Yash Bhatia and Nisha Qureshi

Token pride vs. true support: Are brands really standing with India's LGBTQIA+ community?

A lot more can be done in the advertising and marketing industry for the LGBTQIA+ community, say industry leaders.

According to the 2011 Census of India, 4.8 lakh Indians identified as transgender. At that time, the survey provided sex-related data in a binary male/female format, tagging the rest as ‘other’, and assuming them to be ‘trans’.

India’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual, and other identities (LGBTQIA+) community likely exceeds mere statistics. Members of this community are pivotal stakeholders for brands, serving as employees, customers, collaborators, and more. While their battles are endless, brands have the power to acknowledge their presence and foster inclusive communities.

But is enough being done?

According to media reports, official data on the size of India's LGBTQIA+ population is unavailable. Government estimates suggest there are around 25 lakh gay individuals, but activists within the community argue that the actual figure is significantly higher.

In 2018, the court struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalising same-sex relationships between consenting adults. LGBTQIA+ individuals are now legally allowed to engage in consensual intercourse.

In October 2023, the Supreme Court of India delivered its judgement on pleas seeking legal validation for same-sex marriages. While the court did not legalise marriage equality, it emphasised that an individual’s ability to engage in union cannot be denied based on sexual orientation.

Movies like Badhaai Do, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, Kapoor and Sons, and Geeli Pucchi have acted as catalysts in India, fuelling public conversation about the LGBTQIA+ community, as have brands.

A scene from the movie Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan
A scene from the movie Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan

However, despite some progress on LGBTQIA+ rights and conversations, the community continues to fight various legal and social battles in India, from facing abuse at home to being unable to express their identity in educational institutes, social circles, and workplaces.

The month of June is celebrated as Pride Month, with brands changing their logos to the colours of the Pride Flag and launching initiatives celebrating the community and its achievements. However, brands like Starbucks India, Tanishq, and FabIndia have faced serious trolling for supporting LGBTQIA+ causes.

This year, brands such as IKEA India, Future Generali India Insurance, Senco Gold and Diamonds, and FlowerAura launched Pride campaigns. Meanwhile, Zomato and Samsung Electronics are organising workshops for their employees to foster inclusive workplaces.

However, leaders in the advertising and marketing community believe much more can be done.

(From L to R): Antara Telang, Ruchika Malhan Varma, Chandramouli Nilakantan, Shrey Sehgal and Nisha Singhania
(From L to R): Antara Telang, Ruchika Malhan Varma, Chandramouli Nilakantan, Shrey Sehgal and Nisha Singhania

According to Nisha Singhania, CEO & managing partner at Infectious Advertising, brands must avoid tokenism and recognise the varied experiences within the LGBTQIA+ community. She emphasises the importance of being mindful of cultural and legal contexts to ensure campaigns are sensitive and effective.

“When carrying out a Pride campaign, brands should prioritise authenticity, involve LGBTQIA+ voices in planning, and support LGBTQIA+ causes year-round. They should use inclusive imagery and language that represents the community's diversity," says Singhania. 

She believes brands can significantly improve LGBTQIA+ acceptance by raising awareness, promoting visibility, and implementing inclusive practices.

“They can educate the public through campaigns about LGBTQIA+ issues and showcase diverse identities in their advertisements to combat stereotypes. Within the workplace, implementing non-discrimination policies, offering inclusive benefits, and ensuring representation in leadership can create a supportive environment for LGBTQIA+ employees. Additionally, brands can support LGBTQIA+ organisations through financial contributions and collaborative campaigns, amplifying their messages and causes,” adds Singhania.

Chandramouli Nilakantan, CEO of TRA Research, a brand intelligence and data insights company, says that approximately 9 to 10% of the Indian population is generally estimated to be LGBTQIA+. He adds that this number is significant, particularly in India, as this demographic forms an important constituent for any brand.

He adds that the sympathisers of the LGBTQIA+ community constitute about 30% of the total population. “A brand’s positive campaigns targeting this community could also impact this 30% population as well.”  

India's social landscape is polarised, and ads supporting causes often face backlash. According to Nilakantan, brands launching positive campaigns for the LGBTQIA+ community, especially during Pride Month, must stay committed despite backlash. Retreating could alienate both the community and its supporters, undermining the brand's credibility and cause.

“If a brand takes a stand, it must stand by its belief system. Otherwise, it is better to quietly stay away from such issues. A brand must stay true to its character, or it risks losing credibility and respect," he highlights. 

Ruchika Malhan Varma, chief marketing, customer and impact officer, , Future Generali India Insurance, believes brands have a significant role in making the world more inclusive.

“When we spoke to the community, we realised same-sex partners could not get family floater insurance as they didn’t follow the typical definition of family. We bridged the gap by including them,” she adds. 

Shrey Sehgal, co-founder, FlowerAura, a gifting brand, emphasises that brands have a significant responsibility to foster acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community. This can be done by promoting inclusivity in advertisements and policies, supporting their events, and ensuring safe and supportive workplaces.

“Our platforms should amplify the stories and voices of the community. By partnering with LGBTQIA+ organisations and providing tangible support, we can drive societal acceptance and understanding. Our influence can shape public attitudes, creating a more welcoming and inclusive society for all.”

He believes brands should prioritise listening to and engaging with stakeholders who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community.

“When planning a Pride campaign, authenticity and inclusivity must be our guiding principles. Direct engagement with the LGBTQIA+ community for input and collaboration is essential. We must avoid tokenism and commit to long-term support beyond Pride Month,” he adds. 

Antara Telang, partner at Gnothi Seauton, a multi-disciplinary, independently-owned, integrated communications lab, says it's important to remember that pride started as a protest—a vehement gesture of saying "Yes, we exist"—by a largely ostracised group. 

“Today, as members of the LGBTQIA+ community wield more influence, brands must be cautious not to ‘pinkwash’ or ‘rainbow-wash’ by running campaigns that superficially sympathise with the cause without genuinely understanding the issues they face. It's essential to consult and involve community members at the core of the campaign to ensure the brand's policies are LGBTQIA+ friendly. Testing the campaign with focus groups before release is crucial to double-check for any insensitivities.”

“Most importantly, don’t forget about the community as soon as Pride Month is over! Sustained, holistic efforts are at the core of long-term success in expanding a brand's reach to the queer community,” adds Telang. 

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