Pride season is here, heralding the annual celebration of the LGBTQ+ community. The festivities mark a turning point in LGBTQ+ history – the Stonewall Riots at the end of June for example – as well as celebrating the community through parades and marches.
Pride has also become an opportunity for brands to signal their support. This has led to criticism in the past of what has been perceived as purely performative action, whose corporate culture does not reflect their social messaging.
In May, youth worker and LGBTQ+ rights activist Tanya Compas tweeted: ‘‘I’m sorry, but the amount of emails I’ve been getting regarding pride at the minute are WILD and even more so how many are still positioning unpaid work as ‘exciting opportunities’’ She went on to berate brands for lazy creative thinking, by just “slapping a rainbow on your products.”
Brands have repeatedly fallen into this trap. In 2017, Skittles launched its ‘Give the Rainbow’ campaign – which involved removing its colourful packaging for a limited-edition white wrapper in honour of Pride month. To many, it was perceived as a racist push by Skittles that only whiteness could be equated with equality and the backlash was severe.
So how can brands effectively support the LGBTQ+ community during Pride? CORQ’s features director Emilie sat down with TikTok stars Matthew & Ryan to discuss LGBTQ+ joy and the importance of navigating influencer partnerships to achieve an impactful campaign.
You may also like
Meet Matthew & Ryan
During the first lockdown in 2020, couple Matthew Mackinnon & Ryan Payne became a touchstone of delight and hilarity, not to mention one of the early jewels in TikTok’s crown.
Long before TikTok, the pair started their social media adventure with a YouTube channel in 2016, produced from Payne’s university bedroom. Payne says the intention was to celebrate their LGBTQ+ journey. “Our goal was to normalise same-sex relationships. We were very privileged that we could hold hands, and very privileged that we felt safe going to London, so when we started doing content we were like, hang on, this is definitely not as acceptable as it should be, so we’re going to get that community and share that it should be normalised.” They began vlogging their lives, from trips to London to travelling around LA.
However TikTok was the gamechanger. Mackinnon says, “TikTok is the best. We have been on it for so long, we were on it before the big lockdown when everyone was downloading it”. In fact, says Payne, “we were hustling and bustling on Instagram and YouTube but when TikTok shaped short format videos, we fell in love. This is our jam.”
The couple have been creating content on the platform since 2018 and after six months they reached 200,000 followers and established a key community. At the end of 2018, Mackinnon wrote to TikTok about further opportunities on the platform – you can see this email on his LinkedIn.
Mackinnon emailing TikTok signals why they have been such a success – “the hustle and bustle” as they call it, the enthusiasm and tenacity they have always demonstrated, as well as the strategy underpinning it. Payne tells me, “We were actually both in PR and social media when we started vlogging so we’ve always been in the field, and that’s helped in the back end, talking to brands, the PR relationship aspect and knowing about analytics.”
The couple don’t have management either. They deal with all requests themselves, “We’re learning so much, going from influencers to running a business, but we like the control and being able to make decisions and to see all the requests. We don’t want to lose any relationships.”
As a result, Mackinnon admits to finding himself checking LinkedIn before TikTok these days. “I love LinkedIn” he says, “We’ve been posting on there and sharing our success – and producing teaser videos for brands on what they should be doing. I like the platform because everyone knows what they are there for”. Social media consultancy is definitely part of their master plan. But the key to their connection is the content.
Matthew & Ryan’s content plan and why it works
There are two main strands to their content – the Point of View (POV) pieces that tell stories about their LGBTQ+ journeys, and comedic skits, including the relentless pranking which even in itself is joyfully radical. The atmosphere on their channels is like a gleeful party, but their content is always about “shining a light and educating”, says Payne.
According to Mackinnon, they go through tangents with their content: “with the comedy pranks, the message is more subliminal, so we’ve recently started doing POV skits around telling your family you’re gay, and telling your friends and we’ve got ones about telling your grandparents coming up.”
The pair have noticed the difference in reactions to the two content pillars: “with the pranks and comedy, you just get normal, fun comments with people laughing and saying how it’s made their day better, but as soon as you do an LGBTQ+ video there’s a wave of people saying “this is amazing”, “love is love”, and also “I really need help coming out”. Mackinnon adds, “it wakes you up to the fact that there are still people really in need.”
The pair also livestream on all their platforms so they can have raw conversations – “we always say this is our experience, and always reference the range of resources out there. We’re not experts, we just live that life.”
How brands can deliver authentic Pride partnerships
When we discuss the relationship between Pride and brands, Mackinnon and Payne are emphatic that it’s a good thing, but authenticity in any collaboration is what matters. It’s incredibly straightforward to check a brand’s intention – and they always do their research.
Mackinnon says, “You can really tell when they use LGBTQ+ people in their campaigns throughout the whole year and they just put more of a magnification on us during Pride, which is great. It’s easy to see when brands are really invested and they haven’t just quickly gone through profiles and grabbed emails…and are just rainbow-washing.”
While they always celebrate during Pride season, their content is reflective of Pride values the rest of the year. “At the start of this year, we did an LGBTQ+ tips on coming out on YouTube, and that was a whole series, that wasn’t even in typical Pride season. Because we are just a gay couple, that community, that Pride is there naturally, it’s always going to be related with everything we do,” Payne told CORQ.
Pride is not just about thoughtful representation but allyship too. Payne teased a new project from the couple, “We’ve recently worked with a TV show, and got the cast involved in a series of clips of ‘What Pride means to you?’ It’s that collaboration on a larger scale showing that you don’t have to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, you can be straight but also an ally. You can still show support or love.”
Top performing brands
A standout brand for Mackinnon and Payne is The Body Shop, who they have worked with during Pride season as well as throughout the year.
The brand had just invited the couple to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show when we spoke, and Ryan says, ‘It’s that authenticity fit. The Body Shop invited us because they watch our stories and know that we have got into gardening so they obviously care about what works for us.”
Mackinnon expands, “The Body Shop are so good in all of their messaging and communication with creators – I know some companies don’t have big external teams that would deal with creators so it’s hard to say you need to have a team that does that.”
But investing in outreach is important because it leverages collaborations. “They’ve got such a diverse range of creators and influencers on that campaign, that are part of the LGBTQ community so it’s not just flicking in LGBTQ people during Pride,” Payne said.
Red flags for creators involve brands signalling they are working with a charity. “It’s really obvious when a brand has come to you for a Pride campaign and it’s obviously just to benefit them – especially when they say ‘we’re partnering with a charity or 10% is going to a charity’. We 100% check.” They always send an email to the charity to check if they’re involved and aware, as sometimes brands use a charity partnership as a way to not pay creators.
In the past the couple has worked directly with charities – “We’ve worked with the LGBTQ+ foundation quite a lot, done 10-hour livestreams and we know the money’s going directly to them, so why would we work with a brand if it’s not going to be transparent?”
How to contact influencers for a Pride campaign
Firstly, the couple are open to last minute Pride content briefs – “I feel like Pride is very last minute so we don’t mind last minute contact” – as long as the criteria has been met.
So how should brands best approach you, I ask? Send them an email with a proper introduction. “We get emails with copy and paste “Hi Matthewandryanuk’ or “Hi Matthew or just ‘hello’ or ‘hello there’”, says Mackinnon. The intro really matters to them. Something like ‘Hi Matt and Ryan, I hope you are well’ he suggests.
Payne agrees “If you are trying to work with someone, you should at least make the effort and time to make the email directly for them”. He adds, “because there are two of us, make sure you include both of our names. Not ‘hello Matthew’ or ‘Hello Ryan.’”
Include timings, background, brief background, and general information in the email, and they will respond. “If it’s authentic, and the brand are making something that’s clearly good for the community, and it’s not just based on the hype of Pride then it will work out amazingly.”
Key collaboration factors
Mackinnon & Payne are known for their video content, and shared they always lean towards video options when a brand approaches them as it showcases their personalities better.
Like all creators, they push for maximum freedom because they know what works and what their audience responds to.
Payne explains, “we always make sure we get freedom, and if there is pushback then we’ll explain “you’ve picked us for the work, we will put 10 out of 10 effort in”. People know an ad is an ad because you say it in the caption, but because we keep it in ‘the Matthew & Ryan style’ it’s not suddenly as if we’ve changed into robots and are doing the generic perception of an ad. “I think it’s definitely more cohesive when we say “let’s work together” – everyone gets the best result.”
On their LinkedIn, Mackinnon produced a case study working with an unnamed brand: “We worked with a brand last year on two TikTok videos. The first video had a reach of 35,000 which is still an incredible reach but lower than our usual. The second video had a reach of 1.5 million. Both videos had the same key messages but the only difference between both was that the first had a strict concept to follow and the other had creative freedom.”
On Instagram, the pair come up against more content control from brands, but they think the landscape is changing. “With Reels, authenticity is showing more. Whereas before, it was very ‘shopfront window’ to put your best self out there, which is not a turn on anymore. I think it will take some time to turn around, because I think brands play it safe and think Instagram is still like that – it’s always the big global brand with lots of departments that are really behind the time.”
By Emilie McMeekan, features director at CORQ, Picture credit: Matthew & Ryan via Instagram