This year’s Mardi Gras celebrations were, for many, bigger and brighter than ever, with members and allies of the LGBTQIA+ community flocking to the ticket Mardi Gras Parade at Allianz Stadium, and taking freely to dance floors across Sydney, unstifled by the restrictions of the past two years.
For brands and organisations allied to the LGBTQIA+ community the joy, glitter and festivity of the Mardi Gras season brings about a moment for community engagement, corporate responsibility, acceptance and inclusion, but of course, like with any major celebration or cause, it also brings about an immense opportunity for commercial gain.
Rainbow washing is a relatively new, but growing issue in Australia as social progress is made in the mainstream and queer people become more visible in the Australian mediascape. The attractiveness of the pink dollar has led many brands astray, with shallow acts of symbolic support criticised by those in the queer community as inauthentic and even exploitative.
During Pride last year, Mumbrella’s Calum Jaspan looked into how some brands are continuing to miss the mark when it comes to pride campaigns. As Mumbrella continues to investigate this issue in the marketing industry, I spoke with non-binary creator and LGBTQIA+ activist Deni Todorovič and senior account director, public affairs at Red Havas, Jacqui Munro about how rainbow washing continues to pervade brand engagement in queer causes and events like Mardi Gras, and how brands can take strides in the right direction to engage authentically with the LGBTQIA+ community.
Todorovič says that they have complicated feelings about allyship and rainbow washing. While they feel that queer visibility is core to LGBTQIA+ inclusion, symbolic acts of allyship like slapping a rainbow on a logo or product for Mardi Gras are no longer as impactful as they once might have been.
“I think that any kind of allyship, at a base level, is great,” says Todorovič.
“You know, eight years ago, seven years ago, when I was at Cosmo and I don’t know, Converse would do a rainbow sneaker and send it to me and I would be really grateful and I’d be like, ‘oh my god this is so amazing’”. Todorovič continues, “and then over the years it’s like we have a higher awareness and a higher level of consciousness now in terms of what actual allyship looks like, and it’s actually not enough to just put a rainbow on.”
“Now when I look at brands who are making these very front facing campaigns. I always try to get to know the company and the organisation or brand and really get to know what they’re doing on every level.”
One of the companies that Todorovič says is doing well in this space is American Express, the principle partner of this Mardi Gras 2022, who they collaborated with on an initiative for this year’s event. The ‘my first Mardi Gras community program’ saw American Express, in partnership with LGBTQIA+ organisations Minus 18 and Rainbow Families, send three individuals and a family who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community to their first ever Mardi Gras parade. Amex also launched a new creative platform, ‘express yourself’, in support of this years Mardi Gras.
Todorovič says that Amex is a great example of authentic allyship as a company that has had an internal ‘pride network’ for a ‘really long time’, and have a reputation for being ‘great allies to their queer staff members’.
Commenting from a PR perspective on how we can distinguish genuine allyship from rainbow washing, Jacqui Munro says “it can be challenging to cynically determine the intent behind a dazzling multi-coloured display of queer love when it is literally designed to make us feel seen, understood and like we want to buy the thing it associates us with.”
Herself a member of the queer community, identifying as bisexual, and an experienced campaigner for the LGBTQIA+ community as a media adviser for the Australian Marriage quality Campaign, Munro suggests that consumers can assess legitimacy of a company’s support for the community with a bit of research. She suggests searching on Google, the company’s own website and LGBTQIA+ run websites like Rainbow Flag that champion queer friendly organisations.
As to how brands can support the queer community in an authentic way, she says: “Brands can examine their hiring and internal promotions practices, actively engage with staff (in appropriate and anonymous ways if need be) to listen and act on their experiences, investigate supply chains for evidence of discrimination or exclusion and incorporate queer experience (whatever that might look like) in their clients’ PR and marketing.
“At a global level, consider how PR can cleverly prompt and shift the dial on conversations. In places where simply being LGBTQIA+ is a literal death sentence are there ways to creatively make taboo more mainstream? Lewis Hamilton wearing a rainbow helmet during a Formula 1 race in Saudi Arabia was not a cheap stunt, it was a way to bring the topic of LGBTQIA+ rights to light in a dark place for queers.
“As we know, LGBTQIA+ history is certainly not all glitter and cupcakes. There has been an ongoing and sometimes violent struggle, not just for recognition, but for the right to exist without fear. As PR experts, we have a responsibility to positively contribute to today’s culture in a way that is thoughtful, thought-provoking and action-inducing.”
M&C Saatchi ECD, Avish Gordhan, says that brands have to do their homework.
“At a bare minimum, you have to have conversations with members from the community. However, to make sure your campaign is not seen as performative, and to be a true ally of the LGBTQIA+ community, you have to give those members an active voice in the work. And you have to pay for that contribution!”‘
Gordhan adds that brands should be asking themselves why – “Why are you engaging with this audience at this time? If the only answer is “so that my brand is part of the cultural conversation” then you have a problem. Jumping on the bandwagon for a spike in the marketing calendar is disingenuous and your brand will be found out for doing that sort of thing. The commitments to the LGBTQIA+ community have to be sustainable. They have to be long-lasting.”
Speaking on Tennis Australia’s pride celebrations during the 2022 Australian Open, Tennis Australia’s head of event brand marketing, Brittney Wickes said that ‘simply slapping pride or the rainbow logo on an event, day or brand is not enough, you need the meaningful initiatives to back it up.’
Wickes notes that continuous engagement with LGBTQIA+ stakeholders and organisations was key to Tennis Australia’s approach. She says that the organisation used the Pride in Sports index to review their inclusivity and highlight any blind spots.
BWS is another brand that has taken a consistent approach to celebrating the queer community, both in their Mardi Gras and Pride campaigns, like BWYASSS and the Loud and Proud range available in store, as well as their internal initiatives.
“Ahead of this year’s Pride Season, we engaged and worked directly with members of the LGBTQIA+ community to ensure that we authentically and accurately represented their culture and also give them an appropriate platform to express themselves and be heard. We wanted to shine the light on the Ballroom Community and celebrate a culture that fosters an environment of acceptance and inclusion which is a direct alignment to the environment we want to create in every BWS store,” says Jax Young, senior brand manager for BWS and member of the LGBTQIA+ community.
BWS’ holding group, Endeavor Group has also recently launched a network of LGBTQIA+ team members and allies across the group.
“Proud at Endeavour works on initiatives to create a supportive environment for team members and customers, their friends and family members who identify directly as LGBTQI+ or are a supporting Ally of the LGBTQI+ community,” says Young.
The basics of rainbow washing are clear – without tangible action and meaningful engagement, a pride campaign does little more than virtue signal. For brands to achieve authentic allyship, more consideration is needed.
Todorovič says that if brands want to ‘do something’ they need to ‘do it properly and do it with integrity.’ Before working with a brand, Todorovič considers how that brand is supporting the LGBTQIA+ community at every level of the business.
“First and foremost, are queer people creating that campaign, or are straight people making that campaign? If there are straight or cis het people in your company that are making these campaigns, are they consulting with queer people so that queer people are involved in telling those stories? Because, if a queer person is not involved in telling those stories I can guarantee you that the authenticity of that campaign will have a ton of gaps.
“And then on a more internal, sort of structural level, does your business employ queer people? What rights and safeties do you provide your queer staff? Are you visibly representing queerness within your company both outwardly and inwardly, at all times of year?”
Todorovič also reinforces the importance of queer representation year round, saying that they have previously turned down work before after checking a brand’s Instagram grid to see that they only featured queer people on their grid during Mardi Gras or World Pride seasons.
“If you want to benefit from the queer community, they should be represented within your business visibility, authentically and organically at all times,” says Todorovič.
This is a manta that B Corp certified, and self described activist brand, The Body Shop, embodies whole heartedly. The cosmetics company has a long history of activism and is highly regarded in the LGBTQIA+ community for ‘doing the work’ year round.
“Human rights in general, and inclusivity is something that we take really seriously as a brand,” says The Body Shop’s APAC brand and activism director, Shannon Chrisp. “Our founder, Anita Roddick, was really passionate about using business as a force for good and we have a long-term campaigning history, So it’s in our DNA to speak up when we feel people are being marginalised.”
Chrisp says that supporting the queer community has always been a priority for The Body Shop’s staff, particularly as many staff members and customer of the brand identify as LGBTQIA+.
“We’ve always wanted to be a welcoming place for everyone, regardless of how they identify, to feel comfortable and feel safe. So that starts from an inside out culture. We do a lot of training and a lot of making sure everyone is aware of how to be an ally and how to be sensitive and respectful, but also how to create a safe and inclusive environment. We have a lot of networking groups within our organisation that allow people from the queer community to have a say.”
“We also make sure that our campaigns are really representative of a diverse group of people. And whilst I know that seems like it should be just responsible business, we all know that unfortunately that is not always the case.”
The Body Shop’s Self Love Uprising campaign last year featured a diverse collective of creators, influencers and activist, many of whom were prominent voices in the queer community. Other initiatives the brand has embarked on in support of the queer community on include the introduction of pronoun pins for in-store staff and and creation of a national survey of the LGBTQIA+ community and allies in partnership with LGBTQIA+ youth charity Minus 18.
The brand spoke with Minus 18 about creating a platform to survey queer Australians after the LGBTQIA+ community was excluded from the national census in 2021. The Body Shop also took the survey as an opportunity to further their staff’s education about LGBTQIA+ issues.
“When we launched into the campaign with Minus 18 it was really, really important to us and to Minus 18 that our staff felt educated to have these conversations. Whether it’s when they’re met with resistance, or critical thinking or whether it’s someone who just wants to learn more. We feel it’s really important that our staff understand,” says Chrisp.
The Body Shop also supported the creation of queer lead Tik Tok series, The Self Care Series, starring Kath Ebbs, Tommy Misa and Sam Andrews and created by independent Australian production company Slag Productions.
“The Self Care Series is more just about bringing everyday queer stories to life and not in a tokenistic way, or one that’s sort of buying into the cliches,” says Chrisp.
“We know that telling stories creates empathy, and when people have empathy that leads to change.”
Speaking on Abbie Chatfield’s Listnr podcast ‘It’s a Lot’, The Self Care Series star Kath Ebbs, a non-binary queer creator, actor and activist, said that ‘brands like Bonds and The Body Shop’ are ‘doing things all year round for queer for, and in the trenches, not just ‘show show show”.
Commenting on the issue of rainbow washing, Ebbs said that they were glad that ‘brands want to jump on Mardi Gras and Pride month and celebrate queer people’ but that this can come at the expense of queer creators when Mardi Gras campaigns are hastily thrown together without care or authenticity.
Another brand that has been recognised for it’s commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community is Bonds. The brand announced a three year partnership with Minus 18 in 2020, helping fund peer-to-peer support, education and training and the creation of safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ youth through the year.
The brand has been applauded by queer activists like Ebbs and Todorovič, and recently launched their Ungenderwear Project to de-gender underwear and break down gender stereotypes.
“The Project is an ongoing pledge from Bonds to change the way we think about gender, make tangible changes and create safe & inclusive spaces. We’re committed to the comfort of all – and to doing everything we can to make sure that everyone, including the gender-diverse community, feel validated and supported,” says Bond head of marketing, Kelly McBride.
McBride explains that the brand’s focus isn’t about ‘removing gender altogether’, but rather ‘encouraging freedom of expression in the way we shop and dress that is inclusive for all’ and ‘pulling up a seat at the table for gender-diverse Australians’.
Todorovič, who is an ambassador for the project, commended Bonds for their involvement of queer people at every level of production.
McBride says that, “It was important to us that we collaborate with a diverse representation of Australia’s LGBTQIA+ community for the launch of our latest Pride range and the Ungenderwear Project – from those featured in our campaign, to the amazing crew behind the scenes.”
With the conversation around rainbow washing comes a question of intent versus impacts – are miss-guided or inauthentic pride campaigns harmful to the queer community? The consensus seems to be that while they may not be damaging, they are certainly not helpful.
“I want to inherently believe there’s positive intent,” says Chrisp. However, she notes that when queer inclusivity is not part of a brand’s core it is ‘pretty obvious to people that it’s performative and sort of taking advantage of a trend’.
“From a consumer’s point of view its really obvious when you’re not committing year round in a really authentic way. And I think that will in the end harm the community less than it will harm the business”
Todorovič comes from a similar perspective, and acknowledges that even the smallest amounts of queer visibility can make a difference.
“I have this belief system that you know all visibility is good visibility. Sometimes tokenistic visibility may be the only visibility that a specific person or consumer or part of the world gets.”
“If you live in a place like Sydney, I mean, you don’t need a rainbow. In my opinion it is one of the gay capitals of the world – there is so much visibility everywhere within everyday life. But when you live in a regional town, like I grew up in Geelong – or if you live in Ballarat or Shepperton or Mildura – and you don’t have any visibility, sometimes a rainbow actually provides a huge amount of community to a person that doesn’t have that community.”
While for many, the solutions to rainbow washing are obvious, for some brands, getting authentic LGBTQIA+ allyship right can be daunting.
Todorovič advises that brands can take be honest with the community, and outline a plan for change moving forward.
“We live in a world now where brands can be really transparent with what their long term plans are,” they say.
McBride adds that ongoing consultation with LGTQIA+ advocates and the community is critical. For Bonds, it was important to ‘create safe spaces to listen and learn’.
For Chrisp, brands need to look inwards, before jumping on board any cause.
“I think that a brand really needs to sit and kind of reflect on what it is that drives us. What our purpose and how can we be true to that? Make sure you do a few things really well versus trying to be everything to everyone and kind of ride every trend in every micro-moment.”
Finally, when it comes to brands that may have been called out for rainbow washing, Munro says that they should work towards doing better, through tangible actions that support the LGBTQIA+ community.
“Being called out for shallow PR is never a good story,” she says. “But we can do more than auto-response cancel brands that don’t live up to our expectations. We want to turn those brands into effective allies. If companies can be encouraged to reflect and demonstrate understanding by changing their practices to incorporate LGBTQIA+ voices, then let’s do that!
“Acknowledgement and apology are always important, but brands can do more. They can partner with LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups, fund research, empower their own LGBTQIA+ people, create safe workplaces and build in LGBTQIA+ visibility to their PR case studies.”
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