The end of the corporate rainbow?

It’s Pride month, which means graphic design departments are digging out their rainbow-coloured logos and dreaming up empowering slogans, all in the name of support and solidarity for the LGBTQ+ community.  

Only this year, they’re not. 

Commentators suggest companies have significantly pulled back on activity around Pride this year, bucking a trend that has cemented June as a crucial part of the corporate calendar over the last decade. The reason for this development? Not completely clear. 

Perhaps businesses are wising up to the dangers of performative allyship and the consumer backlash that can follow, choosing to stay silent in an effort to avoid accusations of virtue signalling. 

Alternatively, it could be the influence of the anti-woke culture war that’s dominating political agendas and our social media feeds. Are businesses backing down due to fear of criticism or being cancelled by the far-right? 

It seems that the corporate world’s love affair with Pride is on the decline, but, as many businesses still wish to take part in the right way, what does this mean for the future of Pride and how can brands engage meaningfully and sensitively? 

Waking up to rainbow-washing 

Rainbow-washing, the act of advertising your support without doing substantive work that actually helps the LGBTQ+ community, has become a major buzzword. 

Visible backing from major corporations can be welcome at a time when LGBTQ+ people are increasingly marginalised, but corporate responsibility that’s neatly masked by gimmicky products and rainbow logos is now – quite rightly – called out. 

M&S is a prime example. Back in June 2019, the company launched the LGBT (lettuce-guac-bacon-tomato) sandwich, a twist on the classic BLT, pledging to donate just over £10,000 of its profits to LGBTQ+ charities.  

Unsurprisingly, M&S was torn apart on social media. Customers saw this as a simple rainbow cash grab and criticism poured in: why couldn’t they donate all the sandwich profits to charity, having reported £84.6 million in pre-tax profits the previous year? Would they continue to open stores in countries with anti-LGBTQ+ laws?  

They learned their lesson, with the sandwich no longer on shelves and the company now working with a number of LGBTQ+ focused charities as well as running extensive employee inclusion programmes. But in this case, the legacy of rainbow washing has been longer-lasting: not only do many customers remember this mishap, but misinformed tweets surfaced in April of this year claiming that M&S had “just launched” its LGBT sandwich, further harming the reputation of the brand. 

Fewer businesses getting involved with Pride this year (at least visibly and externally) could be a sign that the corporate world is becoming more aware of the potential harm of performative allyship and learning from fiascos like the LGBT meal deal. 

This tallies with what consumers are thinking, too: a YouGov survey from last June showed that 3 in 4 Brits believe brands engaging with Pride are doing so because they “are trying to maintain a positive public image for themselves”, rather than to show genuine support. 

The anti-woke effect 

The lack of activity is probably not just down to the rainbow-washing backlash, though. 

We can’t ignore the wider anti-LGBTQ+ narrative at play, which is increasingly dominating our newspapers, social media platforms and global political agendas. Much of this being led by populist, right-wing figures both here, in Europe and across the pond. 

Take Elon Musk, who has said he would allow users to freely misgender people on his platform X. More recently. “DEI must die” has become a favourite slogan of the second richest man in the world and his 187m followers on X. 

Or Laurence Fox, former actor and current leader of the Reclaim party, who regularly burns pride flags – what he calls the “child mutilation cult flag” – to entertain his half a million followers. 

As we head towards the General Election, the Tories have also put trans rights front and centre of their policies, having introduced new guidelines for how schools should treat trans or gay children in April, including recommending that schools out LGBTQ+ children to their parents.  

This all begs the question: are businesses keeping quiet to align with what feels like changing societal attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community?   

US retailer Target saw its sales decline for the first time in six years during Pride month last year following a right-wing backlash over its Pride collection. This year, Target has limited the number of stores with visible Pride merchandise and declined to disclose number of stores where these products will not be available. 

A recent survey in the US found that 1 in 5 corporations said the threat of conservative backlash pressured them to adjust their 2024 Pride plans.  

Companies have always been led by changing consumer and political attitudes, but when these opinions are becoming increasingly hostile towards marginalised communities, it feels like a big step back.  

DEI issues are complex and need to be handled sensitively, so making decisions on how to approach Pride is not easy for HR teams and business leaders, who will be trying to balance corporate social responsibility and inclusion goals with broader political tensions and profit.  

Rather than keep quiet, this is a time that businesses need to step forward and make a stand in a tactful way. Those that do so will show that they are forward-looking and inclusive. 

How can businesses get it right? 

When executed well, Pride provides companies with the opportunity to make their values clear, show support for their LGBTQ+ employees and use their platforms to demand social change. Engaging with Pride in the right way should include: 

  • Transparency. If your business isn’t where you want it to be on inclusivity, then it’s important to say so and explain why. Companies aren’t perfect and that’s fine, what’s important is owning up to these errors and giving a thorough explanation, demonstrating how you’re committed to making progress. 
  • The community. Enabling staff to be a part of shaping and delivering Pride campaigns is essential. Do this by building relationships with LGBTQ+ charities and community groups. This shows that your business is listening to other voices and educating its people.  
  • Financial support. There are a number of ways businesses can show they are pledging money towards the community without simply donating, such as by working with suppliers who support the LGBTQ+ community and sponsoring events and awards centred on the community. 
  • Consistency. Perhaps most importantly, it’s not enough just to change your logo for 30 days of the year. To demonstrate credible support for the community, businesses need to be showing real action throughout the year – not just during June. 

This year, Pride in London has taken a stance on consistency. Corporate groups who wish to march in Soho this summer must sign up to a year-round LGBTQ+ inclusion programme or they won’t be able to participate.   

What does the future look like for Pride? 

With a Labour government on the horizon, Trump potentially returning to office and a sweeping far-right shift in Europe, it will be interesting to see how brands respond to Pride in years to come. 

But it’s not enough to fade into the background and hope people don’t notice. LGBTQ+ struggles are not going away any time soon and the figures speak for themselves.  

The UK has seen a 462% increase in sexual orientation hate crime reports since 2012 and attacks specifically against trans people hit a record high this year. 

No, rainbow logos won’t save the community. But brands withdrawing or softening their support for the community might signal something more sinister at a time of escalating hostility and pushback against LGBTQ+ rights in the UK and globally.  

Read more Insights & News