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Dr. Martens on How to Make a Meaningful Pride Campaign


LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to Seb Berre, project marketing lead at Dr. Martens and Benji Landman, PRETTYBIRD producer, about the brand’s first-ever Pride campaign and how it was different from many brand efforts during this time of year

Dr. Martens on How to Make a Meaningful Pride Campaign

With Pride efforts for this summer in full swing, many companies have already debuted their ‘support’ and taken down the rainbow flag for the year, not to be seen till celebrations start again in 2023. The vicious cycle of queerbaiting and performative allyship began arguably with the rise of social media and the increased pressure consumers put on the brands they align with, to represent and fight the good fight. Unfortunately though, we found pretty quickly that although fast to jump on the bandwagon, many of our favourite brands and many of the ones we actually don’t like that much are all talk and no action. The conversation is all-encompassing and overwhelming, and the questions are endless. We find ourselves asking, are these brands that plaster the pride flag on their logo actually taking active measures to protect and help their LGBTQIA+ staff and customers, what actions have they previously taken to engage (or many times disengage) with the community and how do their company actions and brand pillars stand in countries that are holistically hostile to LGBTQIA+ folk? The considerations are endless, and many consumers, with the help of social media and increased connectivity, are finding it increasingly difficult to back bigger brands. Many of us have found ourselves even ashamed of purchasing a product from companies that have later been deemed as fake supporters of different social causes, and some brands and platforms have even seen their steady fall from customers noticing and tearing down the facade. 

But what about legacy brands? Especially those rooted in rebellion, change, cultural upheaval and social revolution. Not many brands will come to mind when told these exact words, but one for sure will spring for many of us - Dr. Martens. With its history dating back to the English Midlands in 1945, then moving to Munich and eventually being born as the iconic Dr. Martens boot in the ‘60s, the brand thrived in the radical atmosphere of the decade. Starting off as a simple work shoe, known for its trustworthiness and durability, the Dr. Martens shoe is often, as from its early days, paired with extravagant and “often exotic fashion,” which was at the forefront of streetwear in the ‘60s. So how does this interesting mix come about?

“Without any writing or intent, Dr. Martens were suddenly picked up by early multicultural, ska-loving skinheads - who proudly championed British working class style. Shortly after, Pete Townshend of The Who became the first high profile individual to wear them as a symbol of his own working class pride and rebellious attitude, changing this functional work-wear boot into a subcultural essential.” The classic Dr. Martens boot seemed to stay the same, but find its place in the subcultures of every decade so far, not only in the United Kingdom, but all over Europe and America. In the ‘70s, large sections of anti-establishment underground continually wore the boots, embedding it in British youth culture. This seeped into the subsequent ‘80s with anti-government riots rising, and youth culture developing its own subtypes related to them. Unsurprisingly, the Dr. Martens boot could be seen in all of them. 

So a brand so freely adopted and altered by not only cross-generational rebels, but also those that differ from each other in the same decade, will surely be seen in every Pride Parade across the world, worn by LGBTQIA+ folk on and off campuses, integrated in the music related to the community, as well as many times related with allyship. Which leads us to this year’s Pride celebrations - the year when Dr. Martens stood firmly behind the LGBTQIA+ community with their very first Pride campaign, which meant they absolutely had to get it right. 

This is exactly why they chose director Jess Kohl from PRETTYBIRD to work with producer Benji Landman, on the series of short films called ‘Protest - PROUD THEN. PROUD NOW. PROUD ALWAYS.’ The first of the shorts documented a conversation between Lady Phyll, co-founder of London Black Pride and Lucia Blayke, founder of London Trans+ Pride. The ‘Pride Generation’ stories in the form of short films gives “a shareable platform to some of the most active voices in the community.” And even though in many states Pride has become a celebration and a space for unapologetically being yourself, regardless of what the world might believe, we all remember that it originally started as the series of Stonewall riots in 1969, and a fight for equal rights. As Dr. Martens’ history is rooted in exactly this, it knew that ithad a special mission to fulfil when it came to the LGBTA+ community, and the intersections within it, be it when it comes to sex, gender, race or generational changes, and how these generations have interacted with the brand as their symbol of recognition.

“For Dr. Martens first ever Pride campaign, we brought together iconic individuals for cross generational conversations about important themes within the queer community,” explains director Jess Kohl. “It was a privilege to work with Lady Phyll and Lucia Blake in London, and Lee Soulja and Kia LaBeija in NYC, to hear about their experience with activism and nightlife. Visually, our approach was classically cinematic, not wanting to detract from the important issues being discussed.” In the first episode of the series, Lady Phyll and Lucia Blayke discuss their own activism, personal backgrounds and the history of their organisations, as well as how they intersect with each other. “The output, which was long form video content, came from our intent, to listen to the community and the struggles that LGBTQIA+ people face today. It felt like the most genuine way to take a step back as a brand and listen. Bringing two generations to share their experience required time to land the communalities, what resonates today still and what has changed. No logo, no branding - so that the talent is front and centre,” explains Seb Berre, project marketing lead for Dr. Martens. The second episode of the series told the story of Kia, artist and former mother of House of LaBaija, and Lee Soulja, founder and father of House of Soulja. Kia and Lee also discussed the normalisation of death within the gay community, be it through HIV, subrtance abuse, suicide, or homophobic attacks, as well as the lack of grieving time that the gay community can afford.

At the backdrop of the tens of campaigns of brands talking all the talk and not even walking half of the walk, the series of short films from Dr. Martens comes as a breath of fresh air. “We 100% needed to get this right,” explains Seb. “Consumers are savvy these days, and as a brand, doing a Pride campaign can be a tricky exercise. It has to be done in the right way. As a team, we really wanted to make sure that our campaign was actually created for the LGBTQIA+ community first and foremost, and that it addressed topics that are relevant to the community today. Pride Generations is a great platform to enable us to speak to various community members and check out the progress made overtime.” The choice of contributors was crucial for the series to work as a learning experience for all participants - this is what PRETTYBIRD worked with Amelie Abraham, a journalist, senior editor and author of ‘Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture’ and ‘We Can Do Better Than This,’ who massively helped with the casting. 

While the first episode focused on ‘Pride & Protest’, PRETTYBIRD and Dr. Martens has a clear idea of who they wanted to put forward for the project. “We were very lucky that Lady Phyll and Lucia Blayke were happy to be a part of the episode, as they are leading pillars of the communities they represent, so it is so important to hear and amplify their voices,” says Benji. But what else does it take for an allyship effort to stand out as a real one in the sea of brand relevance and capital motivated exercises. 

Benji explains, “This project was appealing to us as queer creators, because Dr. Martens were happy to stand back, connect people and give their platform to talk about the power of pride and queer experiences, as well as to amplify queer voices. To be able to listen to the contributors’ stories without any other intentions is refreshing. What was also crucial about this campaign, is that the work was created by a fully queer team - from the Dr. Martens team, as well as throughout the full production. At PRETTYBIRD we are encouraged from the top-down, to strive for all of our productions to have equal representation in front and behind the camera - so it was great to have the support from the team at Dr. Martens to achieve a fully queer team on the set for the shoot in London.” Seb also agrees on this and believes that stepping back and listening, and truly lending your platform is what a good Pride effort would culminate in. 

“When you’re getting it wrong, consumers will always tell you,” he says. “What we do as a brand is social listening, and taking the pulse of culture through culture experts, i.e. members of the communities we’re trying to represent.” Alongside this, the authenticity and alignment with the queer community comes more naturally than other brands, due to their initial affinity towards self-expression and acceptance. “As an example, the 1460 boot has become a lesbian fashion symbol over time, that says a lot! Internally, 30% of employees identify as LGBTQIA+ worldwide, and even 45% in the US! We feel therefore legitimate to talk about the community and all that comes with being LGBTQIA+ in this world, the joys, but also the struggles and the fight. For us, it feels like we’re speaking to one of our audiences.”

And this is exactly why the brand keeps supporting the community all year round. The Dr. Martens and The Trevor Project partnership charity is long standing, and according to Seb, is also “here to stay.” Seb continues, “We’ve donated over $200K to various charities around the world and now have a charity partner in all markets that sell the Pride collection.” Not only this, but the brand deems to be always keen to cast LGBTQIA+ people who feature in their campaigns and elevate talents from the community, in order for them to share their stories and use the provided platforms. Both Dr. Martens and PRETTYBIRD were keen on being meticulous with the casting, as mentioned earlier, but they also believe that this sort of inclusivity needs to stay beyond Pride month. “We need to constantly have representation across all campaigns throughout the year. Agencies and clients need to show up for the community beyond pride month, through including LGBTQIA+ folk in their scripts, casting and behind-the-camera teams. We all need to be held accountable. Without the support from the brands themselves, as well as agencies - we are still facing an upwards struggle,” explains Benji. “Pride campaigns shouldn’t just be for a month, or just about the rainbow, glitter and the RuPaul drag queens - brands and agencies need to work harder to include less mainstream talent in their campaigns and should incorporate everyday people from the communities, all year round.”

So, looking at the setting for a successful Pride campaign, and one that is true to what it promises, especially in this case, we see an amalgamation of circumstances that put Dr. Martens in the spotlight. Their long-standing history of defiance and chameleon-like qualities of blending and supporting any subculture that picks them up, combined with their true intentions behind the name, meaning hiring LGBTQIA+ staff and continuous support for the community behind the scenes, lay the perfect foundation for them to be able to execute a larger-scale Pride campaign, albeit being their first one so far. The message to other brands is clear - although many of them won’t have the historical significance for the community that Dr. Martens has had, through stepping back, lending their platforms and truly listening, they are very much able to help fight the good fight. Having representatives of the community within the brand is what will seep through the work and attract relevant and real talent from within LGBTQIA+ groups, which will ultimately make any campaign not only more effective, but closer to home and not just another seasonal rainbow.

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PRETTYBIRD UK, Tue, 19 Jul 2022 16:02:23 GMT