‘It’s about standing with us when it’s uncomfortable’: World Pride, advocacy and corporate dollars

As Sydney World Pride officially kicks off its celebrations, Mumbrella's Kalila Welch spoke to Sydney World Pride's Kate Wickett and The Sydney Mardi Gras' Albert Kruger, about how the organisers have worked with corporate partners to ensure the LGBTQIA+ community remains at the heart of the globally scaled festival.

Sydney city’s streets have been draped in rainbow in anticipation for the nation’s biggest ever queer party, which kicks off today.

Over three huge weeks Sydney World Pride is expected to draw in 500,000 participants in the celebrations, including 78,000 visitors, a welcome crowd for the event’s government partner, Destination NSW.

Sydney World Pride CEO, Kate Wickett says the festival provides “incredibly important visibility” for Australia’s LGBTQIA+ community on the world stage and is “an opportunity for everyone to unite and celebrate together”.

“It really shows that Australia is a diverse and inclusive community. I truly believe that we are and we what it means to be as what it means to be Australian is to have the values of equality in a fair go and, and treating everyone equally.”

Kate Wickett, CEO of Sydney World Pride (Photo credit: Mark Dickson)

Of course, the sheer scale of Sydney World Pride – which the organisers have described as the first major global event to hit Australian shores since Covid – has elicited an unprecedented influx of corporate interest in the LGBTQIA+ community.

While the support is welcomed, there is, not unlike previous Mardi Gras celebrations, a discourse regarding the impacts of genuine corporate allyship, versus surface level “rainbow washing” – a line which many businesses have historically struggled to navigate.

“Kate and I found that potential partners were more interested in World Pride than had been working with Mardi Gras for many year, because of course, it’s the bright and shiny global event that’s taking place,” said Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras CEO, Albert Kruger.

The event has been four years in the making, since Sydney’s pitch for World Pride 2023 was won by the Mardi Gras team in 2019. In 2019, Sydney World Pride was established “from scratch” under the leadership of Wickett, with the organisation working alongside Mardi Gras to deliver the three week long LGBTQIA+ festival.

With Mardi Gras’ legacy spanning 45 years, it has critical that its legacy is protected, with the World Pride and Mardi Gras teams working to develop an integrated partnership strategy that meant sponsors would have to commit to sponsoring Mardi Gras in 2022 and 2024, as a three-year integrated partnership.

With Mardi Gras existing assets, as well as the new Pride assets, the event was taken to open markets in a “reverse auction”, which enabled the organisers, for the first time, gage what the event would be worth from a commercial perspective.

Albert Kruger, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras CEO

Wickets says it was a “really powerful position to be in”, being able to partner with businesses that have authenticity and longevity of commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community.

Both organisations worked closely with PWC to develop an ethical charter that would allows them  to “navigate how a cooperate really shows up for the community, not only in festival time, but outside of festival time”, to understand whether there is a values alignment or not.

Kruger explains: “We’re very interested in understanding things like: does this organisation have a pride committee; do they actually do or show up to any of the other significant dates like World AIDS Day or Wear It Purple Day?

“You have to be a brave brand. Because, when the discussions are uncomfortable, and we’re talking about things that aren’t necessarily that wonderful, and it’s not all about moonshine and roses and celebrations and glitter on Oxford Street. That’s the true value of a partnership.”

Kruger says that it isn’t just inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community that Mardi Gras looks for in a partner, but action on a number of key issues, including the gender pay gap and First Nations reconciliation.

“It’s not just about the dollars. It’s not about the activations, and how much money you spend on slapping our logo across your brand, over Mardi Gras. But it’s about showing up for the rest of the year, and standing with us when it’s uncomfortable.”

On continuing progress for LGBTQIA+ Australians

“Mardi Gras was born out of protest in 1978, when our community members were thrown in jail and beaten, and bashed. Their blood was on the floor of the Surry Hills Police Station on that night. And the next morning, their names are published in The Sydney Morning Herald and they lost their jobs, their livelihood, some people, you know, just couldn’t deal with life.

“We’ve come a very far way and we’re definitely in more of a celebration phase, but because we’re rooted in protest, we’re still very much focused on social justice.”

Wickett, who herself came out when she was 16 years old, says that acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community has come along way. Now 41, she says she has particularly witnessed exponential change over the past decade “both socially and corporately”.

Speaking to the volume of interest in World Pride sponsorship opportunities, Wickett ultimately sees it as a sign of progress, and one that is critical for the event to be able to run at the scale that it is.

“I think that you need to look at this in the context that we’re a not for profit,” says Wickett. “Everything that we make, we put back into the community. Now if that means hiring artists, musicians, drag queens, stage managers, sound engineers – putting it back into the communities exactly why we exist. And that costs money.”

Wickett names Sydney World Pride’s principal partner AMEX as one that has been particularly enjoyable to work with, and a highlight of the past 20 years she has spent working in the corporate sponsorship space.

Pride Villages map

The corporation has worked with the Sydney World Pride team to deliver the festival’s Crown St hub, Pride Villages, hosting the American Express Stage, alongside a myriad of other activations across the festival.

AMEX VP of brand, marketing and member experience, Naysla Edwards, said the business was “proud to support the reinvigoration of key ‘gaybourhood’ streets throughout the festival period”.

“We know so many of these businesses have experienced hardship over the last few years and we look forward to seeing the vibrancy return. We’re bringing to life the Shop Small Village within Pride Villages to encourage people to shop local and enjoy the offerings from some of Sydney’s most cherished small businesses. Additionally, our takeover of The Oxford Hotel, Amex House, will be a space that invites locals and visitors to come and celebrate and connect.”

The festival has also benefited from significant investment by Destination NSW on behalf of the NSW Government, with Transport for NSW having also rolled out a number of installations across selected buses, trains and ferries as well as station decorations, as part of the festivities.

Of DNSW’s partnership with Sydney World Pride, NSW Minister for the Arts, Ben Franklin said the event would “showcase Sydney to a global audience and inject $112 million into the visitor economy”.

He continued: ““Sydney WorldPride will further position Sydney as a must-visit destination for visitors and reinforce the NSW Government’s commitment to grow the State’s visitor economy and celebrate its world-renowned LGBQTIA+ community.”

“We are the first city in the Southern Hemisphere to host WorldPride and we’re incredibly excited to welcome people from across the globe to join the ultimate celebration.”

Still, for festival built on grass roots advocacy, it is important that Pride and Mardi Gras events are at their core, built on the principals of  inclusion, equality and social justice, not just the glitz and glam.

“The broader buy in from, not only from the corporate worlds, but also from government stakeholders as well, is, is overwhelmingly positive,” says Kruger. “But we’re still not there yet.”

“We still have to fight for equality in many instances and so that’s really what the parade is. The parade is nothing short of a platform for community groups to very clearly communicate where they feel there are injustices, or shortages, or inequalities.

“It’s not just us running up and down Oxford Street, putting on a show for everyone’s entertainment. It’s about thinking why are we here? How can we show up for this community? How can our allies stand with us?”


How business can stand with the LGTBQIA+ community for world pride

There has been no shortage of brands and corporations who have align their marketing with the festivities of Sydney World Pride in recent weeks, with opportunities to get involved extending beyond official partnerships opportunities.

Pernod Ricard’s vodka label Absolut exemplifies authenticity in LGBTQIA+ allyship, having associated with pride since 1981m, when queerness was seldom embraced by the community, let alone corporations.

Pernod Ricard Winemakers CMO, Eric Thomson

Pernod Ricard CMO, Eric Thompson, attributes the longevity of Absolut’s LGBTQIA+ allyship to its brand values, asserting that “supporting equality in all forms is part of the brand’s DNA”.

“Supporting the (LGBTQIA+) community isn’t a campaign for us. It’s something that we do all of the time, and it’s inherent in all of the programming that we run, particularly here in Australia.”

The brand’s local involvement with pride and Mardi Gras celebrations has seen many iterations over the years, and seems to have become the primary focus of its Australian communications program.

The latest partnership with World Pride is not intended as an awareness driver for Absolut, says Thompson, but to drive the message of “creating a more egalitarian future”.

“We don’t actually talk a ton about our product, but really focus on making sure that we’re helping amplify our partners messaging, celebrating things like chosen families looking at how people who are allies and sit outside of the community can help provide a platform the LGBTQIA+ community.

“Our long history of involvement and staying connected to the people that are at the forefront of leading the pride agenda is really important to us to make sure that we’re consistent with their goals.”

Modibodi is another business whose LGBTQIA+ allyship and activation around Pride celebrations has come after years of consideration and community consultation.

CMO Liana Lorenzato says that the period wear brand’s All-Gender collection is something that has been in the works for quite some time.

“Ensuring that the range was carefully developed, and was certain to meet the needs of all those who menstruate, years of research, consultation and education was necessary.”

The new range includes a new longline style with a pouch space that can be worn with or without a packer, with the design created in consultation with the LGBTQIA+ community including Mardi Gras, LGBTQIA+ service Twenty10, and a diverse group of community members.

Liana Lorenzato, CMO, Modibodi

Much like Absolut, the brand considers inclusivity to be core to its DNA, as a brand that looks to break taboos around bodies and “champion diverse stories”.

While the collection is limited, launching ahead of Sydney World Pride earlier this month, Lorenzato says the brand will continue to innovate in this area in consultation with the LGBTQIA+ community.

The launch campaign features trans masc model, Oscar McGregor, who was involved in the final product development. For each pair sold, $2 will be donated to LGBTQIA+ service, Twnety10.

Modibodi has launched a collection of genderless period underwear in support of trans and non-binary folk who menstruate

Wickett says the first question she would ask of any business looking to activate around the World Pride celebrations is is why they are doing it.

Reiterating Wickett’s advice, Kruger says brands must first “look internally and make sure that you have the right policies and procedures in place the right support networks and employee assistance programs”.

“I would look at creating an internal pride committee that can discuss smaller activations – something a small as a morning tea,” he offers. “And then, if you want to take it further, there are so many smaller community organisations that are in dire need of funding.”

“Community consultation is really at the heart of all of it. You can’t just decide that you speak on behalf of a group of people – it doesn’t matter if they’re from the queer community or of any other community that you want to work with or support.

“People are very vocal, they’ll tell you what they want and what they think. If you take that on board and listen deeply, you’ll hear things that you didn’t before.”


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