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Questions to ask to prevent pridewashing

Brands and agencies must self reflect before diving into Pride communications

George Levens (they/them)

Senior Community Manager, Puzzle

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Pride! A time for LGBTQ+ people to celebrate our successes, mourn and remember our losses, and accept branded freebies at parades.

It would be naive to deny that it can be a huge marketing opportunity for brands; from sponsored events to influencer partnerships - and brands across the globe, from Absolut to Target, regularly get in on the action. But before it is an opportunity for corporate self-congratulation, Pride is about the people.

All this to say: brands wishing to engage with the most colourful time of the year should consider a few important questions before they start flying the rainbow flag in order to avoid Pridewashing.

1. Do you know who you’re talking to?

If your marketing team are overwhelmingly cisgender and heterosexual, it might be worth sense-checking your output with the people you’re trying to engage with. This lends authority to your campaign and makes sure it’s not outdated at best (or offensive at worst), so take what they say on board.

Failure to run your campaign by literally even one single member of the community can result in horrors such as Chipotle’s ¿Homo Estas? blunder or this from Burger King Austria that demonstrates a pretty damning lack of understanding of LGBTQ+ relationship dynamics.

Successful campaigns tend not to pat themselves on the back, but rather to have an educational focus or an element of genuine allyship, like community-sourced content - see LEGO’s offering from this year - or ongoing charity partnerships, like the Talk With Pride campaign from Dreamies (yes, the cat treats) - which started in 2021 and helps to fund the LGBT foundation’s helpline, offering support to members of the community who need a friendly ear.

2. Do you know what you’re talking about?

Pride as we know it today is, generally speaking, a joyful outward manifestation of, well, pride. But the first Pride was a protest - the climax of ongoing struggles between Manhattan’s (largely Black, brown and trans) LGBTQ+ community and the police. Brushing up on your history gives context to the present day - sure, we’re celebrating, but it’s in defiance of oppression the world over.

While it’s not too controversial in most of the Western world nowadays for brands to engage with Pride, Section 28 (which banned ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools in the UK) ended less than 20 years ago in the UK - so, whether you approve of corporations getting involved with the celebrations or not, it’s a very recent shift.

It’s not always been the case that companies are willing to accept the ‘pink pound’, so it’s understandable that people may be wary of efforts to engage with the community - knowing your history gives the background necessary to engage in a more genuine way. 

3. Do you put the effort in?

This might be the most important one: what is your company doing that enables you to enter this space?

If you’re not putting in the legwork to support your LGBTQ+ team members, customers, and the community at large, then consider if a Pride campaign is really the right move.

Donating to charity is nice, but insincerity shines through no matter how much glitter you put on top - so it’s worth thinking about how you can get engaged with and support the community throughout the rest of the year, too. Whether that’s, outwardly, ongoing charity partnerships, working directly with your local community and featuring LGBTQ+ people in your marketing year round, or inwardly offering informed employee assistance programs, fostering inclusive employee peer support groups or putting policies in place for transitioning at work, for example.

And, finally: 

4. Is this space really for you?

There are some brands, or industries on the whole, that… maybe don’t need to get involved.

Maybe it doesn’t make sense in that it’s confusing (like shampoo and mouthwash) or maybe it doesn’t make sense in that it’s at odds with company operations - NSA’s photoshopped rainbow building didn’t go down too well on Twitter, for instance.

A rainbow flag does not an ally make, so think about what relevance your brand has. No one’s going to complain about it if you don’t unveil a Pride campaign, but the potential for backlash (as well as actual harm to LGBTQ+ people), if you get it wrong, should be reason to stop and think before pressing publish.

In summary, brands should think about why they’re getting involved with Pride before they bulk order the confetti - is it to genuinely support the community, or just because you feel like you have to? It’s worth taking the time to research, sense check and invest in getting it right - and if you do make a blunder, be open to admitting that you have and committed to making it right. Pobody’s perfect, but sincerity is key

Guest Author

George Levens (they/them)

Senior Community Manager, Puzzle

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Puzzle Senior Community Manager George Levens (they/them).

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