As Pride Month draws to a close it would be easy to observe the abundance of rainbows in all forms as a sign that we’ve finally cracked the code on inclusion in our society. In many ways we have made great progress; businesses, communities, schools and churches have used June and Pride month to express support of the LGBTQ community all year long, and not just in big, coastal cities. And brands have gotten in on the action, in a big way. And therein lies the risk.
Once an issue of societal importance becomes a marketing opportunity, brand imposters enter the fray. This “rainbowing of everything” harkens back to the craze of pink-ification of products back in the 90’s, which began in support of the Susan G. Komen foundation and the cause of finding a cure for breast cancer. From the pink Polo sweatshirt to pink kitchen appliances, there are so many pink products and promotions that an initiative called “Think Before You Pink” was born to shine the light on inauthentic and inappropriate brand activity, and demand transparency about just how much support these brands were giving to the cause. The difference here is that as a society, we’re limited in the direct impact we can have on curing a life-threatening disease. However, we CAN impact the legislation that oppresses civil rights. So, while brands certainly have the power to amplify public awareness through these activations, rainbow logos can’t be authentic if they aren’t backed by real action.
Let us be clear…..as the first PR firm to launch a formal LGBTQ practice back in 2014, and one of the first (if not the first) to offer domestic partner benefits in the 90’s (long before it was a thing) – we believe in taking a stand for inclusion and respect for all people. Brands are smart to recognize the purchasing power of the LGBTQ community, and the inclination for people who support LGBTQ issues to be CorpSumers™ and brand advocates. But brands must be authentic when they take a stand. We’ve said it before, goodwashing is the new greenwashing, and authenticity is pretty hard to fake.
As brands have embraced Pride Month and introduced some really awesome products, promotions and campaigns, we’ve also seen some truly epic fails. Rainbow MAGA hats, anyone? (Which should not be confused with the Human Rights Campaign’s Make America Gay Again hats, which struck a cheeky note coming from an organization with an incredibly substantive and credible track record). People are questioning fashion brands for making rainbow apparel items in countries where being gay is against the law. Or whose corporate PACs (or leaders) donated to politicians with decidedly anti-LGBTQ positions. This is a great example of being noticed for the wrong reasons.
Participation in Pride month should be an external expression of your organization’s internal culture. Full stop. If your company truly practices inclusion both in policy and in reality, then by all means, fly the rainbow flag, create the merchandise, march in the parade. But if your policies, and more importantly, the experiences of your people don’t reflect authentic inclusion, focus your efforts there first. This isn’t to say that you need to be perfect, when it comes to inclusion every organization is a work in progress.
Here are three questions to ask yourself before activating at Pride:
1. Does your organization offer equal protections and policies for all employees?
a. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s corporate equality index lists essentials for a company being inclusive of employee rights. Would your workplace make the rankings?
2. Is your LGBTQ leadership involved in the decision-making process for Pride activation ideation and implementation?
a. Diversity is representation across gender, sexuality, race, culture, etc. Inclusion is the equal treatment of diverse groups of people. Solely heteronormative leadership making these decisions is comparable to recent events in Georgia.
3. Are your actions dictated by fear or courage?
a. Though there is no substantial evidence of consumer backlash for activating outside the major coastal cities, the myth still exits. If your brand can’t fully stand behind an activation, in any location or environment, it isn’t authentic; and that is the backlash brands should fear.
This piece was co-authored by MWWPR’s expert on LGBTQ marketing Stephen Macias, SVP Diversity & Inclusion and Carreen Winters, who leads MWWPR’s Reputation Management practice.