From Barclay's sponsorship of London's Pride festival to Nike's powerful new equality campaign, brands are aligning themselves with big issues. But as Pepsi discovered, much can go wrong

This weekend high-profile brands are once again waving the equality flag at Pride in London Festival, continuing the global trend of Pride festivals embracing corporate sponsorship. Barclays, its headline sponsor, will be joined by Tesco, Starbucks, PwC, Virgin Atlantic and a full roster of household names; providing much-needed funding, along with an element of commercialism which some feel doesn’t fit right with Pride’s roots as a political and social movement.

It’s not just Pride where brands are associating themselves with social justice and equality. Only recently, Pepsi and Heineken made headlines for campaigns theat suggested their products can not only quench your thirst, but could even be the answer to some of society’s greatest problems; a move that earned criticism of all kinds. Pepsi's attempt to align its brand with the #BlackLivesMatter movement in its advert with Kendal Jenner generated such vilification that it decided to pull the ad altogether.

From Always to Adidas, Nandos to Nike, brands are using their wide-reaching influence to discuss serious issues around race, gender, sexuality, religion and disability. But, despite a long history of brands tackling discrimination, it’s only recently that social equality has become so warmly and widely adopted into marketing strategy.

There are various reasons why, and they all make business sense. Ethnic minorities and women, for example, now enjoy more purchasing power than ever before. Never before has the LGBT community been so accepted, open and numerous for it to be a target demographic.

And it’s only now that the whole idea of being “woke” is so on-trend that it’s gained an MTV-friendly colloquial adjective. From celebrity retweets of #blacklivesmatter and #oscarssowhite, to transgender representation on the front cover of Vanity Fair; discussions around prejudice and discrimination are becoming so widely embraced that brands are realising not only the moral responsibility of raising awareness of these issues, but also the business benefits of aligning their brand to them.

Whiule it's easy to question the authenticity, let alone the consistency of their motives, brands’ widespread influence will have some impact, and engaging with such sensitive and complex issues could result in anything from “corporate appropriation”, offense and red-faced embarrassment, to causing genuine, positive and lasting change.

There are three ways in which brands can engage:

1 Staff representation

Creating a diverse team of staff is neither easy nor straightforward; particularly in industries which see statistically more of one sex choosing it as a career path, than the other (even if the lack of representation, it’s often argued, is a contributing factor to this). Some staff may argue such measures are unfair on those who don't tick the required boxes. But American Express has found that putting a focus on diversity in the workplace actually benefits the business overall. As one of the world’s leading companies for staff diversity and inclusion, the company says women comprise more than 50% of its global workforce and more than 30% of senior executives, and describes 43% of its senior management as diverse. Its chief diversity officer (an increasingly common role within multinationals), claims that the company’s focus on diversity brings benefits in recruitment, brand loyalty and partnerships, adding to the business incentive of pushing such initiatives.

2 Advertising and brand messaging

Casting actors from diverse backgrounds, sexualities and religions can not only appeal to a more diverse audience, but can also challenge and help to break down societal stereotypes; from Maltesers’ hugely successful disability campaign, to same-sex couples in ads for Lloyds, H&M, Cheerios and Adidas.

In 2016 Unilever reacted to research showing the distinctly low numbers of women portrayed in adverts as intelligent, funny or in positions of power, with a strategy designed to remove all gender stereotypes from its campaigns; a huge move, considering Unilever’s advertising reach, across 400 brands in around 190 countries. At this month's Cannes Lions Festival it unveiled a new global Unstereotype Alliance, involving Facebook, Google, Alibaba, Mars and WPP, advertising bodies IPA and ANA, and UN Women, to rally against stereotypical gender portrayals in advertising. 

But as Heineken and Pepsi have demonstrated, brands are now going one step further, placing these issues at the core of their brand message and campaigns. In doing so, the content is as inspiring as some of the most influential product campaigns ever created; with companies like Nike portraying the message through celebrities, emotive narration, epic camerawork and, Alicia Keys on vocals. Nike doesn't just want its advert to engage – it aspires to change attitudes and behaviour far beyond influencing what people buy. 


3 Direct contribution

Nike is an example of a company that is also using its brand's influence to directly contribute to social change. Alongside video content and even LGBT-inspired product ranges, Nike is funding and working closely with groups and charities actively working in these spaces. Its work with PeacePlayers International, which aims to unite divided communities through sport; and MENTOR, which provides youth-mentoring in communities throughout America; is not only relevant to its youth culture brand, but authenticated through the diversity of its staff.

Barclays, headline sponsor of Pride in London for the fourth year running, places a big public focus on diversity as a high-profile part of its greater strategy. As part of the UN HeForShe campaign, a global activation campaign designed to engage men and boys in gender equality, Barclays commits to increase representation of women in senior leadership, embed gender equality within the company culture, processes and policies and supports a number of projects around the world, including financial inclusion programmes for women, and providing staff as volunteers for women’s charities.


In any situation, the key to a brand’s success is its authenticity. From music to sport, if you don’t truly understand the emotions of the issues you’re dealing with and are not living it as part of your purpose, your audience will instantly call you out for it. 

For those who disagree with the ethics of brands backing Black Lives Matter and LGBT rights, this could perhaps provide an opportunity to apply pressure on businesses to ensure they’re living the promise their campaigns are promoting, and other CSR commitments. As Pepsi and Heineken have recently discovered, the results can vary. But if executed properly, brands’ engagement in social equality has the potential to not only benefit them as a business, but also society on the whole.

Richard Goddard is Co-founder and Director at Modla, VRX & Asa Baako; entrepreneur and consultant, developing brands and ideas in tech, society and culture. Follow @rigo0310

Main image credit: Katy Blackwood 
Barclays  Pride  Nike  Pepsi  diversity  Cannes Lions  Unstereotype Alliance  equality  Heineken  #countmein 

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