As June ends, businesses will begin unpacking the data and numbers around their LGBTQIA+ Pride-focused marketing efforts. They’ll look to understand how many people purchased Pride-themed merchandise, took advantage of Pride-focused sales or engaged with messages of support, allyship and inclusivity on social media. Then, at 11:59 p.m. on June 30, those same businesses will switch their logos on social media from the rainbow-themed alternative back to the original, take down the Pride flags from stores, shift email marketing campaigns to focus on what’s coming next and donate or sell the last remaining stock of their rainbow-colored products. For many, that will be the last time they think about the LGBTQIA+ community until planning for next year’s Pride initiatives starts in early Spring.
While many businesses’ Pride-focused activities come from an authentic place of allyship and actions from business coalitions have helped support LGBTQIA+ people and causes, there are just as many examples of businesses “rainbow-washing” and using Pride as a marketing scheme without actually supporting the community. While we haven’t yet seen a business experience extreme public backlash due to rainbow-washing, the ingredients are all there. Consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Z, are actively looking into the activities – not just the words or supportive visuals – of the companies they work for and buy from. If those activities go against what companies say during June, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll make their displeasure known.
As businesses evaluate the results of Pride 2021, they must also consider what, if any, reputational risks those efforts pose and consider any mitigating actions they may need to take.
Profit And Purpose
One of the easiest ways businesses can showcase their allyship is to develop an ongoing partnership with an LGBTQIA+ organization. Among the numerous benefits these partnerships provide, they can showcase the business’s commitment to LGBTQIA+ causes and offer resources and education to help the business expand its understanding of issues facing the community. Additionally, these partnerships can lead to volunteer or service opportunities for employees, facilitate mentorship programs between leadership and LGBTQIA+ youth and provide ongoing support to the organization through charitable donations from the business.
While there are countless organizations to choose from, the right partnership will depend on a number of factors such as the size of the company and how LGBTQIA+ issues fall within its broader purpose. For larger organizations that have a national footprint, entities like Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, The Trevor Project, National Center for Transgender Equality and others might be more appropriate partners. For businesses at the regional or local level, it might be more appropriate to partner with LGBTQIA+ organizations within their communities, so they can have a more direct impact within their markets.
Integrate Pride into Company Culture
One major area of risk for any business is marketing towards LGBTQIA+ consumers but forgetting about their own employees who are also members of that community. It won’t take employees long to notice if their employer changed its logo on social media to include a rainbow, but they still don’t feel safe coming out to their colleagues and managers. Internal Diversity, Equity & Inclusion efforts should include components that help advocate for LGBTQIA+ colleagues, ensure the workplace is a safe and welcoming space where they can be themselves (and, in turn, produce the best work for their employer) and, ultimately, create a workplace that is equitable for all. While there are a number of ways businesses can do this, a few basic first steps could include:
- Adding pronouns to email signatures and using gender-inclusive language in the workplace.
- Ensuring discrimination policies include LGBTQIA+ employees, especially in regions or areas where legal protections are lacking.
- Updating benefits policies to include LGBTQIA+ employees and their families, specifically around spousal benefits and parental leave.
Don’t Play Both Sides
Pride and the causes of the LGBTQIA+ community have come a long way in the past 50 years, but it’s important to remember that Pride began as a riot and protest led by queer and transgender people of color. While today’s Pride parades may look different, political activism and social justice issues will always be intrinsically linked to Pride. If businesses want to participate in Pride-focused activities and appeal to the LGBTQIA+ community, they must have their own political house in order and need to draw a bright line between who they will and won’t support. This means researching specific politicians to understand their commitment to LGBTQIA+ issues before making any political contributions and regularly checking in to make sure that commitment is still there. If something changes, businesses must be prepared to reevaluate their contributions, even if the politician has been a strong proponent of the business or its industry, as not doing so could present a significant risk to the business’s own reputation. It’s far too easy to discover which corporations donate to politicians who propose or back laws specifically attacking LGBTQIA+ people and activists are already starting to call those companies out.
While playing both sides of an issue may once have been an acceptable business tactic, that is no longer the case. Younger generations want to buy from and work for businesses that share their values, and with the amount of disruption and innovation taking place across all industries, brand loyalty only goes so far.
Pride is a time to celebrate love, diversity and inclusivity. For businesses that live up to those ideals, tying their brand to Pride is a wonderful way to display allyship and any commitments they’ve made to make the world better for the LGBTQIA+ community. But trying to engage that community and not living up to those ideals could lead to significant and long-lasting reputational consequences. As this year’s celebrations end, businesses must take a hard look at their strategies for next year to ensure they’re engaging and not exploiting a still-marginalized community.