How brands can avoid accusations of rainbow washing this Pride month

How brands can avoid accusations of rainbow washing this Pride month

Sensu Insight’s analysis of the term ‘rainbow washing’ in online content and conversations suggests that there has been a 13% rise in accusations of rainbow washing in the UK over the last year (22 June 2022 to 21 June 2023).

Pride month is a flashpoint for accusations being levelled at brands, with 40% of all mentions coming during Pride month in June.

Brands caught up in rainbow washing controversies include:

  • Burger King with its infamous Pride Whopper, which allowed customers to order their burger with same-sided bun halves. This Austrian ad campaign (for which the agency quickly apologised) has now reached urban myth status and is repeated regularly across the world as the archetype of bad-taste Pride branding.

However, other brands’ experiences demonstrate the flip-side of showing Pride colours – especially US brands considered to have socially conservative customer bases. Such examples show how campaigns can incite widespread public anger – attracting accusations of insincere rainbow washing and even boycotts for going too far.

When brands enter such territory, they need to do so with their eyes open and a full appreciation of the issues at stake. They should:

  • Be consistent – if Pride’s values and inclusivity are core to what the business does then it should be prepared to live by those beliefs, even (and especially) when it is hard to do so. For example, multinational brands can’t pick and choose their beliefs depending on the local market and still expect to be considered authentic.
  • Be transparent – if delivering progressive business marketing is challenging, then it’s important to say so and explain why. Brands aren’t perfect and will make mistakes, but they should own those errors and commit to try harder.
  • Not expect praise – in fact, the response may be suspicious and cynical. Brands can only prove values over time and by withstanding times when they are put under stress.
  • Build community partnerships – enabling LGBTQ+ staff and customers to shape and deliver campaigns. They should listen to these stakeholders, learn and adapt to what they hear.

And if they can’t do that, they should keep out of it!

However, there are some examples that show that if the marketing is good enough, even the most cynical observer can’t help but be won over. Perhaps the best recent examples of this are some of McDonald’s efforts – such as this ad, with one tweeter summing up the audience response as “Is it rainbow washing? Yes. Does it warm my gay little heart? Also yes.”

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Emily Mcgowanphoenix
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