Just Because There’s a Rainbow...
If you went grocery shopping or out to eat during Pride month, it seemed there were rainbows everywhere you looked. Perhaps you saw Shake Shack’s Pride Shake, Bubly Sparkling Water’s rainbow-colored cans, Starbucks’ Pride Tumblers, Chipotle burritos in rainbow-colored wrappers or Pizza Hut’s heart-shaped pizza with a “Love is Love” message. Restaurants in my Washington, DC neighborhood were festooned with rainbows and even had rainbow themed menu items.
As we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, considered to be the birth of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, was this a sign of progress? To help answer this question, let’s take a look at two ways popular brands showed their pride.
The first example came from Absolut Vodka’s 2019 efforts that included its latest rainbow-themed bottle available throughout the year and an ad campaign featuring well-known faces and voices from the LGBTQ community shot by renowned photographer David LaChapelle.
The second example comes from the popular British coffee chain Costa Coffee which in 2018 displayed its true colors with the launch of the first ever limited-edition rainbow coffee cups available throughout the month of June. At first glance, it seems each of these corporate brands is telling customers they support LGBTQ pride.
Some would argue that when household names like Absolut Vodka and Costa Coffee feature LGBTQ imagery in their ads and in their stores it’s a good thing because it helps raise awareness about our community to all of their customers. On the flip side, others say that corporations are shamelessly using the rainbow flag to earn profits from our community because they may not support LGBTQ equality in the workplace or in the communities they serve. Which side is right?
As someone who has, for decades, advised Fortune 500 brands interested in targeting the LGBTQ community, I advise that earning the brand loyalty of the highly lucrative LGBTQ consumer market takes more than putting a rainbow flag on your product or in your restaurant. It also requires taking steps to create an inclusive workplace where LGBTQ employees feel welcome and valued and also taking a public stand in favor of LGBTQ equality.
Which is why Absolut Vodka is the clear winner. As the first spirits company to openly market to the LGBTQ community, Absolut’s approach is multi-faceted. Beyond the wide visibility of LGBTQ people in its marketing campaign, Absolut is helping accelerate acceptance for LGBTQ people across the country by financially supporting the national nonprofit GLAAD in the form of a multi-year partnership.
On the other hand, Costa Coffee’s 30-day promotion was just that, nothing more than a gimmick to help sell coffee. None of the proceeds from sales were donated to a LGBTQ nonprofit and little is known about its fair treatment of LGBTQ workers.
If some of you feel I am splitting hairs, think again, because our lives depend on it.
In the early 2000s, there were no federal laws protecting LGBTQ Americans from being fired just because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.
At the time, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) realized more and more corporations were using their influence to advocate for other social policies but had not yet done so in support of LGBTQ issues. Known as corporate social responsibility today, these early public policy stances were in some ways marketing tactics to gain the trust of marginalized communities with the hope of increasing market share. Unfortunately, external efforts did not always translate into improved opportunities for those same segments in their respective workplaces.
So, in 2002 HRC decided to do something about it by creating the Corporate Equality Index (CEI), something like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval but for corporate America as it relates to their support of LGBTQ Americans.
Each year, HRC uses the CEI as a tool to rate businesses on their treatment of LGBTQ employees and consumers. Back then, brands like American Airlines and Budweiser were seeking to tap into the LGBTQ community’s estimated buying power of greater than $600 billion. So they had to first demonstrate a true commitment to the LGBTQ community by completing the CEI survey. Offering domestic partner health benefits and having a policy that banned discrimination of LGBTQ employees were some of the criteria required in order to secure a perfect score.
Not only has the CEI helped remove barriers to full inclusion in the workplace but it also has galvanized support of the nation’s most respected companies in fighting discrimination against LGBTQ people. This includes support for overturning North Carolina’s bathroom bill and stopping the proposed religious freedom law in Arizona.
That’s why we must thank companies like Instacart and Coca Cola who have publicly supported key issues like marriage and trans equality by spending our hard-earned money on their products and not with those who fail to stand with us. ▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.