To successfully leverage the Sydney Mardi Gras authenticity is key

Rather than face accusations of 'rainbow-washing' or 'chasing the pink dollar', Kaimera chief strategy officer Stewart Gurney suggests brands go beyond the superficial when engaging the LGBTQI+ community.

I love Sydney Mardi Gras. It provides a unique opportunity for brands and advertisers to not only connect with a specific community, but also outwardly demonstrate their support for diversity and foster a sense of workforce pride and inclusion. TikTok, Salesforce, SBS, Woolworths, Archie Rose and even P&G are just some of the brands who are gearing up for this year’s celebrations. 

Sydney Mardi Gras has evolved from a civil rights protest involving 3,000 people, to a national event involving 300,000 spectators and 12,000 participants across 200 floats. Coverage on SBS in 2020 gained 392,000 national viewers, giving it 10% share of the highly sought after 18-49 audience. Its commercial appeal continues to grow. In fact, studies have indicated the event generates around $38 million for the Australian economy. 

While brand managers might be excited by the prospect, getting it wrong is easy to do. The LGBTQI+ community are experts at identifying when they are being exploited and will happily share their opinion. ‘Chasing the pink dollar’, ‘Rainbow-washing’ or ‘Virtue-signalling’ are just some labels given to brands who get it wrong. 

Doing it well is about one thing: Authenticity. 

While it sounds simple enough, it can be tough for an often white, cis gendered, heterosexual marketing team to navigate successfully. Brand teams should be asking themselves these questions before they embark on any Mardi Gras activations.

  • Are we doing it for the right reasons?

Commercial motivations are fine. People accept that. However when the motivation is obviously profit-driven, it can feel disingenuous. 

The best activations are those born from a product or brand synergy. Whether you are an energy brand fuelling celebration like Red Bull, or promoting sexual positivity like SKYN, having a functional role in the festivities is a good starting point.

If the product alignment is missing, brand values and attitude can sometimes be enough to make an activation credible. Qantas is a great example of a brand whose association with Mardi Gras strengthens the brand’s appeal and their support of the LGBTQI+ community has been consistent over many years. 

  • What is my ‘appropriate level’ of activation?

The initial thought for many marketers is to ‘get a float in the parade’. While this can be successful, for many brands this is simply too much too soon. 

In 2017 Holden received major online backlash for being the first automotive company to support Mardi Gras. One online commentator wrote: “What a marketing ploy! So many businesses are trying to capitalise from the Mardi Gras. All they care about is making money.”

Going from zero involvement to a huge investment in one year, the leap into full-on Mardi Gras glory was too much for a brand with a heritage tied to the traditional notion of masculinity.

There are many ways to authentically show your rainbow colours. One of my favourite activations (this year) is from BWS. While they benefit from Woolworths official sponsor status, they have turned all BWS stores, in proximity to the parade route, into ‘BWYAAAASSSSS’ bottle shops offering drag queen deliveries. This works because it’s simple, playful, and pitched at the right level. 

  • Are we really committed to the cause?

Mardi Gras is more than an opportunity to tick a corporate CSR box. Long lasting consistent support is where the value lies. ANZ is a great example of this: with a partnership spanning 15 years, their association has gone from strength to strength. Beyond the colourful ‘GayTM’s, ANZ have created a community grants programme that supports key projects and champions diversity and inclusion across their workforce. 

  • Am I prepared to take a risk and have fun?

Mardi Gras is a special time and brands can play an important role, but to get genuine cut through they must flex their creative muscles and do things differently (whilst being authentic).

An authentically activated partnership can galvanise a workforce, create positive consumer perceptions and of course, influence sales. But it is a tightrope. It’s too easy for activity to be lost or forgotten, or for brands to come across as disingenuous or money grabbing. So, as we head into the parade part of the festivities, pay attention to the brands who get it right, those that are activating with authenticity and are genuinely trying to support diversity and inclusion.

Stewart Gurney is the chief strategy officer at Kaimera


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