Pride without pandering: HSBC’s Richa Goswami on purpose and 'pink-washing'

The bank's global head of customer on why brand support for the queer community can risk being 'performative' when initiatives start and end during Pride Month

Jul 05, 2022 04:04:00 AM | Article | Nikita Mishra

In the pre-Instagram era, there were few brands such as Benetton and Body Shop that wore their politics on their sleeves. Present day, a deluge of corporations are expressing support for the queer community, especially during Pride Month which just ended on June 30. However, intent may not always match up to public-facing messaging. 

Take Disney for example. Last year, on June 1, the brand tweeted: “There’s room for everyone under the rainbow.” On the same day, the company was hit with allegations by Alex Hirsch, the creator of the hit series Gravity Falls, that Disney privately demanded a gay scene be cut because of international distribution concerns. “We might lose precious pennies from Russia & China!” Hirsch tweeted.


Disney also came under the scanner for cancelling production of its first LGBTQ-led animation film, Nimona, and blaming Covid for the shutdown of the studio. When these accusations float around at the same time that a big corporation slaps rainbow stickers on its merch, is there any appetite for social change or is it just 'rainbow' capitalism?

Similarly, Marks and Spencer launched an 'LGBTQ sandwich' last year (a regular BLT with guacamole and rainbow packaging). Though the campaign was complemented with donations to two charities chosen by their LGBTQ employees, critics saw it as an exploitative attempt to cash into positive PR around Pride. Meanwhile, Bud Light launched a campaign featuring rainbow-lit beer with the letters LGBTQ standing for 'Let’s Grab Beers Tonight, Queens'. 

Pride marketing is complex, especially in Asia which by no means is a beacon of progress. ­In 2022, LGBTQ+ people are criminalised and prosecuted in Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia; a death penalty legislation was enacted and then reversed following global pressure in Brunei; tolerance for same-sex relationships in Indonesia runs thin wherein conservative groups term LGBTQ as ‘deviant’, ‘abnormal’ and ‘in need of cure’; gay dating apps are banned in China, and gay bars often raided. After 11 years of operating, the Shanghai Pride shut down without explanations in 2020. 

A show of support for Pride is good for brand visibility. It’s also profitable for businesses. But the issue is not always black and white. With the space for LGBTQ+ activism and advocacy tightening, it’s a tough balancing act for brands to navigate diverse cultural norms, show ‘queer’ support whilst avoiding any misstep that can result in severe backlash from the governments, social media, and consumers.

HSBC claims to be an ally of the queer community, especially in APAC. They were the first financial institution in Hong Kong to give non-binary customers more prefix choices beyond the Mr., Mrs., and Miss, with the introduction of nine gender-neutral titles.

Campaign Asia-Pacific sat down with the bank’s global head of customer and international, wealth and personal banking, Richa Goswami, to discuss how brands can rise above once-a-year stunts and avoid pitfalls in Pride marketing.

Change begins once the rainbow flags come down at the end of June. How can brands be a vocal ally of the LGBTQ+ community year long and contribute towards an equitable future?

Pride Month is the testament of generations of people fighting for their right to simply exist. No company should take that sentiment ligtly and just show up in the month of June, embrace the rainbow and then never talk about it. Consumers demand authenticity and action from the brands they engage with, they recognise pink-washing when they see it.

Conversations and performative acts only in June are publicity stunts; for us at HSBC, we believe equal representation, tolerance and inclusion should be a year-round exercise. It’s very core to who we are, in the changes we’ve done in our financial product. Don’t just illuminate the iconic buildings and engage in lip service. Walk the talk and recognise that society is evolving, and policies need to reflect that.

As a marketer, what are the challenges in trying to navigate regulatory and cultural variations in different markets?

The Asian market is diverse, sometimes more conservative than the Western counterparts. Battles are being fought for decriminalising homosexuality in some countries, if one country takes two steps forward you have others like Afghanistan which take many steps backwards.

As a marketer, we want to use our brand presence for positive impact but as a financial institution we are robustly regulated and there is a legal responsibility towards our regulators and stakeholders. We must comply with the letter of the law upfront and central. It’s not all black and white. FMCG as a sector has more wiggle room than a let’s say, a bank. Perhaps, a brand like PepsiCo can take a bolder stance even in a conservative market.

What are the dos and don’ts of Pride marketing?

Not just Pride, any marketing must be based on authenticity. Understand your audience­–their joys, their fears, what keeps them up at night–and connect with them honestly.

Learn about the grassroots reality, it’s okay to unlearn a few lessons on the way. Collaborate and take feedback from the community. Walk the talk. Your audience can smell progress from pandering from a distance.

Don’t have the ‘know-it-all’ arrogance. Don’t join the bandwagon because its cool, that will result in bigger backlash.

How can brands measure the impact of marketing after a Pride campaign? Should they be seeking feedback directly from the LGBTQ+ community?

Don’t lean into stereotypes or limit your marketing to a logo. The focus must be on forging a genuine allyship with the community, and not a performative one. Like I said, a campaign in June won’t cut it–demonstrate progress through actions year-round. Also, I don’t see a reason why KPIs of Pride marketing need to be differently gauged than any other campaign?

Can you provide examples of how a brand can market in a genuine way for the LGBTQ+ community?

At the core, the DEI values of a brand need to be reflective of inclusion–for colleagues, customers and community–not just in June, but from July to May as well.

At HSBC, 15,000 employees in 24 countries are members of our Pride groups, which raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and help influence positive change. To give an example, back in 2018, HSBC Insurance was the first in the market to revise its rules to add same-sex couples as beneficiaries in a policy. It was a landmark change at the time which came with the realisation that the definition of ‘family’ has fundamentally changed, the dynamics are no longer limited to mom, dad and two children. Brands need to learn and evolve with the times.

Earlier in 2022, we shot an ad for HSBC Premier with a same-sex couple. As the first financial institution to make such an overt statement, I had tears in my eyes when I saw the final film. Our bold stand on inclusion and representation comes with authenticity, and sensitivity and that’s integral because people can smell real support from a mile.

Another example of walking the talk–all our washrooms in the Hong Kong building are gender-neutral and barrier-free. This year we introduced pronoun badges for branch employees in the UK and formed a partnership with Mind HK, a mental health charity in SAR to fund and promote grassroots education in the LGBTQ+ community. 

HSBC is recognised by inclusion charity Stonewall as being one of the world’s top employers. It ranks businesses based on the customer experience and policies for LGBTQ+ customers and colleagues. But we still have a lot of progress to make. 

(This article first appeared on CampaignAsia.com)