Proud at home, silent abroad: US brands avoid LGBT issues overseas

Proud at home, silent abroad: US brands avoid LGBT issues overseas

How global companies are winning with a two-faced strategy

Among the heartwarming tweets from brands after the Supreme Court’s historic decision last month to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide was MasterCard’s pithy, "True love: Priceless. #AcceptanceMatters."

Yet on MasterCard’s Turkey Twitter feed, there was no mention of the decision or of the importance of acceptance. The brand’s Middle East and Africa account was similarly mum about same-sex marriage, and MasterCard’s Asia Pacific Twitter feed was consumed by a hackathon in Singapore.

True, this was a US-based event, maybe not appropriate to trumpet to the rest of the world. (However, that didn’t stop Maytag from tweeting about gay pride in Canada.) A cynic might wonder, though, why MasterCard (and rival Visa) were so vocal about the issue of same-sex marriage in the US but didn’t feel the need to bring it up in other parts of the globe where the issue is a lot more controversial. (MasterCard reps did not return a request for comment.)

Those brands weren’t alone in compartmentalizing their stance on gay rights. Google was pretty outspoken about the issue in the US but didn’t mention it in its India Twitter feed. Uber lauded the decision and rainbowed up its logo in the US but kept it black for its Dubai audience.

Such inconsistencies fly in the face of current consumer demands for transparency and social responsibility, to say nothing of many brands’ self-professed desire to speak with one voice around the world. So when it comes to LGBT rights, why is it so easy for brands to speak loudly in the United States, yet stay silent in countries where such advocacy is most sorely needed?

Different marketing for different folks
A few years ago, it was relatively controversial for US brands to stand up for gay rights. These days, the Pew Research Center shows a solid majority of the US public is in favor of gay marriage.

While that’s a fairly recent change, the days are gone when a brand might fear a boycott over the issue. If anything, it’s a much bigger risk for a brand to take the opposite stance, as fast food chain Chick-fil-A found out the hard way in 2012 when CEO Dan Cathy spoke out against gay marriage. After protests, the chain released a statement saying it no longer would weigh in on the issue or contribute money to groups that were trying to stop gay marriage.

In other regions of the world, like the Middle East and India, the situation is reversed. As Equaldex, a self-styled "LGBT knowledge base" notes, consensual sexual activity between same-sex couples is punished by death in Iran and Afghanistan and is illegal in much of Africa and the Middle East. In India, Pakistan, Myanmar and Malaysia it is illegal as well.

Harish Bijoor, CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults, an India-based marketing consultancy, says that no multinational brands have taken up the cause in that country. However, some homegrown brands have been more adventurous. In particular, a brand called Fastrack dared to broach the subject in 2013. "Fastrack was the first to really show a couple of girls coming out of the closet literally and figuratively, showcasing the alternative lifestyle," he says. "This campaign elicited a fair bit of criticism from the middle-aged and got a lot of brownie points from the young and young at heart, though."

More recently, in May, another Indian brand, fashion portal Myntra, released an ad featuring a lesbian couple. Jeweler Tanishq and dairy cooperative Amul are among other brands that have run ads supporting gay rights in India.

India appears to be an outlier. In Turkey, for instance, the gay rights movement is still similarly in its early stages. However, no major brands — multinational or Turkish — have stepped up to take a public position. In those other regions of Asia the Middle East — with the exception of Israel — the subject isn’t mentioned in advertising.

Brands will face this issue again and again
Brands that are pro-LGBT rights in the US but silent on the subject abroad generally get away with it; gay rights groups haven’t put much pressure on such brands to spread the message to other regions. One notable exception was the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. As Lucas Grindley, editorial director of Here Media (owner of The Advocate and told Campaign, activists were all over Coca-Cola for supporting the games despite the Russian government’s anti-gay laws. Activists "were relentlessly mocking [Coca-Cola] online via social media."

Such pressure prompted brands like AT&T and Chobani to take a stand for gay rights and condemn Russia’s position on the issue. However, others such as Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola faced fierce criticism themselves for their vague statements of support.

While Sochi provided a flashpoint to call brands to the carpet for their hypocrisy on the issue, there has been no sequel yet — though Russia will host the World Cup in 2018, which will presumably present another opportunity. The succeeding World Cup, in Qatar in 2022, will once again shine the spotlight on brands’ global commitment to LGBT rights. "We are likely on the precipice of an even more global approach to the fight for LGBT equality, and that will have implications for businesses who operate globally," Grindley says.

Lacking a global event of that scale though, gay rights groups haven’t pushed brands to be more consistent with their messaging. GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign — two of the biggest gay rights advocacy groups in the US — did not return repeated requests for comment. Kaleidoscope Trust, a UK-based advocacy group whose stated mission is to uphold LGBT rights globally, also did not return requests for comment.

Taking a stand on political or human rights issues is not something that can sway from side to side depending on the tolerance of an individual geography. It is part of a brand’s core DNA and must be concrete.— Crystal Bennett

Shayne Thomas, founder of Le Bon Vivant Media, has called on marketers to show support for same-sex marriage in the past. However, he believes pushing brands to do so on a global scale is asking too much. "This conversation is nuanced and comes with a lot of political baggage, even in regions where there is overwhelming support for LGBT equality," he says. "Making an attempt to slap brands on the hand for not being one-size-fits-all, when it comes to how they extend or choose not to extend their LGBT marketing efforts globally, is really missing the key takeaway here."

The key takeaway, Thomas says, is that brands have stepped up to show their support for same-sex marriage in the US. "And that’s huge," he says.

Crystal Bennett, partner and director of business development for consultancy LittleBigBrands, says as a typical consumer she’s not aware of what brands are doing and saying on a global scale. On the other hand, "As a marketer, I can say that if a brand is inconsistent in what it stands for, especially on such a fully loaded topic as gay rights, that can be an instant deal breaker. Taking a stand on political or human rights issues is not something that can sway from side to side depending on the tolerance of an individual geography, it is part of a brand’s core DNA and must be concrete."

That view may become more the norm. As Allen Adamson, Landor Associates’ chairman for North America, notes, being inconsistent isn’t sustainable. These days, he says, consumers want to know all kinds of things about brands. At the same time, many brands have a global reach. How should marketers navigate this terrain? "My advice generally is if you’re going to take a stand on an issue, make sure you think it through all the way," he says. "Be willing to live with the potential alienation of large groups of consumers."

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