In the summer of 2013, shortly after landing a plush gig at YouTube in the company’s marketing division, 23-year-old Stanford grad Raymond Braun teetered into his boss’s office near tears and with a lump in his throat.
Braun had arranged a meeting with YouTube CMO Danielle Tiedt to pitch a marketing initiative that would break wholly new ground for the platform -- and that was also wrought with personal resonance.
He had hatched the proposal during his “20 Percent Time,” a Google perk that allows employees to devote one-fifth of their work efforts to any passion project with a business tie-in. The catalyzing policy, outlined by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in Google’s 2004 IPO letter, has resulted in such blockbuster products as Gmail, AdSense and Google News.
On his off-time, Braun had noticed that a disproportionately influential faction of LGBT creators was proliferating across YouTube. Bold-faced names like Tyler Oakley, Hannah Hart and Davey Wavey were amassing millions of viewers, and serving as digital lifelines for kids in ostracizing households the world over.
“I’ve heard from teens who say, ‘At night, before bed, I go under the covers, I put my headphones in, I open the YouTube app and that’s my connection to this world,’” recounts Braun, who is now 25. Having grown up gay in a small, conservative town in rural Ohio, this was a sentiment that hit close to home.
And so, standing before Tiedt that day, Braun made an impassioned pitch for #ProudToLove -- his concept for YouTube’s first LGBT-themed consumer marketing campaign. The idea was to be the first brand in the world to respond to the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision. YouTube’s logo would be reimagined as a rainbow for the day, which would also link to a page of LGBT-centric content, including this touching compilation:
After tearfully sharing his personal stake in the venture, Braun says he'll never forget Tiedt’s response. “She said, ‘This makes complete sense for our business, and I also see this as an investment in you, because I know that you’re going to do everything you can to make this successful.”
He did, and it was. In addition to garnering millions of views, acclaim from human rights activists and landing Braun on Forbes' 30 Under 30 list, #ProudToLove has since become an annual fixture for YouTube each June to coincide with LGBT Pride Month.
Braun subsequently added LGBT marketing lead at Google/YouTube to his job title.
“The press and social media impressions of this campaign matched those of sophisticated, high budget marketing campaigns,” Tiedt says. “Raymond shepherded our #ProudToLove campaign with such heart and passion that being more LGBT-mindful became an even larger part of YouTube’s culture.”
Spotlighting the LGBT community was a shrewd move for YouTube because it amplified a conversation that was already humming across the platform. The ‘It Gets Better’ campaign had become a viral phenomenon, for instance, and a spate of popular ‘Coming Out’ videos -- and, more recently, transgender creators documenting their transitions online -- had begun to reap massive viewership.
But entering this conversation could have the potential to lift most any brand, says Anastasia Khoo, chief marketing officer for the Human Rights Campaign. “The U.S. adult LGBT population has an estimated buying power of $830 billion in 2015,” notes Khoo -- adding that 75 percent of non-LGBT adults say they are likely to consider a brand that is known to provide equal workplace benefits.
Given these turning tides, and the momentum he’d generated with #ProudtoLove, Braun’s mission seemed to be crystallizing. And in an age of digital influencers, he was starting to think that perhaps his greatest impact might not be behind the camera but in front of the lens. Therefore, in January, he made an unthinkable leap: departing Google on a volunteer leave of absence to start his very own YouTube channel.
Devoted exclusively to LGBT issues, the channel was established at a pivotal moment in history, Braun says, when Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum, the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage decision and Caitlyn Jenner’s transition all loomed on the horizon. It turned out to be prophetic timing. This year, as LGBT rights turned a historic corner, Braun amassed roughly 16,000 subscribers and 1.5 million total views.
His venture represents a nascent concept in the realm of online video, he says -- that of a “nonprofit YouTube channel.” None of his videos are monetized, and many are made in collaboration with the HRC, GLAAD, the Trevor Project and other LGBT rights groups.
As an online personality, Braun’s giddy charisma is underscored by a palpable empathy. His most popular clips thus far include emotionally-charged vlogs documenting recent legal victories in Ireland and Washington, D.C., though he also has a knack for sassier fare, such as how to strut in high heels:
As the channel continued to grow late last July, Braun arrived at a decisive juncture. What had started out as a “20 Percent” side project had evolved into a higher calling. And this summer, Braun gave Tiedt the bittersweet news that he would be leaving YouTube for good in order to become a full-time YouTuber.
“He will always be part of the YouTube family,” she says.
Today, in addition to his channel, Braun is in the early stages of founding a consultancy that will work with brands looking to engage the LGBT community. As a relatively untapped marketing arena, Braun believes his unique proficiencies in social media as well as the immense scale and budgets that brands have at their disposal will be powerful assets on the path toward equality.
“During Raymond's interview at Google, he talked about how his goal in life is to use entertainment, media, and technology to create positive social change,” Tiedt recalled. “He's doing just that.”