June is Pride Month. The month that celebrates and supports the LGBTQIA+ community, Pride is a time for allies to show their support. More than ever, brands are also signalling support, but for some it’s seen as ‘rainbow washing’, but what is rainbow washing? And how do brands really show allyship?
As soon as it clocks over to 1 June, social media managers all over the world are prompted to change the icons across platforms to a rainbow variation of the normal logo. It’s in solidarity, recognition and celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community. But, it’s also criticised by some as not being the display of allyship brands might think it is.
What is rainbow washing?
To understand if you’re doing rainbow washing, it’s important to understand what it is. Diligent.com defines it as “remaining politically and socially neutral while still sporting rainbow colours,” and ThisIsGendered defines says that rainbow washing is “referring to the act of using or adding rainbow colours and/or imagery to advertising, apparel, accessories, landmarks, in order to indicate progressive support for LGBTQIA+ equality – but with minimal effort or pragmatic result.”
Marketing mag spoke to experts in branding who represent the LGBTQIA+ community on how brands can better show allyship and how to avoid rainbow washing. It’s about authenticity.
Shift of focus onto authenticity rather than just representation
“Selling a product with a rainbow on it is cheap and ineffective at making meaningful systemic change,” Erlanger says. “It’s no longer enough to just talk the talk, particularly you’re capitalising off it.”
“Reflecting internally and externally about the progress of a business or brand to be more inclusive shows authenticity. It shows a long-term commitment to making a positive impact,” Crothers tells Marketing.
Erlanger and Crothers both shared sentiments about a focus on the inclusivity of teams that can also prove an authentic allyship.
“Perhaps your team has seen significant year-on-year growth hiring from diverse and LGBTQIA+ backgrounds. Perhaps it’s about taking the steps to make queer and trans staff feel safe at work,” says Crothers when prompted about creating an authentic and inclusive space.
Erlanger also believes that allyship starts from the inside out, “How many queer people do you work with? What are the values of the brands and clients you align with? How do you make your workplace safe and inclusive? What allyship training do you provide to your staff?” she questions when looking at how authentic a brand is when it’s showing outward support.
And, for Crothers, it’s not just about the staff, but also the outward facing work done as well, “Maybe you have impressive statistics around successful campaign engagement seen when working with queer or trans talent – these are accomplishments to be celebrated or shared,” Crothers explains.
Spotting a red flag
As companies’ propensity to be part of social movements grows year-on-year, so do attempts of jumping on the bandwagon. But it’s growing increasingly obvious to spot businesses who are more disingenuous with support.
“Virtue signalling support for the LGBTQIA+ community alongside performative allyship during Pride is far more noticeable than businesses and brands may recognise,” Crothers says.
“The queer community is increasingly sceptical of rainbow marketing, and the ways in which businesses choose to engage with the community across the breadth of the year, not just celebratory months,” he continues, explaining that it’s about speaking up year round.
“Not just slapping a rainbow sticker on your marketing materials for one month of the year.”
For interior designer Michael Boer, his focus also goes beyond Pride, as he says he’s always watching what companies are doing socially, “We’re watching how communities act all year round,” Boer tells Marketing. “What political parties are being donated to, who is on the board of directors. Even which athletes they support and how they react to world crises,” he continues.
This dictates how these businesses are viewed when it comes to Pride. “We know which companies are queer allies outside of Pride Month, and we know which ones are the fake allies when they try to capitalise off us inside of Pride,” Boer finishes.
And for Erlanger, it was the same. The flow on effect for year-round activities is what helps to make a judgement call during Pride, “I saw a lot of brands release products with rainbow colours shortly post-plebiscite. To me this was an offensive, low-hanging attempt at cash grabs,” explains Erlanger when it comes to seeking authentic behaviour. “Calculated activism after you have the security of knowing the majority of the country is on the same side as you isn’t really activism. It’s capitalism. Where were those brands when we were fighting for our freedoms, not just celebrating them?”
How can brands do better?
“Celebrating Pride is often depicted in mainstream media as parties, glitter and feathers,” says Crothers. “However, for businesses to truly show genuine allyship to LGBTQIA+ staff, and the wider community, there’s a lot more that can be done to celebrate,” he reiterates.
“Brene Brown has a great quote, and it’s ‘I’m not trying to be right, I’m trying to get it right,’ which is something to remember in the ways we engage both with the community and when celebrating Pride” Crothers continues.
For brands to really prove the importance of social activism, the consensus is clear: year-long engagement. And, interestingly, it’s also about acknowledging the past. Brands have taken years to use LGBTQIA+ couples in campaigns. In 1994, IKEA featured the first gay couple in the ad spot ‘Dining Table’. As more businesses use diversity in campaigns, it’s also about acknowledging that this wasn’t always the case, and reflecting on it.
“Use Pride Month as an opportunity to plan how you engage with the queer community in consistent and meaningful ways over the course of the year, not just for one month – acknowledging past mistakes and how you’ve worked together to rectify them,” Crothers recommends to brands.
Boer agrees, “If you want to support LGBTQIA+, we don’t want a cute month-long rebrand,” Boer explains. “Our community needs donations. We need sponsorships. We need you to support queer artists, community outreach. Hire some drag queens. Protect trans kids. Go to rallies. Protest. If you want to align yourself with our community, you have to engage with it,” he finishes.
Erlanger says it’s going back to basics, “Put your money where your pride is,” she tells Marketing. “If you really care about a cause, and you are in a financial position to continue it, don’t try to make more sales for your own profit. Use your sales and influence as an opportunity to create change,” she continues.
Her final word for brands is simple, “Having rainbow colours in your logo is fine. It addresses the question of what you believe in. but it’s not as simple as that. The second part of the question you should be asking yourself as a business is ‘What are you doing about it?’ And – you better have a bloody good answer.”