Natalie Lyall
Brand Strategy
How Brands Can Be Allies, Advocates and Activists

Despite considerable progress made in recent years, the issue of LGBT diversity and inclusion remains an on-going conversation in commerce, with many brands uncertain how to meaningfully engage their LGBT consumers and employees. At The Economist’s third annual Pride & Prejudice summit, held across locations in Hong Kong, London and New York, business leaders and activists discussed the challenges and opportunities facing companies in this arena.

Organisations need to look beyond the “business case” for diversity

A number of speakers believe that the business case for diversity has been well and truly made, and that we must now move onto definitive action. “We’ve passed the point of having to prove that diversity in business leads to good outcomes; that conversation has been had long and hard,” says Alison Brittain, CEO at Whitbread. “It’s not just a business case, it’s about creating the kind of world we want to live in.”

Meanwhile Vittoria Colao, CEO at Vodafone, believes that limiting the discussion to business benefits actually does brands a disservice. “What if the business case wasn’t good?” He asks. “It’s just about doing what’s right. We are businesses, not political entities, but because we are made up of people we’re inherently political. I don’t care about the business case for diversity, I care about human rights.”

The simple fact of the matter is, the new hires in any business are likely to be more socially progressive and politically engaged than the generations that preceded them — if they care about these issues, then you as a company need to as well.

Find ways to enact inclusion in your business — without quotas

“We measure profit, customer satisfaction, team retention… why not other things?” Asks Brittain. “Measurement systems are immediately indicative of something you treat with importance.” However, the majority of panellists agree that when it comes to LGBT employees, hiring quotas could be impractical or downright insensitive — after all, that would require demanding a candidate to disclose their sexuality or gender identity as part of the recruitment process.

There are practical steps that can be taken to make a workplace LGBT-inclusive, such as gender-neutral bathrooms for example, or ensuring that trans workers are able to access the healthcare they need. When it comes to measurement, a number of companies have found that LGBT visibility is one effective way to gage how open and accepting a workplace is. Virgin Money, for instance, has an intranet where employees can share their personal stories; according to CEO Jayne-Anne Gadhia, one employee felt so comfortable that he actually used the platform to come out for the first time at work.

For a company like Royal Mail, whose employees account for one in 194 people in the UK, inclusion is a strategic priority. LGBT networks have proven to be one way to create spaces where employees feel comfortable being themselves; “In five years’ time, I want to go to every part of Royal Mail and have everyone feel comfortable telling their stories, and not need networks any more because it’s simply a part of our culture and how we work,” says COO Sue Whalley.

Work within cultures, but don’t compromise your brand values

A question which arises often for international corporations is how they can actively demonstrate solidarity with their LGBT customers and employees when operating in regions where it is still illegal to be gay. Previous Pride & Prejudice summits have discussed the “embassy” model, wherein companies can obey the laws of the land while still providing their personnel with a welcoming and accepting environment.

“Sometimes we underestimate the power of the safe zone our workplace can create,” says Maxim Eristavi, a journalist and activist who works in LGBT advocacy in Eastern Europe. He felt encouraged to share his identity once he found a nurturing employer, after previously having been outed to an entire newsroom.

Eristavi also believes that international companies have an influence which can be used to advocate for LGBT people without directly compromising local laws. “In some of these territories, people respect foreign brands more than their own governments,” he says. “This creates an opportunity for organisations to lead change, create safe spaces at regional offices, and work with activists on the ground.”

“I think local individuals should definitely lead the effort, but for instance, Google works in Kenya and has begun to have conversations with activists on the ground,” says Kari Mugo, Operations Manager at the National Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission in Kenya. “There’s actually less risk for them than for local companies to take the lead.”

As transparency activist Gina Miller puts it: “Advocacy is like marketing. Look at the culture, look at the norms.”

Being an ally means constantly learning

“You can do really important stuff when there’s an ally in the room,” says Sue Sanders, Chair of Schools OUT, who instituted the first LGBT History Month back in 2004. “You can challenge homophobic language, you can begin to change minds.” And to those allies, she says: “When you’re seen as someone who is effectively doing this, if people feel safe in your company, then they’re going to be so much more creative.”

That’s not to say allyship is merely a case of wearing a rainbow pin; paying lip service to equality is easy, implementing those values at an institutional level can be a little more complex. “Being a change maker means constantly coming up against conflicts of interest and unconscious biases,” says Miller. “You have to steel yourself to be an advocate; it takes time and energy, and you have to know your strengths and weaknesses, like preparing for a race. Sands shift, and you have to stay alert to what’s going on, and constantly refresh your knowledge.”

When you stand up to be an ally, you expose yourself to criticism — even from within the community you are trying to help. It is crucial to listen to these people, rather than get defensive or give up. And you have to know where you are going. “You need to have a top line strategy, a direction of travel, but there are many paths to that,” says Miller. “Figure out how to measure your success…. I set myself three success goals: short term outcomes for the people I’m fighting for, the longer term goal, and what I will learn from it. The first thing, though, the most important thing, is to go talk to the groups you’re trying to help.”

A global brand’s sway and reach cannot be underestimated, and this is no more evident than when it comes to digital activity and engagement. “When one person stands up for LGBT rights, that doesn’t necessarily have an impact,” says Matthew Beard, Executive Director at All Out. “When thousands come together and raise their voices together for a common cause, that can really start to change hearts and minds… Clicktivism alone isn’t sufficient, but it does have impact, because it shows that there are millions of us standing together speaking with the same voice.”

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