It’s June, which has meant a month of events commemorating Pride. The annual celebration of the diverse and multifaceted LGBTQIA+ community is marked in a multitude of ways—dazzling parades, debaucherous parties, friends and family get-togethers, lavish fundraisers, and more throughout the month. And for many brands, it’s become tradition to join in the festivities and show support by sponsoring parade floats, changing their logos to incorporate rainbow motifs, and selling Pride-branded merchandise.
A running joke is that on July 1 these brands shed their multicolored identities like snakeskins, and the Pride paraphernalia disappears faster than you can say “heteronormativity.” We’re accepted, represented, and visible for 30 days, and that’s all we get.
Harsher critics believe that in their shallow participation, brands are unfairly capitalizing on this minority group and raking in profits from product sales while doing little or nothing to improve rights for queer people on the whole. Some see it as false support and “rainbow capitalism,” especially when companies that rainbow-wash their logos treat their LGBTQIA+ employees poorly and donate generously to causes that harm them.
Fair points. And these brands, companies, and their leaders should absolutely be put under pressure to do more for LGBTQIA+ people year-round until we truly reach a place of equality. But shouldn’t we also celebrate how far we’ve come in the past few years? A decade ago, very little corporate backing or brand support existed for the community, financially or otherwise. It wasn’t long ago that most brands couldn’t care less.
Now, surface-level branding changes are going hand in hand with more comprehensive changes in company culture, and have proven to positively impact public perception of the LGBTQIA+ community. So any brand’s decision to get involved in Pride Month—in whatever shape or form—should be seen as a precursor to real progress.
The shift in corporate support is partly due to the success of the LGBTQIA+ community as a brand itself, because that’s effectively what it is. If we think of the community as a group that is trying to showcase its existence and win over public opinion, then it shares some of the most important qualities of traditional brands. The challenge of this particular brand is to convince the heterosexual majority to care about our rights and support our causes by driving cultural change among actual brands, organizations, and society.
The LGBTQIA+ brand as we know it today was “founded” as the Gay Liberation Front through a series of protests and riots in the 1960s, the most famous of which took place outside Manhattan’s Stonewall Inn after a police raid in 1969. The world slowly woke up to the brand’s existence and importance through the tireless work of outspoken activists and advocates, who strived to change opinions and eventually laws. As they succeeded, this allowed marches and protests advocating for gay rights to become celebrations, and enabled people to join in while no longer having to hide their identities.
Like any other brand, the LGBTQIA+ community needed a logo. The rainbow flag was devised by Gilbert Baker in 1978 as a symbol to represent the community. It has undergone several changes during its existence to make it more inclusive of racial and gender identities (most notably seen in Daniel Quasar’s “Progress Pride” iteration launched in 2018). And it remains a powerful visual representation of gay rights and queer acceptance—and one of the most easily recognized logos—around the world.
Corporations started using the rainbow motif during Pride Month around the time that same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S. in June 2015, when it became clear that attitudes had shifted and the majority of consumers supported equal rights for LGBTQIA+ people.
Pride is celebrated in cities on every continent, same-sex marriage is now legal in 29 countries, more national governments are banning conversion therapy, and TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Schitt’s Creek are winning fans and awards around the world. There is clear evidence of success for the LGBTQIA+ brand, as documented in GLAAD’s Accelerating Acceptance Report.
What’s more, a recent survey found that 15% of Gen Z adults in the U.S. identify as queer. That’s one in six. And in response to that fast-growing consumer group, it makes sense for brands to show that they align with this generation’s progressive values in order to win their business. Another survey, this time by Google, revealed that almost half of young millennials—the current largest consumer group—said they are more likely to support a brand after seeing an equality-themed ad.
So why is corporate involvement in Pride so important? Like it or not, major brands and businesses have incredible power over what we see and how we think. In addition to fueling the economy, their influence is staggering, particularly in parts of the country and the world where popular opinion of the LGBTQIA+ community is less than favorable, and where individuals, groups, and governments actively advocate against equal rights.
When corporations show their support for Pride each year, the repeated exposure (marketing 101) that the anti-LGBTQIA+ demographic receives has an effect over time. Despite a recent wave of anti-gay and trans rhetoric from the far right, GLAAD and Proctor & Gamble’s Inclusion in Advertising & Media report found that inclusive media images and advertising lead to greater acceptance and understanding of the LGBTQIA+ community. The findings also show that non-LGBTQIA+ consumers look favorably upon companies that include LGBTQIA+ people in their advertisements.
The efforts made by brands are working, and for the LGBTQIA+ community members in smaller cities or rural areas—who are more vulnerable to discrimination, subjected to negative rhetoric, and denied simple services like a wedding cake—the incremental changes in attitude and little glimmers of representation and visibility from brands and corporations like McDonald’s, Bank of America, Target, and Nickelodeon can make a difference. In a 2019 brand survey, 70% of consumers said it’s important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues, and 66% said they believed this is because these brands have the power to create real change due to the wide reach of their platforms.
To be clear, many companies still have a lot of work to do within their own cultures to create lasting impact. At organizations large or small, it can still be extremely challenging to convince executives to approve equality initiatives, let alone implement policies and programs that benefit the community. Individuals or teams of employees might have to fight tooth and nail to get their colleagues and managers to agree to do something as small as changing a logo for Pride. Just this week, UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) refused a request to illuminate Munich’s Allianz Arena in rainbow lighting for Germany’s soccer match against Hungary—which has banned the depiction of homosexuality to under-18s—because it deemed the gesture “political.”
But Pride branding is a start. This year a rainbow logo, hopefully next year an acknowledgement of preferred pronouns. Between 2016 and 2021, the number of companies on the Corporate Equality Index has more than tripled, and the proportion that earned a 100% rating and the designation of being a “Best Place to Work for LGBTQ Equality” has risen by 16%.
It’s important to note that some of the top-ranking corporations that advertised support for Pride Month have also been donating millions to politicians who support anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation. This is where we need to build pressure and accountability, so that C-suite executives will eventually back organizations that protect their employees, rather than harm them.
Until identifying as LGBTQIA+ is fully accepted everywhere, brands can help to encourage acceptance and normalize diversity through gestures no matter how small. So let’s applaud the Pride Instagram posts, merchandise, and branding that have popped up this month—even if it’s only for 1 month out of 12—and honor those who have worked so hard to make these positive gestures possible. After all, wouldn’t we rather businesses welcome LGBTQIA+ people than ignore their existence entirely?
Dan Howarth is editorial director at Base Design and Jonathan Marotto is a branding consultant.