A Post-Pride Retrospective on Rainbow Washing: Brands Can Do Better

Aug 16, 2021

By Bill Frohlich, Senior Account Director

Now that we’re well into August and the June glitter has settled, we thought it time to revisit Marketing’s #1 question that has increasingly been the focus of attention each June. Is Rainbow Washing acceptable? 

First, a definition: similar to Green Washing with the environment or Pink Washing with Breast Cancer, Rainbow Washing is when a brand uses LGBTQ+ symbols in marketing to indicate support for the LGBTQ community and earn consumer credibility, but without any dedicated effort or pragmatic result beyond said marketing. 

Essentially, any rainbow to make a buck! Is this simply capitalism being capitalism? Or do brands have a responsibility to do more for the gay community they purport to support?

For us branding experts out there, you may catch yourself saying, “…but finding ways to engage in timely and culturally relevant conversation with consumers is Branding 101.” To which I’d say, you are correct. If your brand isn’t partaking in the give & take of culture, you’re missing out on key opportunities to build more meaningful connections.

But when it comes to PRIDE, which at the end of the day gets to the very identity of a person, the word meaningful is really the crux of the matter. Any brand can slap a rainbow on a product and say they support PRIDE, but in many cases, they’re conveying a false sense of community with LGBTQ people and their allies. This is not only wrong from an ethical standpoint, but Branding 101 also teaches us that inauthenticity is something a brand should avoid at all costs. 

As we onlookers have begun paying closer attention, it turns out many of the corporations that own these brands are not only rainbow washing, but many don’t support LGBTQ issues at all. In some cases, they are actively working against them via financial support for anti-queer politicians, lobbying for anti-queer legislation or simply having anti-queer policies that negatively affect the lives of LGBTQ employees and their families.

So, the responsibility falls back into consumers’ hands to demand more from the brands they support with their hard-earned money. Mere recognition is not enough. We have to do our homework and hold brands accountable.

While no one has ever accused Chick-Fil-A of rainbow washing (quite the opposite!), perhaps the most widely known reckoning for a brand came about a decade back when they came under fire after it was reported how deeply involved the corporation and its founder were in support of anti-queer legislative efforts. And while they have done better recently, (Chick-Fil-A as a company stopped donating several years ago), I know I will never eat there while the billionaire owner and his family continue to financially support anti-queer organizations. (Read more here)

Let us take a moment to highlight a few brands that are doing PRIDE justice:

Jägermeister’s Save the Night campaign supports lesbian bars
Kellogg’s Together with Pride cereal donates a portion of sales to GLAAD
Harry’s shaving company released a Shave with Pride set with 100% of profits donated to LGBTQ+ causes (and with stunning packaging design to boot!)
Kind Snacks KIND PRIDE bars partnered with the Ali Forney Center in support of LGBTQ+ homeless youth
Effen Vodka’s Pride 365 is a year-round offering that gives $1 to Allies in Arts for every bottle made

And that’s just a small sampling of the good work some brands are doing out there in 2021. If your brand is doing PRIDE right, let us know! We’d love to follow your journey.

It’ll be interesting to see what’s changed in 2022, and how this debate continues to take shape. For what it’s worth, I know when I visit new places and see a rainbow flag, I still feel better. Gays welcome, I read! But more than likely, it’s gays, please spend your money here.

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