We sat down with Emmy-Nominated actor Laverne Cox to talk about her work with Smirnoff and how she is helping to make brands truly inclusive. Our conversation not only touched on Laverne’s recent advocacy but also Smirnoff’s recent campaign work and her advice for brands on how to be allies for the LGBTQIA+ community.

Can brands actually change the world? Smirnoff certainly thinks so. The world’s largest vodka brand has a purpose that is nothing if not ambitious. Since 2015, the company’s “We’re Open” campaign has spent more than $5 million to drive real, worldwide societal change by making global LGBTQIA+ communities more visible.  

Smirnoff invested in programs that challenge the perception of LGBT people, from educating British lads with a partnership with LADBible, to choosing to ally with high-profile members of the non-binary community as its brand ambassadors.

Nothing illustrates this more than Smirnoff’s work with Laverne Cox, an Emmy-nominated actor and one of the most vocal activists for the American trans community. Beginning their relationship with 2018 “Welcome to the Fun%” campaign, the Orange Is the New Black star, has worked closely with the brand ever since. The most recent iteration of this partnership is “Welcome Home,” an old-school house track that reuses the words from Cox’s ad campaign and has gone on to become an unlikely club hit.

Last week Cox joined Diageo CMO Jay Sethi for a Fireside Chat at Advertising Week NY, where the pair talked about how brands can truly be inclusive, including a five-step program to be more inclusive. They urge brands to:

  • Be persistent in marketing support throughout the year 
  • Represent the FULL community 
  • Invest meaningfully with significant financial support 
  • Defend policy with advocacy 
  • Empower people through a commitment to hire

AList sat down with Cox after the panel to discuss her work as a brand ambassador for Smirnoff, how brands can work with communities to ensure authenticity and how the marketing industry can follow through on a commitment for greater visibility when it comes to representing marginalised communities and groups.

Smirnoff has long been a supporter of the LGBTIA+ community, did that attract you to working with them?

Yeah. What’s great is that even before [working with] me, Smirnoff has a history when it comes to supporting the LGBTQ community. Before I was involved with them, I can remember the Love Wins bottles, where every bottle sold came with a commitment to donate to HRC. I think they ended up raising $1.5 million and they’re only halfway there–and HRC is such a vital organisation that does a lot of work to advocate for the LGBTQ community, not only in helping push forward new legislation but across the board. 

That is the kind of commitment I think all brands should aspire to—they should want to give back to communities that they serve.

What does authenticity mean to you? 

Authenticity has become a bit of a buzzword—I completely understand that. For me, it means making sure that you have real values and making sure what you do align with those values. It’s about acting like a real person. It’s stating “I have a value system, and my behavior corresponds to that.” Brands should be doing the same. 

Your relationship with Smirnoff feels like a very two-way collaboration. How can other brands make sure that they are good allies to the non-binary communities? 

Whenever I tire of these conversations on authenticity, I like to allude back to Renee Brown’s work on the subject. She says that authenticity is about “letting go of who you think you should be and being true to who you really are.” 

When companies are targeting specific audiences, they must find ambassadors who embody their values. I feel blessed that I get to show up as the real Laverne and do what I do. With Smirnoff, I don’t have to be a different person at the Emmy Awards than I am when I’m advertising a product. I get to show up as me, and I don’t have to check my behavior because I’m representing this brand. 

It’s vital that I work with brands that are OK with me being who I am. I have moments when I’m like “Oh no, I’m saying this, they’re going to be sad,” but Smirnoff knows who their getting. I’m political. I’m going to be talking about what’s going on at the supreme court, I’m going to talk about issues–always with love and empathy, but also asking questions about how to push forward.

What are some practical things marketers should be mindful of when portraying the LGBTIA+ community?

I think it comes down to more jobs and more opportunity. With campaigns that ran over PRIDE month, we all see beautiful LGBT people in front of the camera fronting campaigns, but we need that year-round.  We also need to think outside of PRIDE. I am not just a trans woman–I do so many different things in the world, and I think marketers need to acknowledge that and reflect that in the campaigns they create and the depictions that they use. 

We also need to ask the question “what do we need to do behind the scenes?” If we don’t have diverse people in decision making roles, how are going to change perceptions in front of the camera?  We need to make sure we hire diversely, extend training and intern programs to people from minority backgrounds and ensure that we’re giving this new generation of marketers opportunities. We need to think carefully about how we train the new generation.

How do we ensure brands commit to message all year round, rather than just wheeling out inclusive messaging during PRIDE week?

I think it comes down to what marketers do year-round. I’m proud that my relationship with Smirnoff, for example, didn’t start with PRIDE. It was the fall of 2018 with their Welcome to the Fun% campaign, where I worked with Mr Ted Danson, who is just delightful. I love that Smirnoff is trailblazing this conversation that can happen year long and not only one month of the year.

Brands need to ensure that they do more than the bare minimum. It’s not enough to support the community for one month and then also be giving money to political candidates that are working against my interests. We should be mindful about what our advocacy looks like, because the truth is, these brands are massively influential. Millions of people can enjoy a product, and you should ensure that a product is working for and not against them. It goes beyond ad campaigns; brands need both consistency and authenticity.

Lastly, how should brands be committing to this message in a way that genuinely helps the LGBTQIA+ Community?

Put simply, by continuing to do great work. I believe that when other marketers see how great brands like Smirnoff are doing great work by working with people like me, they’ll get on board. It’s tricky to touch the zeitgeist, but these communities are full of smart, creative people and brands need to tap into that.

Brands need to think outside the box and think more inclusively. Everyone needs to be listening, and I need to be listening as much as possible. We can never stop listening to the consumer–I think where we can do that, particularly in the US, I don’t think we can go wrong.