Every June, companies and brands have an opportunity to show meaningful support for the LGBTQ+ community and acknowledge the historic and ongoing struggle against discrimination and oppression. But it can be all too easy to put rainbows on products and think that’s enough.
In recent years, the iconic Pride rainbow flag has sometimes felt less like a symbol of a historically marginalized community and more like a commercial ploy. With a collective spending power of $3.7 trillion internationally, according to a 2019 estimate by LGBT Capital, LGBTQ+ people and allies alike are being targeted by what has been dubbed “rainbow washing” and “rainbow capitalism,” where marketing stands in for authentic allyship. Savvy consumers, however, have become increasingly wary of tokenistic displays. Younger generations especially are pushing back against the annual pageant of pseudo-solidarity.
“Consumers will no longer accept the influx of companies that show up in June, wave the flag, and put a rainbow on things,” says Gillian Oakenfull, a marketing professor and the faculty director of diversity and inclusion at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business. “Consumers have more of an awareness of the fight of previous generations and will simply not accept the exploitation—or the virtue signaling of it. They have a different expectation of how they should be treated.”
According to Oakenfull, it’s fairly straightforward to know if your company or brand is doing something positive for the LGBTQ+ community as opposed to rainbow washing. “If you’re just putting an ad in a magazine or releasing a statement, and that’s the only thing you’re doing, it’s easy to see that for what that is. Or, are you shifting the needle and impacting people’s lives?” As Oakenfull warns, consumers are ready to clap back against companies that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. “It doesn’t take long for the internet to blow up around something.”
So what can companies and brands do if they want to go beyond rainbow capitalism? We spoke with several remarkable leaders striving to make a real impact for Pride Month and beyond.
Don’t Just Put a Rainbow on It
Whether it’s books by diverse authors, gender-neutral jewelry, gender-defying fashion, or packaging products to defy gender norms, a company can express inclusive values through the very products it sells. “Products themselves should bolster inclusivity year-round,” says Kim Culmone, senior vice president and global head of design for Barbie and Fashion Dolls at Mattel, the toy manufacturing and entertainment company.
As the above examples demonstrate, promoting inclusivity involves more than an annual abundance of rainbow imagery and packaging. It requires concerted, long-term efforts and a sincere commitment to developing and selling inclusive products all year long.
In May 2022, for example, Mattel released two new products celebrating the LGBTQ+ community: the Laverne Cox Barbie doll and Fisher Price’s Little People Collector RuPaul set. Last year, the American Girl Doll of the Year, Kira, made headlines for having Australian lesbian aunts. And Mattel’s Creatable World collection, launched in 2019, was its first gender-neutral doll line, allowing children to customize their own doll without being dictated by gender norms.
Mattel strives for inclusive marketing, too, challenging the long-held distinction that some toys are for girls and others are for boys. As Culmone notes, consumers can tell the difference between hollow messaging and products that are genuinely designed and marketed with positive social impact in mind.
Commit to Inclusivity—on All Fronts
At Indeed, the principle of inclusivity is baked into the platform and service itself. “‘We help people get jobs’ is our big mission statement,” says Maggie Burger, interim co-chair of iPride, Indeed’s LGBTQ+ employee resource group. “But we think of it as not just, ‘We help people get jobs,’ but, ‘We help all people get jobs.’ We are pivoting the language to reflect that across the board.”
Helping all people get jobs means actively combating the potential for intolerance. “We proactively and intentionally prevent discrimination and biases to the best of our ability,” says Bradley Jackson, an iPride co-chair. Jackson points to the site’s company reviews section as an invaluable resource for job seekers, a way of promoting transparency and holding organizations accountable. For similar reasons, Burger notes, Indeed has a team constantly “filtering job listings before they’re posted to ensure everything is in order.”
Look After Your Own LGBTQ+ Employees
You can tell a lot about a company’s commitment to inclusion based on how it treats its own employees. “You need to do the internal work,” Burger says.
At Indeed, that work includes providing equitable benefits for LGBTQ+ employees, always striving to have equitable queer representation in the company’s C-suite and executive teams, and creating departments, resources, and communication channels dedicated to improving diversity, inclusion, and belonging.
Indeed also established transgender transition guidelines within the company and provides access to a transgender care advocate. “That was a huge win for us,” Jackson says. “[The guidelines] hold our HR team, our business operations team, as well as our benefits team accountable to certain expectations and requirements when it comes to somebody transitioning at work.”
Forge Meaningful Alliances
Last year, The Body Shop, a cosmetics and skin care company, commissioned a consumer survey about the issues affecting LGBTQ+ people, especially the transgender community. It then launched an online hub during Pride to encourage consumers to learn more.
Hilary Lloyd, vice president of marketing and corporate social responsibility at The Body Shop, advises companies to join forces with key LGBTQ+ organizations — many of which are underfunded and under-resourced — to advocate for meaningful change. “Listen to [non-governmental organizations],” she says. “Leverage their expertise.”
The Body Shop has worked with several nonprofit organizations over the years, most recently partnering with the Equality Federation, an LGBTQ+-focused organization and advocacy accelerator. The goal isn’t to receive something in return; these are philanthropic partnerships, not transactional ones. Instead, the objective is to “encourage our staff and customers to become better allies,” Lloyd says. “It’s about supporting the community in an impactful and sustained way.”
Educate Leaders and Employees on Inclusion and Allyship
“LGBTQ+ employees come to work every day and face microinequities and worse forms of blatant discrimination,” says Mary-Frances Winters, president and CEO of diversity and inclusion consulting firm The Winters Group.
Winters says the solution is constant guidance and training. For example, in the wake of proposed legislation that restricted the rights of gender nonbinary children and their families, Mattel internally released “A Guide to Supporting Gender Identity and Affirmations.” Mattel created the guide in partnership with its OPEN (Our Proud Employee Network) employee resource group.
“All leaders should be required to participate in education about how to create an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ employees,” Winters says, “with those education programs designed by members of the LGBTQ+ community.”
Embrace Intersectionality for True Inclusivity
True inclusivity requires the integration of diversity, inclusion, and belonging principles in all aspects of a company, involving deep collaboration between company leaders, HR, and employee resource groups.
At Mattel, that means embracing intersectionality and cultivating micro-communities and safe spaces for all employees. In addition to OPEN, the company has nine other ERGs, including MADE (Mattel Asian Diversity Exchange) at Mattel, Black at Mattel, and Women at Mattel. For its continued efforts, Mattel has received a Corporate Equality Index score of 100 from the Human Rights Campaign and was named a Best Place to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality for three consecutive years.“Now more than ever, companies have a responsibility to ensure their employees and consumers from all walks of life feel empowered to be their authentic selves,” Culmone says. Every organization is at its best, she adds, “when every member of the team feels respected, included, and heard.”