While a brand’s mission statement can say a lot about a brand, the visual aspect of your brand can speak volumes. Logo, colors, web and graphic design, and more can connect with a community more than words.
But branding is much more than the visual assets that are associated with it. And no example is more poignant than when June rolls around and brands associate themselves with Pride Month.
Rainbows start appearing in apps, on products, and on brand logos right on the first of the month. To some, it feels like a comforting show of public solidarity that the LGBTQ+ community does not always enjoy.
But to others, brands can easily cross the line from showing support to downright pandering.
Let’s explore the difference.
When Marketing Crosses Into Pandering
One of the primary jobs of every marketer is to help sell the brand and the products/services to their target audiences. Some might see the LGBTQ+ community as another niche community to target to broaden the pool of people who might buy what their brands are selling.
That is probably why so many brands have jumped at the opportunity to slap some rainbows on their social profiles and join the Pride conversation. Countless and extremely well-known brands, from Chipotle to Banana Republic to Verizon Wireless, are promoting Pride clothes, flags, accessories, and more to keep up with the high demand for these products.
Brands teeter between a genuine celebration of Pride and problematic advertising that feels forced, or worse: pandering. So, in this situation, where is the line?
Here’s The Key: Intention Matters
When launching a new campaign, every brand and every marketer needs to ask themselves: Why are you taking this action? In the case of Pride, for example, you could ask: "Why are you selling this Pride shirt?" "Why are you making this logo in the colors of the Pride flag?"
There are some common reasons why companies choose to highlight Pride month through their brand, promotion, and advertising, such as:
To show solidarity with the community
To raise money for related charities
To make money
One of these things is not like the other.
The general public has caught on that many brands are less committed to the first two reasons and primarily add Pride to their marketing and content calendars in light of the last answer: to make money. In fact, half of Americans consider items that are Pride-themed to be a marketing ploy rather than a genuine representation of a company’s values, according to a study by YouGov.
Seriously, people have really strong opinions about companies and Pride.
Of course, brands are in the business of making money, but that doesn’t change the fact that consumers want to buy from companies they can trust and who they feel understand the importance of Pride to the LGBTQ+ community and the visibility of this community.
Even if your goal is to make money AND support the LGBTQ+ community in the process, it can still come across as inauthentic.
Credibility Joining the Conversation
At the end of the day, marketing is about honestly communicating with your potential clients/customers and actively providing value. Before you embark on reaching out to a new audience segment (or even before you talk to your typical audience), it becomes key to consider the questions below.
How are you providing value to this audience?
There is something to be said for supporting a cause or a community. But the old adage of “actions speak louder than words” holds extremely true in this case.
You can support a candidate for office, but if you don’t campaign for them, tell others about them, donate to them, or vote for them, how much does your “support” make a real difference?
Chipotle handed out "¿Homo estás?" ads at Pride parades in 2015 that received some criticism for exploiting the Supreme Court case that made same-sex marriage legal (though they had used use the phrase in marketing campaigns in years prior).
Now, however, they have pivoted to selling T-shirts with the saying and donating proceeds to LGTBQ+ organizations; this feels more real, relatable, and is a tangible value they are giving to the community.
Have you historically communicated with this audience? And if not, why now?
In the case of Pride, a lot of people are labeling some brands as clear pandering if it appears a brand has come out of the woodwork in support of LGTBQ+ rights when they typically show very little or no support, or worse if they have intentionally or inadvertently harmed the movement or the community.
If you haven’t been historically involved, that doesn’t mean you have to stay out of the conversation! It does mean, however, that you need to provide a lot of value and show that you are serious about bringing these issues to light within your brand.
Johnson & Johnson is an example of a brand that has seriously committed to helping the LGBTQ+ community. I noticed their rainbow-adorned products at Target and was intrigued by the note at the top of the label that said in bold, "More than just a rainbow."
It goes on to say that they started a CARE WITH PRIDE™ program back in 2011 and has raised $1 million+ for its partner nonprofits. A Johnson & Johnson executive vice president recently wrote about the importance of allyship and how they started the Open&Out program to foster a safe, diverse culture. In a lot of their messaging related to helping the LGBTQ+ community, they mention that it is their overall brand goal to "help people everywhere live longer, happier, healthier lives." They have made a commitment, and the care they show in their contributions and content resonates well.
If you want to be like Johnson & Johnson and supporting the community on an ongoing basis, consider why, and then consider telling that story to your audience.
How do you plan to continue to stay involved?
While a campaign can be a one-time thing, your values certainly shouldn’t be. If you are deciding to adjust what your brand cares about, it is important to incorporate that into the DNA of your organization and continue providing support.
Supporting Pride gives brands a platform to speak to an underserved audience that has historically been kept out of the conversation when it comes to human rights.
Many companies have taken support to a new level, making LGBTQ+ protections a major part of their company culture. Microsoft, for example, proudly boasts 48 different Employee Resource Groups (ERG) and Employee Networks that help Microsoft team members connect with like-minded people.
They also raise money for LGBTQ+ awareness causes such as the Trevor Project, Mermaids, ACON, Egale, and more and dedicate resources to the inclusion of all queer people. This year, they have pledged to contribute $100,000 in support of these causes with their new Pride product offering, such as their $14.99 limited-time Pride-themed Skin case for the Surface Pro.
Their website includes all different types of callouts to learn more about the organizations they support as well as links to other LGBTQ+ resources and information.
Be upfront with your audience: Let them know which causes you support and how you have been a part of supporting them.
Journalist and trans activist, Shon Faye describes pinkwashing as “a PR strategy that is designed to conceal distressing realities and uncomfortable truths [and] isolates sexuality from class, race, nationality, religion, and gender in order to tell us that equality is possible for all”—a strategy that proves to be a winning one.
A brand can only establish a real connection by being real. So, how does a brand truly exude genuine support of the LGBTQ+ community?
First, be brave and open up the floor for important discussions, both internally and through your marketing campaigns. Second, create a diverse, representative team that brings many different perspectives to the table.
My company changed their logo in honor of Pride. In our case, we changed our logo because our leadership is represented by proud members of the LGBTQ+ community, and our company fosters an accepting, comfortable workplace for all. We want to show people that we are committed to a supportive, welcoming, safe, and open company culture for our employees, but also their loved ones.
During Pride (or any other cause or movement you want to contribute to), it is important to recognize the problems and struggles your audience (and even members of your company) deals with and ask yourself how you can honestly position yourself to be not just vocal, but helpful.