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Are companies that support Pride pink-washing?

June is Pride month, where millions of people will gather for marches and carnivals in cities around the world to celebrate LGBTQ+ communities. In recent years, there has been increasing controversy about ‘rainbow capitalism’ or ‘pink-washing’ – i.e. the practice of companies using LGBTQ imagery to promote consumerism without meaningfully contributing to improvement for LGBTQ communities. From an international marketing perspective, what’s interesting is how companies express their support for Pride in different countries around the globe.


Can social justice really be ‘localised’?

At Oban, our key message to clients is always to tailor their marketing campaigns to suit different markets. We advise against a one-size-fits-all or Anglo-centric approach to international marketing, because we know that consumer preferences and behaviours vary across cultures. That’s why we use our LIMEs –  Local In-Market Experts  – to provide the localised cultural, linguistic and digital insights which help our clients identify the biggest marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.

From the 1990s onwards, global companies have enthusiastically embraced Pride month. Their support takes various forms but often includes a Pride version of their logo – usually rainbow-themed – and re-branded social media accounts, also in rainbow colours. However, these efforts are usually reserved for Western countries where LGBTQ+ rights tend to be enshrined in law, rather than countries in the Middle East or parts of Asia, where same-sex activity remains illegal, and the law is often enforced. This double standard hasn’t gone unnoticed, with media and consumers quick to call out companies’ conflicting approaches as opportunistic or woke-washing.


A difficult balancing act

What’s tricky for companies is that consumers – especially younger ones – say they do want brands to address society’s big challenges, such as climate change and inequality. Polls show that more than half say they want to buy from brands which take a stand on social issues.

However, at the same time, consumers are increasingly sceptical about brands’ efforts in these areas. In a Pride context, some consumers see corporate sponsorships of LGBTQ events as marketing stunts rather than genuine activism. Others argue that corporate sponsorships of Pride divert focus from LGBTQ marginalisation towards the brands themselves. Critics argue that brands don’t really care about the community, citing a lack of supportive messages throughout the rest of the year. A 2021 study by Unilever found that 66% of LGBTQ individuals aged between 18 and 34 believed that people from diverse backgrounds are featured in ads ‘just to make up the numbers’.

It is obviously important that global companies acknowledge and show sensitivity to cultural norms in different markets. But Pride month – and other awareness days, weeks or months – highlight the dilemmas international marketers face when choosing to involve themselves in social justice issues:

  • When do you speak out and how do you align your message around the world to avoid accusations of inconsistency?
  • If global corporations can’t use rainbow logos in, say, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, does that make their efforts elsewhere disingenuous?
  • Is it better for companies to do something rather than nothing?

If your brand does choose to take a stand on social justice issues, it’s essential that your stance is reflected throughout your entire organisation, as consumers are quick to highlight perceived hypocrisy. For example, in 2021, The Guardian wrote about 25 companies which portrayed themselves as LGBTQ-friendly through the liberal use of rainbow-themed imagery during Pride – but had also donated sizeable sums to politicians who supported anti-gay legislation.


So how can brands navigate this?

If your brand chooses to participate in Pride or other social awareness days, weeks or months throughout the year, some tips to bear in mind include:


Be prepared for backlash

Be aware that marketing initiatives that might seem well-intentioned in one country can be poorly received in others. It’s important to evaluate risks to ensure any backlash doesn’t obscure the positive message your campaign intended to promote. This leads on to our next point, which is…


Work with Local In-Market Experts

Working with LIMEs to tailor your messages to your target markets will help you avoid potential pitfalls or costly mistakes. For any communications that depict LGBTQ themes or individuals, speak to a LIME who is a member of that community. Often the nuances that may cause offence are subtle and easy to overlook, which is why it’s essential to talk to someone on the ground who can guide you.


Generate awareness for the cause, rather than yourself

Social justice awareness days, weeks and months aim to spread the word about important and often emotive causes. The best brand campaigns are those which unselfishly contribute to that goal, so it’s worth taking your time to craft your message and ensure it sincerely matches your company ethos.


Talk about what you’re doing

As the old adage goes, show don’t tell. It’s one thing to express support for a cause – but it’s more powerful to act in support of it. Use awareness occasions to talk about what practical support your organisation is offering but be honest about what you’re doing. Make sure you practice what you preach – for example, some brands which championed International Women’s Day earlier this year attracted ridicule when it transpired that they didn’t practice equal pay themselves.


Only contribute if you have something to say

If you feel your brand has nothing of value to contribute to a particular social conversation or awareness occasion, then it’s better not to contribute than to make a token effort. There is enough social media noise already out there – brands don’t have to comment on every occasion unless they have something meaningful to say.


Be supportive all year round
Brands can trip themselves up by seeming only to support Pride in the month of June, rather than all year round. This applies to any social justice cause you support – living your values all year round, rather than on the set-piece awareness dates, will generate a greater impact and more respect from consumers in the long run.

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Planning an international digital marketing campaign? Oban can help. Our unique network of LIMEs – Local In-Market Experts – provide valuable cultural, linguistic and digital insights which often make the difference between success and failure. Get in touch to find out more.

Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion. Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.

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