Feature

The end of pink washing: why waving the rainbow flag as a marketing strategy can no longer fly

In the lead up to the Pride, brands around the world have sought to show support by putting the iconic rainbow flag on their marketing collateral. But just how many are actually supporting the LGBTQ+ community all-year round?

The support for Pride over the last few years has seen many of the world’s biggest brands use the rainbow flag on adverts, logos, shop window and even products. However, when the marches halt and the celebrations come to an end, as does a lot of the support from those supposedly proud brands.

Last month, social media users started to call out the brands that they believed were unashamedly using the event as a marketing tool.

UK Pride Network co-founder, Steve Taylor was one of them. Speaking to the Drum, he argued that Costa Coffee was one of the worst in his experience despite the brand showing support with rainbow flat whites last year and coffee cups this year and claiming the proceeds support Pride.

“When I asked [Costa Coffee], they said the proceeds are going to support their own internal LGBTQ+ network,” he said. “You shouldn’t be asking your customers to support an [internal] network, you should be doing that [as a company].

“When a company slaps Pride on something and makes money off it it’s a real kick in the teeth for organisers. For example, H&M’s Pride range is supporting United Nations’ campaign for LGBTQ+ equality. Well no, if you are making money off Pride, donate it to Pride.

“There is no objection to company having Pride products or campaigns, but it’s about being ethical when doing it.”

A spokesperson from Costa Coffee confirmed the money raised from the sales does go to its internal network rather than the charity, saying: "We wanted to do this as a way to showcase our support for our LGBTQ+ colleagues and customers to celebrate diversity."

The brand stressed the rainbow cups come at a cost for the business and that by selling them at no extra cost, the campaign "drives and facilitates positive conversations".

H&M had not responded to The Drum’s request for comment at the time of writing.

But many brands are doing work to support the LGBT+ communities outside of the Pride event. Though Taylor has publicly called out Absolut as a brand that doesn’t support Pride, its own marketer has said that while it doesn’t sponsor the parade or charity directly, it has been at the forefront of the fight for equality for nearly 40 years.

For example, it was one of the first to advertise on the outside back cover of some of the most prominent gay magazines The Advocate and After Dark.

“It’s not about supporting Pride for us, because that’s just once per year,” explained Adam Boita, head of marketing at Absolut,

Instead the brand used the month of parades last year to activate its 72 Kisses campaign, which highlighted the countries it is still illegal to be homosexual.

“It wasn’t just about creating an advertising campaign,” Boita said. “It was about going that step further to raise awareness of a core issue and raise money for what is a great organisation not only within the UK but internationally.”

Barclays has also worked hard to show that it’s not jumping on the bandwagon, despite being Pride in London’s headline sponsor.

In 2012 it became one of the first banks to feature a same-sex couple in its advertising and promote a transgender woman to branch manager. After setting up its internal LGBTQ+ group, Spectrum, and knowing that its colleagues attended the parade every year, the bank decided to ink a formal sponsorship in 2014 to show colleagues that it supported them.

“It’s our colleagues, customers and clients, it’s the UK population, that’s what gives us the confidence and credibility to be out there with the sponsorship of Pride,” said Rachel Henley head of UK sponsorship at Barclays.

“Our involvement in Pride has always been colleague driven. We absolutely wouldn’t be in this space if we weren’t authentically doing work in the space behind the scenes.”

To be a partner in Pride, brands have to prove to the organisers that they are not jumping on the bandwagon and show how they support the LGBTQ+ community throughout the year.

Despite this, a Pride London survey found that 36% of people think they event is now too commercial.

The director of strategic partnerships at Pride in London, Polly Shute, explained that while there are a lot of commercial partners, the event wouldn't survive without them and, contrary to what many believe, it does turn brands away regularly.

“There are very few of them that would be naïve enough to jump on this without doing some due diligence to make sure they have the right policies in the workplace,” she said.

“If we are not convinced by their rationale and we think it is more just to make money from the crowds, then we would tend to not work with them.”

Though these brands might be turned away from an official tie-up with the event, they are still invited to march independently to show support. They will also be guided by the team at Pride in London on how they better show support for the LGBTQ+ community in their workplace.

Regardless, if a brand is an Absolut, Barclays or Costa when it comes to Pride, the decision of how to support for the LGBTQ+ community should come from the desire to do so year in and out.

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