No more empty rainbow gestures: brands need to drive real change for LGBT+ equality
Earlier this week Sainsbury’s announced itself as the first UK supermarket to sell greeting cards celebrating Pride in-store. To be more exact, 207 of its 1,423 stores. The grocer says it's part of its vision to be the UK’s most inclusive retailer.
The market is increasingly seeing through empty rainbow gestures / Unsplash
10 years ago, I would have been ecstatic to see a major retailer selling Pride greetings cards. Today, however, I am very sceptical.
Piggybacking off the LGBT+ movement is simply an outdated PR tactic. It's a way for brands to align with a newsworthy and important cause without actually investing in anything or putting their brand on the line for equality. Employees and customers should be questioning what a brand is really changing, not what they appear to be doing on the surface.
Sainsbury's greetings cards are purely superficial, no more than a token gesture, a metaphorical rainbow sticker stuck in a window and no more. The proceeds are not going to LGBT+ causes and, with just under 15% of their stores actually selling the new cards, we can't be sure that they are available in remote areas where there is less LGBT+ awareness - places where increased visibility is so crucial. Selling Pride cards in, say, Brighton isn’t moving the needle; it’s just moving stock. These cards are a prime example of pinkwashing; making people believe a brand is supporting LGBT+ causes when, in reality, it's not doing anything of impact.
Given the fact that Sainsbury’s positions itself as a diverse and inclusive retailer; sponsoring Pride and regularly hosting colleague events to raise awareness of LGBT issues, one would expect that it to know better.
Another launch earlier this month came from M&S which unveiled an ‘LGBT’ sandwich.
This was a more authentic move. To start with, a sandwich is a mass market product, enabling the message to be spread across all demographics. It is in store on full display and cannot be hidden otherwise it will get thrown away. Sainsbury's greetings cards, on the other hand, are targeted for LGBT+ people who already understand the Pride message.
In addition, M&S is donating money to LGBT+ charities across the UK, directly contributing to a tangible and positive change.
So what should Sainsbury's be doing instead?
Here’s my suggestion. There is a ready-made platform it already has; the fact that every customer gets a till receipt. It's commonplace to use this space for advertising, so why not use it to explain why Pride is important? That way, whether or not a customer buys a Pride greeting card, they can be educated on the importance of diversity. This would be an easy win for Sainsbury's that I would certainly cheer about.
There's also the question of what other brands could be doing. How can companies be a part of Pride month and actually drive change and help this important cause?
Of course the obvious first move is to donate to one of the many incredible LGBT+ charities doing crucial work.
Nothing would make me happier than seeing more funding going to these organisations. But another crucial component needs to be enhancing visibility and increasing education on LGBT+ issues. It’s all well and good having a rainbow flag waving outside your store on London’s Oxford Street, or customers drinking their morning coffee from a rainbow disposable cup in a city centre, but unless this is truly nationwide and not limited to urban areas then one must question the legitimacy of the campaign. Companies should set a public example where it’s most needed.
For someone who is LGBT+ and living in a rural or less inclusive community, seeing their favourite brands championing and supporting them on their local high street can really make a difference in helping them feel less isolated. It starts a conversation and signals the social values that the brand is choosing to embrace.
With today being International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, all business leaders and marketers should take the time to consider whether, when launching a product or campaign which celebrates minority groups, they are doing it with authenticity and working to create a positive difference?
The market is increasingly seeing through empty rainbow gestures, and Pride Month is just around the corner.
Steve Wardlaw is the chairman of Emerald Life, an insurance company providing truly inclusive policies for the LGBT+ community. He's also the founder of the Emerald50 Fund, a fund set up to support LGBT+ activism in South Africa. He tweets @WardlawSteve