Pride in the land of marketing, opportunity or threat?
‘Pinkwashing’ damages a brand’s reputation, 24/7 responsibility required
By Bob Bruinenberg, Creative Advisor at MSL in Amsterdam
Every year at the beginning of August, Pride Amsterdam once again will dominate the city with the boat parade on Saturday as its festive highlight. All of Amsterdam will be covered in pink and the well-known rainbow flags will wave proudly in the wind all week. Rainbow and unicorn emojis and GIFs will rain down on social media, and many will change their profile pictures to show support for the cause. During this week, it will feel as if every Dutch citizen proudly stands behind their LGBTI community and the whole country shows strong support. Equality and gay pride are 'hot', and brands have known this for a few years now. But how sincere are all these ‘pink’ marketing campaigns?
Large companies and brands have been regular participants in the famous canal boat parade for years. While it seems nice and fun, some of these companies do little otherwise that is publicly visible to the gay community. They claim diversity to be a high priority and establish pink networks within their organizations, but don’t publicly commit themselves to igniting genuine social change around the theme and the struggle. A good example is the recent policy change where the Dutch National Railway organization now addresses passengers with 'Dear travelers' instead of 'Ladies and gentlemen'. Here too, the balance between genuine moral considerations and the need to ‘jump on’ the current gender-neutrality debate for a quick PR-stunt is cloudy at best.
The 'pinkwashing' phenomenon is advancing rapidly. Pinkwashing - the opportunistic use of the LGBTI community to be seen as progressive and tolerant presents a huge risk to reputation. For example, a couple of years ago the Israeli Tourism Board started to promote Israel as a gay-friendly holiday destination. The goal was to portray the country as progressive. The campaign was criticised as pinkwashing because it seemed as though they were trying to hide the controversy and anger over the treatment of Palestinians.
Within the world of advertising, communication, and marketing, businesses are trying to showcase more differences. Some companies are slowly stepping up their game -- not so much in an active policy, but through statements and financial assistance. Some brands such as the #BeTrue apparel line of Nike, a gay-friendly line, direct proceeds to the LGBT Sports Coalition. Proceeds of limited edition t-shirts by HEMA and the Eau de Tolérance from De Bijenkorf (both are Dutch department stores) go to the COC, the Dutch LGTBI rights organization. In these cases, the brands take a stand and support the community at the same time. It’s a positive development, but the fun and lifestyle factor remains very high.
The question from many in the community is where is the support when the glitter and Gay Pride confetti are washed out of our hair? After Gay Pride, what brands take actions to address key ongoing issues like the fact that many LGBTI people in the once-so-tolerant Netherlands feel unsafe on the streets?
Authenticity and sincerity are essential
Societal criticism on the role of companies during Gay Pride is increasing. To many in the LGBTI community, Gay Pride appears to be slowly evolving into a corporate affair where these companies seek to showcase how ‘pink’ they are. For some, it sometimes feels like companies are only waving the rainbow flag for 'free' attention and opportunity to improve their employer brand.
Yes, it is marketing and that’s fine, but it feels wrong when brands market without sincerity and authenticity. That does not mean it can’t be done right. For years, Vodka brand Absolut has consistently committed themselves to the LGBTI community by making statements, continuously financing LGBTI foundations and by involving the community in the development of campaigns. In addition, values such as progressiveness and diversity are anchored in the company culture. There’s no mismatch with the values of the community and a sincere, sustainable outreach.
Finding the right path
I’m not writing this blog to point a finger at those companies that are not doing well in terms of their pink advertising. We are not there yet, but it warms my heart that more and more brands are working towards a positive image of LGBTI people in the Netherlands. This warrants encouragement, especially for those brands that try to be sincere and implement it throughout the whole business and the entire year, not just during Gay Pride. On the other hand, merely pinkwashing for cheap kudos during Gay Pride is erroneous and can damage an organization’s reputation.
Brands should look to find their role, own it, and make a real difference. They should move from storytelling to action. For example, their actions can involve setting up educational programs, providing information, arranging meetings or supporting local initiatives. They can actively engage in changing the social problems surrounding LGBTI people.
National campaigns are part of this and it’s only fair that companies want to communicate their support. But companies need to stand for something deep internally before communicating it externally. Emphasizing inclusivity and equality is never a bad thing, but businesses need to do more than just depict a gay couple, or rebrand their products with a rainbow flag or glitter. They need to commit to being genuine, or reconsider communicating at all. The genuinely supportive brands will keep supporting the community even if the next Gay Pride is still months away, and the community will take notice.
Interested in starting a conversation about how to properly engage in this year’s Gay Pride? Let us know! Bob Bruinenberg is a Creative Advisor with MSL in Amsterdam who supports a variety of clients in the office. He has been with MSL since 2016. Connect with him: @bobbruinenberg.