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Pride without Prejudice? Where do Indian brands stand on LGBTQ+ representation

Brands must normalise conversations around inclusivity, feel experts.

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Mumbai: Consumers today are less tolerant of brands that don’t take positions on emerging social issues. In the changing world scenario, consumers lean more towards brands that are open and transparent with their views. With more outlets for voicing their opinions about brand experiences than ever before, Gen-Z and millennials, in particular, want to know where a brand stands vis-a-vis causes they care about- like inclusion, diversity, and equity. 

We are in the midst of the global Pride month, and IndianTelevision spoke to industry experts and brands to find out if brands believe in going the distance when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation and inclusion. Or are they treating it as a mere rainbow-hued label to be flaunted during such special occasions?

According to Dentsu Webchutney D&I and AVP – strategy lead, Freya D’Souza, consumers today sense and call out superficiality and ambivalence in terms of brand authenticity from a mile away. And while brands often have lofty mission and vision statements, in practice, most communication efforts sidestep potentially controversial issues. “In an age where there is an increasing sense of the personal becoming political, and our social and physical lives merging, a brand cannot afford to silo its values and communications anymore. A brand that takes a stand either way gets both bouquets and brickbats. But what also comes with that is incredible brand loyalty and a tangible sense of the consumer becoming a brand champion. For the LGBT+ community, this has cut both ways," she says.

"There is still a long way to go," says Modi Naturals chief marketing officer Shardul Bist, highlighting that India is a country where people have for long adapted to traditional mindsets and ideologies. While some great campaigns in the recent past have helped break the shackles, including the 2017 Vicks ad featuring transgender rights activist Gauri Sawant that depicts her struggles to adopt a child, Bist says that it must be an ongoing endeavour till our mindsets completely change. “The change is inevitable and it will alter and empower one mindset at a time”, he adds.

The Jewellery market in India has always been considered a niche area, predominantly promoted through campaigns featuring a big, fat Indian family wedding, revolving around a cis female protagonist. It took a fairly conservative regional brand, Bhima jewellers to pull down that barrier with its recent creative featuring a transwoman, Meera Singhania. The ad won critical acclaim for its authentic portrayal of the community along with oodles of love on social media.

And now taking it a step further is another jewellery brand with a legacy of over five decades. Senco Gold & Diamonds recently signed internationally acclaimed sprinter, Dutee Chand- who broke ground as India’s first openly homosexual athlete- as the company’s new brand ambassador. As a part of its Pride month celebrations, it has rolled out a new campaign and unveiled its new jewellery collection, named ‘Love is love Collection’ for the LGBTQ+ community.

However, this is not a first for the brand. Senco Gold and Diamonds CEO Suvankar Sen shared that the brand has always taken “a very progressive approach towards its jewellery as well as life in general”. In 2019 the brand had launched its ‘PRIDE Collection’ through a unique fashion show by a group of transgender men and women led by LGBTQ+ activist Dr.Manabi Bandyopadhyay.

According to DViO Digtal, founder and CEO Sowmya Iyer brands are becoming more aware and trying to keep up with consumer expectations to gain their trust. “As a marketer, I have seen campaign messaging and tonality highly evolve. From conservative to stereotypical to inclusive campaigns, we have come a long way. The beauty and fashion industries have been the torchbearers when it comes to being inclusive and slowly yet steadily every other industry is coming on board," says Iyer.

Known for its range of men’s grooming products, Whiskers founder Aakash Goswami says the grooming brand, on its part, is trying to focus more on gender neutrality. “The first change we made was to change our brand name from Whiskers for men to Whiskers India. This is our very first initiative to support and be more inclusive towards society," he adds.

Youth-centric e-commerce Fashion startup Beyoung aims to inspire all to “Be You” and believes that fashion is for all. “This is why we pay more emphasis on Unisex range and flaunt a collection for one and all”, says CEO & founder Shivam Soni. For this, the brand ensures that they do away with ‘idealistic’ body standards for models, irrespective of gender - be it “masculine bodies for men” or “slim” body types for women- thus getting rid of the pressure to conform to certain body types perceived as ideal.

Grapes Digital National Business head Rajeesh Rajagopalan, however, is sceptical about brand efforts. "Indian brands do a lot of work around LGBTQ but during the pride month only. We are still in a very conservative and nascent stage where brands are not that bold enough to take the call and feature them in regular campaigns. To a large extent, it is a mere label to be flaunted during the pride month, because marketers want to create a perception of inclusiveness. If you want to be an inclusive brand then you have to walk the talk in every move be it in the communication, brand representation, or models you choose," he says.

Creative Director of 360-degree communication company Hotstuff, that specializes in BFSI space, Terence Dsouza feels that the industry can take the lead in not just using Pride month as a social media opportunity but going the distance with its offerings as well. “In India, ad campaigns and communication regarding financial planning has stereotypically targeted cis-heterosexual, married families. But what needs to be understood is that financial planning is important to every person, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity”, says D’souza.

According to Open Strategy & Design’s strategy head & managing partner Puneet Pandey, when brands choose to mirror these emerging sentiments and causes especially around gender, identity and sexuality, they would do well to consider that, “Your audience will be able to smell out tokenism - so go for empathy and authenticity. Instead of creating for the gaze of the outsider, speak to their inner song.” A subtle nod, a knowing acknowledgement, sometimes works more powerfully than dramatic spotlighting, he adds.

Last week, furniture brand Saraf Furniture announced its decision to hire upto 250 professionals from the LGBTQ+ community in the current financial year. "Organisations can profess to be inclusive only when everybody, from business pioneers to the cafeteria staff is sensitised," says Saraf Furniture founder & CEO Raghunandan Saraf. “I was a little apprehensive at the beginning about the adaptability factor in the workplace but took a leap of faith. You have to get past those raised eyebrows, hushed whispers and initial resentment."

On the brighter side, Indian companies are, slowly but surely, adopting a no-discriminative inclusion policy, as highlighted by a 2019 global analysis on how companies are treating members of the LGBT+ community. The study shows India Inc, including some of the marquee names like Reliance Industries, Mahindra & Mahindra, Godrej and Tata Steel, open to incorporating such policies. 

In June last year, Mahindra Logistics launched its first policy for hiring and retaining lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other queer people. Another major, Tata Steel aims to have 25 per cent of its Tata Steelworkers from diverse groups, of which, 5 per cent will be from the LGBTQI+ community.

This year, Chimp&z Inc too is celebrating the #PrideOfAdvertising - a content series that celebrates every queer-and-open/ out professional working in the advertising & marketing industry, says Chimp&z Inc associate VP Alin Choubey.

Two years after the landmark Supreme court ruling decriminalising homosexuality, members of India's LGBTQ+ community still lag behind their western counterparts in terms of corporate representation and other benefits. Hence brands walking the talk on championing LGBTQ+ rights need to be lauded so that the current norm of gender-based branding gives way to the blurring of gender lines, eventually leading to a gender-free outlook in our society. It's time brands stand up for “Pride without Prejudice''.

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