Going beyond the rainbow: how brands can support Pride the right way
Written by Ann Amarawansa and others
As this year’s Pride month has now ended, we wanted to take a retrospective look at what brands need to consider when creating campaigns that demonstrate sincerity and support to the LGBTQ+ community.
Pride month is a time for celebrating diversity, inclusion, and community. It’s an important opportunity to help LGBTQ+ voices get heard, to raise awareness, and let those who feel marginalised know that they are not alone and that they are accepted.
As acceptance of LGBTQ+ people has grown in recent decades, so too has commercial interest. Every year, more companies seem to delve into the world of Pride marketing with rainbow logos, Pride floats, and limited-edition products popping up as soon as 1st June arrives.
It’s fair to say that what started out as a protest has become a commercialised movement as the years have passed.
Naturallly, with this commercialisation comes cynicism towards brands that wish to be involved. Last year, a US study found that 42% of LGBTQ+ respondents viewed brands that tailor ads to Pride and the community as ‘inauthentic’.
We’ve felt conflicted over brands supporting Pride in the past. We both believe that there can be real, long-term positive impacts made through brands supporting the LGBTQ+ community – but also we recognise that some misjudged choices have justified some of this cynicism around ‘pinkwashing’.
Real, impactful support
For a brand to offer genuine support to the LGBTQ+ community, creating lasting change must take precedence over financial gain.
Take Absolut Vodka, one of the first brands to actively market to their gay customers.
Absolut’s history with the LGBTQ+ community stands out from a crowded field of alcohol companies that sponsor Pride events annually. The company has featured full page adverts in gay publications since the early 1980s. In 2003, Absolut worked directly with Gilbert Baker, designer of the Pride flag, to create the Key West Sea to Sea flag.
This year, Absolut created a special bottle alongside the Gilbert Baker Foundation – a nonprofit corporation which supports LGBTQ+ artists and the creative community, as well as helping connect major brands with community projects.
It’s this lasting support and the focus on benefiting the community that sets Absolut apart – making a tangible positive impact through its support of Pride.
Action-backed campaigning must have quantifiable, positive impact, such as significant donations to LGBTQ+ charities and organisations. Brands showing their support through products and campaigns is important, but this commercial enthusiasm must be matched with funding and the creation of lasting change.
This year, Reebok relaunched it’s All Types of Love collection. Originally introduced in 2020, the collection (including footwear, clothing, and accessories) is described as a love letter dedicated to LGBTQ+ friends, family, and community.
Most importantly, Reebok donated $75,000 to its Get Better Project, a global outreach program to uplift, empower, and connect LGBTQ+ youth around the world – showing that the brand is willing to go beyond product and invest in crucial support services.
Actions like this are not only raising awareness or ‘showing support’ – they’re offering real, impactful help to organisations that are providing essential services to vulnerable members of the community.
Corporate Pride isn’t inherently a bad thing – it shows signs of a society that is increasingly tolerant of and accepting towards the LGBTQ+ community. And the efforts of these corporations are often driven by the companies’ own LGBTQ+ employees.
The issues arise when corporate Pride campaigns exist only for Pride month. These short-lived displays of support often ditch genuine activism for ‘pinkwashing’ and do little to address the real-life issues that the community still faces.
The brands that have been successful in the past have focused on human-centred stories with a clear narrative. We find ourselves going back to All Out’s 2018 #GlobalPrideMakeover campaign in partnership with the Gay Times.
The film works so well because it highlights a real human issue instead of displaying empty gestures of solidarity.
Another good example is Unilever’s launch of its United We Stand campaign – a series of four short films that capture aspects of queer life across the UK. The campaign aims to amplify underrepresented voices within the community and show them in their most authentic and comfortable selves. What’s more, the films introduce the audience to diverse people spanning different ages, genders, sexualities, and ethnicities.
Which leads us to our next point.
One of the common pitfalls of Pride marketing is that brands fail to reflect the wider LGBTQ+ community. And while we’ve made progress in recent years, transgender and non-binary people (especially those of colour) remain largely underrepresented in advertising and marketing.
According to research from the advertising agency, Karmarama, only a third (36%) of LGBTQ+ people felt ads reflected the community.
We’ve seen campaigns from brands like BudLight appropriate popular slang and terminology in an attempt to appear trendy. But this only focuses on a fraction of the community – mostly cis-gendered, white, gay men.
More recently, IKEA Canada has made the headlines for its sofa covers, meant to represent various groups within the LGBTQ+ community. The bisexual ‘nobody believes you’ sofa has drawn particularly mixed feelings from the community for its bizarre depiction of bisexuality.
For brands to properly engage with the LGBTQ+ community, they need to engage with all of the community.
This year, Mastercard stepped up by introducing a feature that enables transgender and non-binary customers to display their chosen name on their card. For many, a credit, debit, or prepaid card acts as a form of identification and security.
But for some within the community, the name on their card does not reflect their true identity. Mastercard’s True Name campaign is especially effective as it addresses a major issue that many transgender and non-binary people continue to face, allowing them to feel more safe and secure using the name of their choice.
So where does this leave us?
Pride has its roots deeply intertwined with protest. However, the truth is that the commercialised mass appeal of queer culture has helped further erase these rebellious roots. And, once the rainbow T-shirts, wristbands and water bottles clear away from shop windows in the first week of July, the community will be left to deal with the issues it continues to face until the next Pride month.
But there is an opportunity for brands to truly become allies by demonstrating a continuous effort, action, and commitment to helping the community. While focus should be given to genuine community engagement and external communications, brands must also remember to look inwards and provide proper support and a voice to their own LGBTQ+ employees.
As we reflect on this year’s Pride together, it is crucial to remember that for so many people, Pride is more than just a month – it is a lived reality.