Rainbow Capitalism and the queer culture debate

Thought Leadership
In this piece, Head of R&I Paul Greenwood examines the conversations which took place on social media during Pride month (June) and shares his key learnings for brands who want to connect with the LGBTQ+ community in a real way.

2019 is a big deal for the LGBTQ+ community. It marks 50 years since the Stonewall riots took place in Greenwich Village, New York. The final straw was the raid on the Stonewall Inn early in the morning of 28 June 1969.

The raid and the subsequent riots were the catalyst in the creation of the gay liberation movement and the campaign for equality for the LGBTQ+ community; a rich and diverse counter culture that has shaped mainstream culture in many ways.

The most visible reminder of the riots nowadays are the Pride parades that take place across the world, most often in June, which is world Pride Month. In recent years the parades have increasingly become commercialised and mainstream. This has led to accusations of corporate appropriation and a dilution of what it means to be queer, all of which plays into a wider trend around “woke-washing” – brands exploiting cultures for financial gain.

To understand how this is playing out for brands on social, we’ve taken a look at the social conversations happening in the UK since the beginning of June.

First, let’s get the big numbers out of the way:

There were more than 950K conversations about Pride in June with London (36%), Manchester (7%) and Birmingham (5%) the top cities contributing to the conversation. The conversation was driven by:

Sadly, three of the top four conversation drivers could be seen as attacks on the community and the rights we’ve campaigned for 50 years. There’s always more that can and should be done.

So what about brands?
There were 17.5K conversations around what role brands can play within Pride. The main thrust of the conversation centred on Rainbow Capitalism – brands cashing in on the LGBTQ+ community as a way to flog more stuff.

The role of brands within Pride has been a long-often debated one. In the early years (and even today), the big corporate sponsor brought in the much-needed cash to stage Pride, making the parades bigger and better while increasing the visibility of the cause beyond the community. Brands have extended beyond this by “coming out” in support the community around Pride.

This is very much appreciated by most, but has caused tensions in two ways:

The first is the feeling that the community is being used for commercial gain. Brands and companies whack a rainbow logo on their social profiles or add guacamole to a classic BLT and, for them, they’ve flexed their “woke” credentials for the year. It’s seen as a tick-box exercise; a form of exploitation through “corporate appropriation”. The community is wise to this and quick to – as the drag community would say – read them to filth.

Having said that, there are some supporters of brands playing a role at this time whilst others see it as a necessary evil – as well as something that brings joy to the inner 10-year-old.

The second tension arises when Pride events become more mainstream, meaning there’s a certain pressure to conform to more established ideas.

There are accusations of the erosion of queer identity through the exclusion of certain sub-cultures. The LGBTQ+ community has always been a broadchurch: focused on inclusion and acceptance of different communities. Pride came about as protest against long-established societal norms. To apply heteronormative ideals to it causes friction within certain parts of the community that needs to be taken into account by brands looking to get involved.

So how should brands engage?
It’s relatively simple: don’t engage if you’re not giving back to the community. If you’re going to talk the talk you have to walk the walk. A show of support through a rainbow logo is great as long as you’re a genuinely inclusive workplace, all year round. Like any social cause, your business should only get involved in Pride if you’re backing it up in your day-to-day operations and giving something back to the community you’re promoting.

Brands also need to have the courage of their convictions. If you are supporting the LGBTQ+ community, and reflecting this in your marketing, then you need to be prepared to defend this decision – and the community you’re standing for – against hateful sentiment online. Posting a picture of a same-sex couple as of part of your campaign means nothing if there is a stream of harmful comments underneath which have gone unchallenged or simply ignored.

Last year, we published our Braving the Backlash report to help brands prepare for and appropriately tackle just this issue.

Best in class examples
Levi’s is a great example of a brand that has been supporting the community since the 1980s. Notably, it was the first Fortune 500 company to extend the health benefits of its employees to unmarried domestic partners in 1992. Whilst last year campaigned heavily in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm that everyone has the right to marry. Ultimately the company believes that treating all people equally and fairly is good for business and each year drop a Pride collection.

We’ve also taken a look at how Absolut and Spotify have activated in and around Pride for more inclusive marketing in our Everybody’s talking about: Pride blog post.

Like all activations and campaigns, engage the LGBTQ+ community in a genuine and authentic way (with respect) and you’ll get the reaction you want from the community.