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Vero Meets #2: LGBTIQ Inclusion in PR and Marketing

Vero Meets #2: LGBTIQ Inclusion in PR and Marketing

Our second Vero Meets session is adapted from a panel we held for our regional team with some well-known representatives of the LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer) community in Vietnam. Many brands are interested in featuring more diverse and inclusive representation, so we reached out to people with first-hand experience to learn the best ways brands & organizations can engage the community – and which practices they should avoid.

Read in Vietnamese

About the panelists
Ben Nguyen: Freelance illustrator who previously worked for 12 years in Japan in advertising, co-founder of BOUT VIETNAM boutique boxing gym
Dustin Phuc Nguyen: Content creator, host, producer of YouTube channel Dustin on the Go
Phuong Linh Ngo: Director at ICS Center and executive board member at ILGA Asia
Vuong Kha Phong: (Panel Facilitator): Program Coordinator, iSEE
Ta Quoc Ky Nam: Book cover designer, Content creator

What is your experience of the LGBTIQ Rights movement in Southeast Asia?

Ben: We have to accept that in Asia we will be moving much slower in this regard than the West.
I was a digital organizer for Pride Month at TRUNK(HOTEL), a boutique hotel in Japan. It was a great privilege, and I was lucky to have such an open-minded employer. We didn’t just paint rainbows – we had shows and conferences. I felt lucky to work there with such an open-minded business since we in the marketing team had the freedom to “go crazy” with ideas and brands we wanted to collaborate with.
But in the wider culture, it was different. Before I got that job, I was moving house with my Australian boyfriend. If we said that we were a gay couple, we would not be allowed to rent. My boyfriend had to say he was engaged to my sister to get us on the contract.

Linh: ICS and ILGA both focus on LGBTIQ rights in Asia, which is especially important since until recently Asia was the only continent where no country recognized marriage equality. Taiwan’s achievement in 2019 was a milestone, but it’s an outlier.

It’s hard to talk about Southeast Asia as one or two case studies because we’re very diverse. During many regional conferences and discussions, I realized that while there are so many interesting lessons learnt, we usually can’t apply a model from one country to others. For example, Thailand is seen as an LGBT-friendly tourist destination, so many companies in the service, hospitality, and financial industries openly support us. But in terms of rights, in Vietnam we’re kind of competing with them to be the second country in Asia to win marriage equality. Or in the Philippines, the dominance of Catholicism has a huge impact on the movement and there are certain limitations in term of legal changes, despite the movement beginning 30 years ago, long before others in the region.

In Singapore (as well as Malaysia and Indonesia), same-sex activity is technically illegal, even if it’s not enforced, yet many businesses and small organizations there have joined PinkDot and publicly support the movement. In order to make a positive impact and not harm the local community, we have to trust and work with local organizers and activists, because they know their cultural context and can give the best advice on the next steps there.

Dustin: We have a long way to go, but personally I’ve had some great experiences. I worked with Prudential and Techcombank to share my coming out story, and USAID/PATH Healthy Markets on digital content and expansion of HIV testing. These are important issues to me: normalization of our experiences and promotion of healthy behaviors.

What do you look at to determine whether an LGBTIQ campaign is a good or bad one?

Linh: There’s no particular formula, but it’s necessary to work with experienced community organizations. We have a saying – “nothing about us without us.” That means you shouldn’t do anything involving LGBTIQ issues without consulting the community and activists. The key factors to a campaign’s success are collaboration and willingness to work with the community.

The most positive, impactful campaigns I’ve seen are led by community organizations themselves, not brands. Many of them have been working on these issues for over a decade, so they know what they’re doing and how to be most effective.

Dustin: It’s important for brands to emphasize authentic stories from the community. I’ve been lucky to work with some of those since 2017, but I’ve seen other commercial brands that didn’t work directly with the community and just ran campaigns to make a quick profit.

Nam: Recently, I turned down a freelance job for a big brand during Pride Month because they “don’t have the budget to pay influencers” and “it’s in the good spirit of pride month”. And besides changing their product label, the campaign did nothing else to help the LGBT community. That’s a prime example of the very common practice of brands using Pride and the rainbow flag as a marketing scheme without actually putting in any work.

Besides external factors, what can you look at to evaluate a company’s commitment?

Ben: In Japan, approaching brands to get involved in LGBTIQ events took so much more time and effort, so we only focused on brands we knew for sure were really into the cause rather than just caring about profits.

We asked questions like “Are they going to do it again, continue to invest and be a part of the community?” and “Do they have a commitment to the cause, or is it a one-time deal?”

A lot of brands use our community as a marketing scheme. I’ve only been back in Vietnam for a year, and I’ve seen brands use rainbow colors to no further purpose. A coffee company I know of used to finance a gay conversion camp in Australia until people boycotted them. Then later they tried to change their image and make money from pro-gay campaigns.

Linh: I was really impressed and still appreciate ICS collaborators’ contributions to the “I Do” campaign in 2013, which advocated for same sex marriage in Vietnamese law. Their names and logos are still on the campaign page. If you join such activities and support the community in that impactful way, your brand will be associated with them, mentioned in different advocacy discussions, and you’ll gain their appreciation for a long time.

Dustin: I hope in the future there are more brands coming to influencers to engage directly with the community. I want to hear more of our stories. We need more than just gay folks being glamorous onscreen. We need to represent the fact that LGBTIQ people are normal and have a place in all kinds of jobs and industries.

In the case of my own videos, I care about promoting how to be healthier as a community, so I discuss issues like stigma and protection. I try to help normalize discussions about sexuality, HIV testing, and using PrEP. I think we should try to build positivity.

People sometimes ask me “Why do you have to talk about HIV in the MSM/TG community, when it’s already a stereotype?” And I tell them that we should normalize talking about it, because so many people still live and die in silence without sharing their struggles due to the social stigma around it.

Nam: There’s this new term: rainbow washing, where suddenly big corporations call themselves allies, change their logos, put the pride flag on labels, and preach about love and inclusivity – but only in pride month. It’s been called out recently by media outlets, and some of these companies even donate money to anti-gay organizations. So while there are plenty of successful, beautiful campaigns to help LGBTIQ people in terms of awareness, presentation, and visibility… There’s also this rainbow-washing trend we should acknowledge and avoid.

So let’s say brands want to do better than just slap a rainbow on something they just don’t know how. What else can they do?

Ben: They should change from within first – welcome more LGBT employees, hold events inside the company, and learn our vision and our views before scaling it up and sharing it with customers

Linh: Teams working on these issues should include members of the community themselves. And it’s not enough to have just one token representative – bring in diverse voices with personal knowledge.

There are many ways to get this knowledge. We’ve done corporate training to help employees understand their LGBTIQ colleagues and their community. Make sure your LGBTIQ employees are treated the same as others within the company regarding agency policies, even if they’re not treated the same under the law.

And finally, don’t ask people to work for free for their cause, especially nonprofit organizations. We need to live too and continue pursuing a long journey.

Dustin: Can you guys please do more campaigns within the industry – B2B before B2C? When brands have enough knowledge and passion within the business, they can share that with consumers. Right now we don’t see enough of a connection. Have LGBT staff working on the campaign and addressing what the community really needs before you launch it.

What is better – a campaign that celebrates the culture and community or one that challenges stigma?

Ben: When you want to celebrate the community, we can emphasize that it’s a safe community. It’s like you’re going to create a painting – do you buy a pen first or paper first? Of course, you need both.

Linh: Do both. Rainbow-washing / pink-washing is harmful to the brand and the community. It’s like being ignored by someone your whole life, then finally acknowledged by them just so that they could ask you for money. In Vietnam it’s just starting, but we’re aware of it so we hope we can counter it early.

Some people in the community say “that’s all the brands can do, so we should appreciate it.” They underestimate the capacity of the corporate sector, which can actually create positive change in the world. It’s good for everyone if brands learn to do things the right way.

Dustin: We need to do both in parallel. If more people are engaged, we’ll have a better environment. We want to inform people of every aspect. That’s part of normalizing. Don’t sugarcoat anything.

Nam: I was once told on a commercial film set to “act more gay” – meaning to be more over-the-top and effeminate. I turned it down because the comic relief they were looking for in a gay actor/actress also the thing that is hurting the gay community. This kind of “visibility” is too common among those who don’t really understand our culture. Brands who are trying to show they are allies should make an effort to challenge those perceptions and treat us with respect.

What are some examples of successful campaigns you’ve worked on?

Ben: At the hotel, I worked for in Japan, we would do events all year long. As part of the project, we joined with an organization that built a house for the LGBTIQ community where people could learn about the community. It’s a campaign that uplifted the community itself.

Linh: In 2019, we collaborated with a brand to deliver inclusive health in 10 universities and schools in Ho Chi Minh City. The brand gave us a comfortable space to develop our own content, which included both people in the brands and experts in the community. We made the best use of our network among the educational sector. It wasn’t an LGBTIQ-targeted campaign, but rather a comprehensive form of sexual health that included everyone, not just heterosexuals.

Dustin: On my Youtube channel, we had an episode on bar stories with representatives of the transgender community: LynkLee, a singer-songwriter who recently transitioned, and Mia Nguyen, a coach for young people. The whisky brand Naked Grouse agreed to join us on this journey. They weren’t looking for diversity specifically, but they listened to our suggestions and said they wanted to include everyone. Some other brands declined to work with us when they found out the guests were transgender. 

The video ended up being very popular. There was a lot of conversation about LynkLee’s sexual experience, which got a lot of buzz. People got to hear sides they never heard about. I want to show brands that there is value in supporting these kinds of educational topics.

Can you share a Do and Don’t when working with the LGBTIQ community or designing a campaign targeting LGBTIQ people?

Dustin:

Do design a campaign targeting Everyone including LGBTIQ+ people

Don’t overuse cross-dressing characters in commercial campaigns purely for comedy.

Ben:

Do change consumers’ shopping behaviors and perceptions by breaking stereotypes, such as that gays can’t sell cars or sports equipment. 

Don’t Stereotype and exaggerate LGBTIQ+ mannerisms for entertainment. We love our fabulous mannerisms, and they should be appreciated like a form of art.

Nam:

Do your homework by researching the current LGBTIQ landscape. We are very happy to answer any questions, so both sides can reach a happy understanding.

Don’t ask us to work for free just because there’s a rainbow flag waving. You wouldn’t ask a woman to work for free on Women’s Day, or a teacher on Teacher’s Day.

Linh: I second what Nam said.

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