U-M expert: Backlash against Pride Month tests corporate commitment, marketers’ mettle

June 5, 2023
Concept photo of a pride flag outside a retail business. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney


Marcus Collins
Marcus Collins

University of Michigan marketing expert Marcus Collins says Pride Month has become, in many ways, as accepted in the American cultural calendar as celebrations of Black history or Hispanic heritage.

The rise of the month marked progress for the LGBTQ community and “a cultural moment for marketers to engage”—albeit only once a year for some. Still, he adds, there’s no question that many businesses and brands engaged and participated because of “limited potential of public blowback.”

They now face increased backlash, specifically a demonstrable increase in calls for Pride-related boycotts and anti-LGBTQ actions. Among them: Target ended up removing certain products from its stores after customers tipped over Pride-themed displays and threatened staff. Boycott threats and videos of people shooting or destroying Bud Light cans followed news the beer brand sent a transgender influencer a commemorative can featuring her picture.

While many companies carry on their commitment this month, Collins says he wouldn’t be surprised to see “marketers altering some of their Pride plans, if not scrapping them altogether.”

“The idea of supporting a cause or a people is that you don’t support only when it’s convenient,” he said. “You support through the tough times, too. Through the backlash and the boycotts. That’s actually when it’s needed most. Doing so is a sign of conviction.”

Collins, clinical assistant professor of marketing, shares insights on the recent protests and backlash, and whether it all represents major challenges in the quest for progress and equality.

How does a corporate giant like Target deal with such backlash in their actions and do they measure their rapport with differing communities (with vastly different viewpoints) that they are trying to appeal to? Is there a gain and loss model that they look to?

They deal with backlash by being convicted, stand their ground for what they believe. If the celebration of this community that brought on the backlash is merely a marketing opportunity, and not an outward expression of an inward belief, they’re going to fold. Why? Because this kind of cultural cosplay isn’t rooted in anything beneath the veneer so, of course, they’re more inclined to flinch at the mere sight of backlash.

Furthermore, if they truly believe in what they stand for, then they’d likely have no issue with people with different viewpoints walking away, because those aren’t their people anyway.

I liken it to Uber’s billboard back in 2020 that read, “If you tolerate racism, delete Uber.” That’s how convicted they are to the idea that everyone should belong everywhere. Same thing here: You may lose some customers but the covalent bonds you build with the believers are much stronger and longer lasting.

How does one corporation’s choice to limit its Pride Month expression (or regress from previous years) affect other corporations’ choices? What does it signal to consumers?

It certainly signals what is deemed potentially “acceptable,” and, therefore, corporations will follow suit—one way or the other. Keep in mind, marketers started celebrating Pride because other marketers started celebrating Pride and it was perceived as acceptable.

Most corporations practice a risk-mitigation strategy to see if it’s ‘safe’ to jump in the discourse. However, the brands who believe, they jump in as a demonstrative act of their ideology. And you better believe consumers are keeping score. They’re watching.

One of your U-M colleagues, economist Justin Wolfers, likens this to “economic terrorism” given the threats behind the protests. Does this ring true for you?

I think of these protests more so as identity projections, a way of signaling where you stand on a matter, which ultimately informs how you consume because consumption is a cultural act. I actually made an IG video about this.

Is this backlash as a small or large step backward in terms of progress? Does it serve as a catalyst for more backlash against Pride Month or other celebrations promoting diversity?

It’s only a step backward if marketers don’t have the courage to stand up. Sadly, it’s not unlike what I said in 2021: If it’s not an act of conviction, it’s merely a moment of cultural conquest. Unfortunately, it seems more like the latter than the former, which will make this topic unsafe and, therefore, off-limits for risk-averse marketers.

Not unlike users posting “black squares” on social media after the police killing of George Floyd, these brands that are backtracking don’t seem to be terribly convicted about this topic, so they’ll dampen their future Pride efforts.