Somewhere over the rainbow: Marketing to the LGBTQIA+ community

This article is part of the February 2022 WARC Spotlight Canada series, “Themes that will influence marketing.” To view the original article, click here.

Every June, countless brands put out the rainbow flag to show solidarity with the LGBTQIA+ community, but some have been met with real pushback by consumers who are questioning whether some companies are not truly sincere about their commitment or even contradicting themselves. This article gives guidance to brands on how to communicate more authentically.

  • LGBTQIA+ consumers have real buying power and represent 4.4% of Canada’s $3.7 billion spend in the consumer packaged goods (CPGs) category. 
  • LGBTQIA+ consumers have been found to be more brand loyal to companies that supported them and marketed directly to them. 
  • Brands should look inward to ensure that their own internal policies/approaches in supporting DEI are consistent with their external messaging.

Why it matters 

Brands need to move beyond June being the only time to celebrate Pride, and they’ll succeed by demonstrating to the LGBTQIA+ community that it is valued year-round, through an understanding and incorporation of their unique struggles and by supporting their values. 


One of the first Canadian brands to market directly to the LGBTQIA+ community was Labatt Beer approximately 20 years ago. LGBTQIA+ activism efforts toward brands who have been tone-deaf in the past (Coors, United Airlines, Cracker Barrel) have resulted in positive organizational changes in pay equity, company policy shifts, and extending workers’ rights. Including LGBTQIA+ talent across all teams in an organization, in addition to LGBTQIA+ external creative talent and ‘makers”, provides exposure to a more diverse pool of experience and insight and increases authenticity. Oftentimes skeptical of a brand’s true intentions, LGBTQIA+ consumers need authenticity and empathy – failure to align with these requirements can result in backlash, boycotts, and accusations of rainbow washing. 

“Our society needs to recognize the unstoppable momentum toward unequivocal civil equality for every gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizen.” – Zachary Quinto 

Every June, companies across Canada and much of the Western world proudly display rainbow logos, and launch initiatives, campaigns, and products to celebrate Pride Month, and for good reason: LGBTQIA+ Canadians have an estimated spending power of $86 billion. Within that, LGBTQIA+ consumers spend $3.7 billion in Consumer Packaged Goods (CPGs) annually, representing 4.4% of Canada’s total purchases in that category. 

But this community hasn’t always been perceived as a goldmine for advertisers. 

Rather, the industry’s relationship to LGBTQIA+ consumers has evolved from total dismissal, to curiosity, to direct targeting, and has evolved more recently into a more complex and often deeply skeptical reception from members of the community. Understanding this complex dynamic is key for brands who wish to target LGBTQIA+ audiences and earn a “brand halo” for their gestures toward this community. But in order to understand where we are today, it’s worthwhile to understand how this evolution happened and where it leaves marketers in 2022. 

In the beginning: Marketing and the AIDS epidemic 

This nuanced relationship truly began to surface during the AIDS epidemic. As the illness devastated the community and politicians were criticized for their apathy towards those suffering, brands like United Colours of Benetton made waves with a strikingly controversial campaign featuring activist David Kirby in hospital, dying of AIDS complications. Meanwhile, a few courageous public figures such as Princess Diana memorably embraced (quite literally) AIDS patients and the larger gay community through groundbreaking gestures of support. 

Shortly after, advertisers took note of the spending power of the LGBTQIA+ community, as numerous studies showed that same-sex couples are less likely to have kids and more likely to have disposable income, making them a prime example of the classic “DINC” (double-income, no children) audience. LGBTQIA+ consumers were also found to be more brand loyal to companies that supported them and marketed to them. 

As a result, advertisers started dipping their toes in the water, as it were, flirting with the gay community in polysemic advertising (advertising with multiple and distinct potential meanings): ads such as the famous 1997 Volkswagen Da Da Da commercial, that are ambiguous but imply LGBTQIA+ relationships. This period was

marked by campaigns with subtle hints at queerness that could easily be read as platonic relationships by heterosexual audiences, including numerous instances of “ambiguously gay duos” appearing in advertising and pop culture. 

How it grew: Specific LGBTQIA+ targeting 

This curiosity eventually turned into a full pursuit in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with ads directly targeting the community. Labatt beer (owned by AB InBev) started creating advertisements specifically for gay men. Absolut and other spirits brands dialed up their sponsorship of Pride marches across North America. LGBTQIA+ people started to notice their increased spending power and became “vote with your dollar” consumers. 

As a result, we entered a new phase, where LGBTQIA+ people began to consciously leverage their spending power, even boycotting brands that denied their employees equal treatment – a new avenue for activism. It was during this period that word came out that the Coors family supported anti-gay groups and discriminated in the workplace, so gay bars across the U.S. and Canada boycotted purchasing their products. The company’s response to the outcry was to extend worker rights to provide equal coverage to same-sex partners and thus began to repair its image with gay-targeted ads. 

Similar situations emerged with companies such as Cracker Barrel and United Airlines and many others, resulting in a series of company policy shifts and marketing messages that sought to rebuild the reputation of their brands in the eyes of LGBTQIA+ consumers.

The landscape today: Actions speak louder – and better – than words

Today, the Zeitgeist has evolved to the place where advertising towards the LGBTQIA+ community, if rushed to market, can be interpreted as “Pinkwashing” and “Rainbow-Washing”. A recent example of this was the Scotiabank My Whole Self campaign (above), which featured the faces and voices of a variety of LGBTQIA+ people recounting their experiences of discrimination. While well-intentioned, the campaign was criticized in social media not because of its messages, but because of the perception that the company had failed to live up these messages in its own policies. “Where were you last month?” asked one commenter, referring to what happens outside of the month of June. 

This isn’t an isolated incident. The anti-corporate cry echoes loudly across social media as Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram blow up every June with various memes critiquing the marketing efforts of any campaigns seen to be rainbow-washing. Last year’s meme du jour showed American comedian Megan Stalter impersonating a butter shop owner attempting to get her slice of the Pride marketing pie: “We’ve been making butter since 1945 and we’ve been accepting all people since… the last four months.” 

And so, arriving at present moment, here we offer a series of practical tips that will help brands avoid this kind of pushback and demonstrate their authentic commitment to these communities. 

Tip 1: Get your ducks in a row 

Before we cast messages of acceptance, diversity, and inclusion outwards we need to cast it inwards by: Implementing programs and policies that create safer spaces for LGBTQIA+ employees, which can include: 

  • Gender neutral (or single-person) washrooms 
  • Policies that respect people’s gender expression and pronouns 
  • Creating a safe space for the breadth of identities that overlap with LGBTQIA+ (POC, people with disabilities, etc.) 

Conducting a thorough audit to ensure the organization doesn’t support anti-LGBTQ+ policies, politicians, etc. For example, IKEA shows support for the LGBTQIA+ community every year from a place of genuine action. In 2019 it scored 100% on the Corporate Equality Index, which is overseen by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

Tip 2: Work with LGBTQIA+ talent 

Wherever possible, include LGBTQIA+ people in the creation of ideas aimed at the LGBTQIA+ community. Ideally this group is diverse in other ways as well. 

This includes creative teams, agency staff, but also includes the talent we work with to bring ideas to life, including: 

  • Photographers 
  • Actors 
  • Models 
  • Editors
  • Producers 
  • Directors 
  • & more

LGBTQIA+ people will be able to provide their insight into the LGBTQIA+ experience so that ideas come to life in a way that feels authentic and not exploitative.

Tip 3: Compensate Fairly 

  • When working with LGBTQIA+ artists and creators, pay them fairly, as opposed to requesting free advice or engaging in tokenism. 
  • Respect the craft, stories, and talent of LGBTQIA+ artists and whenever possible include their voices and platform their work in the course of marketing your brand. 
  • LGBTQIA+ people are generally underpaid, across industries. A meta-analysis of several studies showed that gay men are paid 11% less than their heterosexual counterparts, while lesbian women made 9% more than heterosexual women.

Tip 4: Give back 

Marketing initiatives and campaigns will be better received if they actively support the LGBTQ+ community through: 

  • Donations 
  • Activism 
  • Providing opportunities 

Through this kind of thoughtful approach, brands have an opportunity to make meaningful and lasting relationships with LGBTQ+ consumers by demonstrating their sensitivity to the struggles and the values of these communities. 

Because after all, the rainbow flag is more than just a month in the year or a badge of virtue – it is a symbol of

the suffering and the triumphs of a diverse community that, to this day, has had to fight for equal rights and fair treatment, even in the most seemingly progressive of societies.