How to avoid ‘rainbow washing’ during Pride Month

Cait Lamberton, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School, says corporations need to go deeper than rainbow-hued packaging.

Credit card with rainbow stripes.

More than ever, brands are signaling support for the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month. A slew of giant brands this June have launched ad campaigns or marketed Pride-themed products and services. But with consumers giving a more watchful eye to the brands they buy from, Cait Lamberton, the Alberto I. Duran President’s Distinguished Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School, says companies need to do more than put their products or rainbow packaging or change their avatars to Pride flags.

In a talk with Penn Today, Lamberton gives four takeaways on the right way for brands to approach Pride Month.

Avoiding ‘rainbow washing’

As soon as June 1 hit, brands switched social media avatars to rainbow-hued versions, made posts in solidarity, and released a slew of Pride-themed products. But Lamberton says it’s important to go deeper.

“On one hand, support feels much better than silence. Those of us who grew up in decades where the LGBTQ+ community’s needs were met with either indifference or intolerance instinctively appreciate the rainbows. At least these companies aren’t leaning away, and it’s not in the very distant memory that many did.”

“But they’re free to do this now in part because societal norms have changed. It’s hard to give a company credit for following instead of leading. Many are following. That doesn’t mean they aren’t sincere, but in itself, this is a very weak signal of commitment.”

“It’s also not clear what these rainbows mean in the context of a lot of products. It’s one thing to collaborate with and elevate the voices of LGBTQ+ designers or business leaders. That’s about affirming the contributions and equalizing representation of an underrepresented group. But putting a rainbow label on your mouthwash, which is shoved under your bathroom sink most of the time? It’s not clear what that accomplishes. We can understand if a little bit of eye rolling ensues.”

Moving the act forward

Lamberton says more than ever, consumers are turning a critical eye to the companies that they buy from, like putting pressure on businesses for donating to politicians who have pushed anti-transgender legislation.

“Some of this legislation is non-trivial. Consider, for example, North Carolina’s Senate bill presuming to ‘protect minors’ from actions taken to address gender dysphoria. This is a sweeping document: It outlaws any action that might be undertaken to facilitate a person under the age of 21’s desire to present or appear in a manner ‘inconsistent’ with the sex they were assigned at birth. The ‘parental rights’ bill, also in North Carolina, is widely argued to harm LGBTQ+ students—in part because it would require teachers to ‘out’ students to their parents if they seek help with mental health, change their pronouns, or go by different names.

“What does it mean if a company puts rainbows in its Twitter feed but supports politicians who are supporting legislation that is, in the LGTBQ+ community’s view, a direct threat to human dignity? What does it mean if an industry group—or an academic one—holds its conferences in states that are denying fundamental rights to people?

“We might say that companies are trying to hedge their bets by doing this. If they’re going to take positions that politicians might disagree with in public, they’ll compensate for it in private by writing checks to their campaigns. But as we saw in the case of Disney, that may turn out to be the riskiest move of all. No one trusts you then. Elected officials may not be around forever—but consumer sentiment, and employee morale, can affect you for a very long time.”

Corporations doing it the right way

Advocates are also pushing for more positive representation in media, including advertisements, according to Lamberton.

“The challenge here is that numbers alone aren’t enough. We’ve seen this in watching increasing visibility of historically underrepresented minorities in media over the last decade or so—the numbers themselves appear encouraging. But to really represent people requires more than a stock photo—it requires that we see people in the way they accept as accurate—that is, with a full range of yes, extraordinary accomplishments, but also in terms of very everyday virtues. That turns out to be something we’re not necessarily getting right.”

“Representation requires voice. If companies are committed to supporting the LGBTQ+ community, they need to stop making assumptions and do the work to really listen. Ask how people want to be portrayed and supported. Think beyond advertising: Think about the health insurance they provide, where they make their products available, the way their forms are set up, the kinds of media where they choose to place their products, the events they sponsor, the mentorship programs in place, and certainly, the politicians they support.”

“Some of the companies that do this well might be surprising. McKinsey, notwithstanding its somewhat complicated history, was a leader here: they founded GLAM in 1995. For nearly 30 years this group has been providing support to McKinsey team members, holding global conferences, and taking leadership on nonprofit projects. They’ve also been actively recruiting LGBTQ+ MBA students proactively for 20 years. Bain & Company was a little bit later to the game, but their BGLAD association allows employees to identify in any way from straight allyship to completely out and open.”

“Part of the reason this works is because these companies aren’t just leaning on representation using photos in ads. They’re also designing experiences that respect other aspects of peoples’ dignity: They’re making sure that people have agency, and that they feel treated in ways that affirm their equal value, contributions, and abilities.

“Consumer goods companies need to think holistically about the way they respect the dignity of LGBTQ+ customers. They can begin by asking where people may not feel seen or feel that they have a voice. They can ask where inequities begin to pop up—many companies have the data to understand this, and those that don’t should commit to collecting it. And they can ask where and how they can provide LGBTQ+ customers as much choice and agency as they want to, to control their own experiences and access the goods and services that matter to them. If they want to do it, they should do it systematically—not just internally, not just externally, not just behind the scenes and not just when it makes a public splash.

“If a firm decides that support for LGBTQ+ communities isn’t consistent with their strategy, I’d say: Be honest about it. Own the decisions your brand makes and the priorities you choose. Famously, Chick-Fil-A has made their position on many social issues unambiguous, and despite the fact that many disagree, they survive. And I think this is because in an interesting way, their transparency shows a level of respect that rainbow-colored smokescreens don’t.”

“After all, given clear information about a company, people can express their feelings and control where they spend. That’s voice and agency. But if a company hides their position, they add insult to injury. They take away the customer’s right to express themselves through their choices. And that, I’d argue, is not only deeply unethical, it’s the riskiest choice a firm can make.”

Inclusivity year-round

A 2020 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found only 1.8% of characters in ads in the Cannes Lions festival were LGBTQ+. However, Lamberton says representation is still a major factor when it comes to driving purchasing decisions for some consumers.

“It makes sense to celebrate Pride Month, Pride Week, Pride parades and Pride events. There are centuries of non-celebration to make up for, as well as widespread and ongoing aggressions and microaggressions that need a clear counterweight.

“But we have to watch out for what’s called ‘slacktivism’: doing the easy thing—going to a parade or buying a trinket—instead of dedicating ourselves to something bigger. And this is an all-year effort. Imagine if a friend said: We celebrated your birthday, so now I’m going to ignore you for the rest of the year.

“So, if the primary outcome of Pride Month is that in June we go to a parade, buy a rainbow-labeled product or pick up a cute T-shirt at Target, these events have been stripped of much of their power. What they need to spark is a year-round fight for LGBTQ+ people’s well-being, from healthcare to housing security to nondiscrimination—both within corporations and on an individual level. If that can happen, we have much more to be proud of.”