Millennials: Vital to brands' LGBT activism

As more brands wade into the debate over LGBT rights - PayPal halted plans for a business expansion in North Carolina just Tuesday morning - they are finding allies in millennial customers and employees.

NEW YORK: As brands take a greater role in the fight for LGBT rights, they are making outreach to millennials a key part of their strategy because of the premium that generation places on inclusion.

The passage of North Carolina House Bill 2, which stopped local governments from writing their own measures protecting LGBT individuals, sparked outrage last month. More than 100 top executives signed a letter urging the state’s governor to repeal the law, and thousands took to Twitter to express disappointment and show support for the state’s LGBT community. Officials from other states banned nonessential, state-funded travel to the state.

Other major companies voiced their opposition to the law this week. PepsiCo’s CEO has asked the state to repeal it, and PayPal said Tuesday morning that it is withdrawing plans for an expansion in Charlotte that would have created 400 jobs.

Imre and MWW are among the agencies working with clients on the issue.

"[Companies] want to be demonstrating inclusivity," said Crystalyn Stuart, partner at Imre. "Much of what we found is that more Fortune 500 brands are becoming comfortable with the values they have in place."

MWW, which has an LGBT practice, works with corporations, the entertainment industry, and grassroots organizations on marketing and PR to the LGBT community.

"It’s inspiring actually to see people from different communities come together to do something that’s right for citizens and their business as well," said Stephen Macias, head of MWW’s LGBT practice. "Doing the right thing and increasing the bottom line are no longer mutually exclusive."

Both Stuart and Macias stressed the importance of millennials to the issue. The 18-to-34-year-old demographic is more accepting than other generations, and businesses need to project an image of fairness and equality to attract millennial employees and customers.

Imre CEO David Imre was one of the executives to sign the letter to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory. The firm is an LGBT-certified business, meaning it is majority-owned by an LGBT individual, and it has an office in Raleigh, North Carolina.

"Agencies are starting to stand up for what they believe in," said Stuart. "We want to do business in a state that supports the same values we have about inclusivity."

As for major companies such as Google, American Airlines, Bank of America, Apple, and Facebook showing their support, Stuart said she wasn’t surprised but called it a "fundamental shift" from several years ago.

"Human rights especially have become a huge facet of a brand's DNA. It no longer seems taboo for a brand to go out on social and take a stand," Stuart said. "Now they’re publicly representing their values rather than worrying about becoming a lightning rod."

Companies’ power on social issues was recently on display in Georgia, where AMC and Disney threatened to take their filming elsewhere if its governor signed a law deemed to be anti-LGBT into effect. He vetoed the bill.

In Indiana, where a "religious freedom" law was briefly enacted last March, companies such as Angie’s List voiced their opposition, and it was quickly amended.

"This is not good business for companies based in North Carolina. That type of choice is going to affect real North Carolinians," Macias said. "It’s bad from a humanity point of view and it’s bad for business."

North Carolina has already faced potential boycotts from the NCAA and NBA, which were both planning to hold major events in the state, if the law isn’t repealed.

"Politicians are going to sit up and listen and recognize that businesses are vocal constituents too," said Stuart. "Businesses have massive followings can mobilize huge numbers of LGBTQ and straight people quickly."

The strategies used by LGBT rights organizations, brands, and agencies are bound to be put to the test again in the coming weeks in opposition to a law signed on Tuesday in Mississippi that allows businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers. The law has been called the most sweeping anti-LGBT legislation in the U.S.

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