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How Rainbow-Washing Threatens Brands

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How Rainbow-Washing Threatens Brands

Here on Branding Strategy Insider, we’ve shared a few insights about brands that engage in a kind of “virtue-hustling” where campaigns and messaging signal to consumers that the brand cares about things society cares about. Some of these brands, especially the purpose-driven vanguards like Tom’s and Patagonia, have the credibility to talk about virtuous things, because they’re doing virtuous things. Others…well, lack evidence.

Over the weekend, it seemed like half of the brands I follow on social media have updated their profile avatars with some sort of rainbow design cues to mark the beginning of LGBT+ Pride Month. With diversity and inclusion being such a dominant topic in corporate culture, many brands are getting into the game, updating their packaging, sponsoring events, and creating in-store displays. But attempts to cash in on the rainbow (or really any color associated with a cause) without giving back to the community could send a tone-deaf message that might do more harm than good.

As reported by The Independent, “Already this year M&S, Ralph Lauren, Boohoo, Ikea, Dr. Martens, Primark, Adidas, the Co-op, Under Armour, Converse, Skittles, Virgin Atlantic, Reebok, Levi’s, Apple, Banana Republic, Milk Makeup, Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch, Starbucks, Asos and Disney have done it. Listerine and even Donald Trump (no really) are flogging pride products to varying degrees of apathy, bemusement and, in Trump’s case, utter indignation from many members of the LGBT+ community.”

As it becomes increasingly easy for consumers to learn about what brands are up, brands open themselves up to being questioned, often very publicly. Wells Fargo has been sponsoring pride festivals around the US since the late 90s, but two years ago, Washington DC residents interrupted the Capital Pride Festival questioning the brand. Jen Deerinwater told NBC News, “Wells Fargo is one of the primary financial backers of the Dakota Access Pipeline. As an indigenous person and as a queer person, I cannot understand why Capital Pride would work with an organization that is actively causing harm to our community members.”

In a Guardian op-ed, Steven Thrasher adds, “Corporations like Wells Fargo, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman like to brand themselves as LGBT ‘allies’. But as I’ve written for many years, you do not get to be in the business of taking away the homes of black and brown LGBT Americans and get to say you are our ally. Nor do you get to lob Tomahawk cruise missiles on black and brown LGBT people in other countries and say you are our friend.”

Indeed, a number of brands who have colorized their logos or repackaged merchandise do business in countries and with regimes where LGBT+ people are persecuted. And consumers can be quick to make judgements when that kind of hypocrisy is present.

So, before you go colorizing your logo for LBGT+ Pride, the environment, or some other noble cause, ask yourself two questions:

1. Is My Brand Making A Substantial Contribution To The Cause We’ve Co-Opted? It’s great that you might donate a small portion of the proceeds made from a rainbow bottle of mouthwash or inclusive coffee cups, if your commitment doesn’t go beyond the transaction, customers may take notice and call you out. In the case of Pride and other D&I initiatives, this means ensuring customers and employees feel welcome, that there is representation throughout the organization. In the case of the environment, or green-washing, it means committing to a cleaner supply chain, significant energy reduction. You get the idea.

2. Are We Prepared To Take A Consistent Position? There’s nothing worse than a brand that co-opts a moment or cause because it’s trendy, not because they care. Gillette and Pepsi, I’m looking at you. As an example, Puma released a Pride collection last year, but it has opted not to do so in 2019. Instead, they’re going to focus on building more relationships with global organizations and grassroots charities, a representative explained, adding that it will “develop product when we believe it will benefit these organizations directly.”

Remember This

Our changing world continues to remind us that brands should never be considered finished. They aren’t static, but are temporal and evolutionary. They can be better understood if considered in a state of perpetual development. For your brand to find its place in the world and keep it requires more flexibility, movement and authenticity than ever before.

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