recent years.
To celebrate the second year of our sponsorship of Digital Pride, this year we wanted to address these issues head on – and to ask if there was a meaningful role for brands and advertisers to play in supporting the LGBTI community, especially when looking towards the choppy waters ahead.
This was the key theme of a panel discussion we held at our Brick Lane offices on Tuesday (25 April) where we looked for answers to a number of big questions.
In an increasingly polarized society, is there a role for brands to promote positive rather than negative messages?
In the face of a growing populist movement and increasingly right-wing press, should brands take action to ensure that tolerance and the celebration of diversity win out over bigotry?
And beyond this, is there a business imperative behind brands taking action, making support for the LGBTI community more than just ‘the right thing to do’.
To help us answer these questions we assembled a diverse panel hosted by our UK CEO Michael Islip which included: Michele Oliver, Vice President of Marketing at Mars; Jo Rzymowska, Vice President & Managing Director of Celebrity Cruises; Henrietta Flynn, Head of Brand, Content, Corporate Responsibility & Sponsorship at Aviva; Richard Wilson, Founder of Stop Funding Hate; and Tris Reid Smith, Founder & Editor of Gay Star News.
As the quote which begins this article demonstrates, during the discussion, Mars’ Michele Oliver was keen to point out that with a combined budget of £20bn, advertisers have considerable power. It’s up to them how to use it.
For her part, Oliver outlined some of the groundbreaking work that she has been involved in including the recent Maltesers activity and the Snickers campaign launched in partnership with Gay Star News.
Oliver pointed out not just the fact that they had launched these groundbreaking campaigns, but also highlighted the fact that they had been huge successes.
She explained for example that the Maltesers campaign has resulted in not just a halo effect, but in the brand doubling sales, leading her to conclude, ‘inclusivity in advertising has business benefits.’
The other brands on the panel were equally keen to highlight the positive role that brands can play in a diverse world. Interestingly, Aviva’s Henrietta Flynn argued that while the insurance brand has taken big steps forward in recent years, it still has some way to go. ‘We’re braver than we used to be,’ said Flynn. ‘But we have a massive opportunity to do more, to be braver.’
Richard Wilson, Founder of the ethical campaign group Stop Funding Hate, argued that brands shouldn’t beat themselves up about not doing enough.
He argued that it’s not essential for brands to take a stand and become what he calls ‘activist brands’. Pointing to the example of The Body Shop, he argued that only a select number of brands have the right to take a campaigning stand point. For him, consumers would be happy if the brands that they bought simply behaved responsibly.
‘It’s like people,’ said Wilson. ‘Not everyone in life is an activist. But everyone has a set of values that they believe in. I think people want the brands that they shop with just to live by their values. They don’t need every brand to be manning the barricades.’
This notion of living by the brand’s values was picked up by Jo Rzymowska of Celebrity Cruises. The business employs 65,000 people worldwide and the staff of individual ships will typically feature over 50 nationalities serving an incredibly diverse guest mix.
As a result, she explained, inclusivity is at the core of what they do: ‘It’s absolutely important to be true to your values. Integrity is the key thing.’
This focus on integrity is a key lesson for all brands at the moment. In recent weeks we’ve seen what happens when a brand like Pepsi tries to shoehorn itself into activist conversations.
If nothing else, their ill-fated campaign acts as a valuable lesson for any brand that manning the barricades and handing out a fizzy drink definitely isn’t the way to go if you really want your brand to truly make a difference in a diverse world.