When you think of retailers from your childhood, you may remember them as places to meet friends after school, places to go shopping with your parents on the weekend, or perhaps more depressingly for some, sources of back-to-school needs, marking the end of summer, which is just around the corner.
I have fond memories from my childhood of the Gap and Benetton in particular — their color schemes were ahead of their time. As kids, we identified with retail brands and correlated them to what was affluent, hip, or stylish. What you wore most often reflected who you were.
It was easy to be captivated by a brand’s television commercials and their addicting jingles. How many of us sang along to being a “Toys R Us kid” or wanted to “fall into the Gap?” We now live in a much different world, but one thing that remains true is retailers’ impact on how you look, how you present yourself and how you make a statement.
In my role at Accenture, I see this every day. I’m the global retail marketing lead, so my mission is to understand trends and changes in the retail industry, with an eye — both personally and professionally — on how consumer values impact where they spend their dollars.
Over the years, I’ve often examined the ways my being openly gay at the office impacts, enlightens, and guides the work I do with retailers in the digital age. But what does one have to do with the other? As retail marketing has become more inclusive and more diverse — particularly since I first came out at work a decade ago — it’s more than you might think.
I’ve worked at Accenture for the past 16 years, and at the start of my career, I was firmly in the closet. After about four or five years, I decided to come out to a few executives who I knew were also gay. I remember one of them saying to me, “If anyone here asks if you are gay, ask them why they want to know.”
It was a lightbulb moment for me. Here was someone I respected as an “out” professional, yet he was incredibly careful about how that question might be answered. Suddenly, I was struck with the realization that being gay could be damaging to my career if the wrong people knew and my sexuality was used against me.
Sadly, a decade later, this mentality is alive and well in some companies. Accenture research on how LGBTQ people are faring in the workplace revealed that only 31 percent of LGBTQ employees are fully open about their gender identity/expression or sexual orientation at work. This figure drops to 21 percent among those in senior leadership positions.
When I decided to fully come out at work, I joined Pride at Accenture, the company’s LGBTQ employee resource group, which provided me with a critical connection to like-minded individuals who I felt safe with instantly. It would have taken me years to foster those kinds of friendships on my own.
At that time in retail, TV commercials and print advertisements were still — for the most part — featuring all white spokespeople and white families sitting around a kitchen table, taking vacations, or going out to eat. Commercials for jewelers advertised engagement rings only in the traditional setting, with brides and grooms. Retailers were aiming at who they thought was the largest chunk of their customers.
I remember seeing those engagement advertisements and thinking marriage would never be an option for me. Then, a few years ago, I saw a Zales commercial depicting a same-sex wedding. I felt a great sense of euphoria — it was a marked shift, and it meant that perceptions were changing.
Fast-forward to today, when social movements and social media have forced retail brands to consider who they are, who they market to and how they represent themselves. This has led to the current hot topic in corporate America: diversity and inclusion.
But what does diversity and inclusion really mean? At Accenture, we flip it and lead with inclusion. It’s only when you create a culture of equality, where everyone feels like they belong, that diversity can truly flourish.
A strong example of this is our LGBTQ training. Each year we bring together more than 150 of our high performing people for what we call L3 (LGBTQ Leadership Learning). The beautiful thing about this training is that it is inclusive of people from both the LGBTQ community and allies.
We spend two days together sharing our journeys, challenges in life and work, and how we can all be there for one another. It’s the first training I’ve been to where I recognized that the community I belong to can be very different and have unique struggles. Hearing the story of my trans colleagues or what it means to be bisexual gave me a very different view of my LGBTQ family. I am part of it, but I am also an ally for others in my community. That is inclusion.
When I stuck my toe out of the closet, I never dreamed that being gay could actually be an advantage to my career. Because I’m out and proud, I’m looking for advice about the best way to reach the LGBTQ community, and how to develop internal and external programs with a focus on equality. For example, as a marketer I know imagery matters, so I made a concerted effort to show all dimensions of diversity in our retail marketing materials. From an LGBTQ perspective, I had not seen “me” represented, so I incorporated visuals of LGBTQ families and couples.
I also advocated to build more diversity into our consumer research. Rather than looking at consumers as a homogeneous group or broken out by age/gender, we went a step further to include LGBTQ consumers. Our research showed that a company’s commitment to inclusion and diversity, and LGBTQ specifically, mattered to consumers and the bottom line. Forty-one percent of LGBTQ shoppers would switch to a retailer committed to inclusion and diversity.
My journey to being openly gay at work mirrors how retailers started to adapt to marketing directly to our community. At first, there was hesitancy. If the word “gay” was spoken — or advertised — it was rarely. Over the years, I became more comfortable being outwardly gay, and this dovetailed with retailers’ comfort level being more open to communicating with LGBTQ individuals.
Until fairly recently, it would have been unthinkable for a retailer to market to our community. Fast forward to today, with the explosion of individual social media channels as outlets to advertise, retailers can home in on speaking to each person more directly — for example, loudly and boldly during last month's Pride. It’s both an opportunity and a risk — buy into stereotypes and risk losing a large chunk of your customers. Consumers want authenticity and a commitment to inclusion and diversity 365 days a year, not just during a celebratory month. If everyone truly belongs, then you need to speak to each individual, not subsets of groups.
Being open at Accenture and taking such an active role in talking about LGBTQ and equality is incredibly rewarding. It’s great to see how the company supports our LGBTQ people. We even have more than 120,000 allies around the globe now.
As I get older, and more established personally and professionally, I’m realizing that being myself is now less about myself. It’s about paving a path for the next generation of LGBTQ individuals, so their fears of being open can be alleviated — and that they never have to worry about anyone telling them, “If anyone here asks if you are gay, ask them why they want to know.”
Joe Taiano is global retail marketing lead at Accenture, a consulting and professional services company.