‘There is real action that could be taken’: Experts weigh in on rainbow capitalism and true activism

Via UnSplash.

Corporations are often criticized during Pride Month for changing their logos or selling Pride-themed merchandise without doing much else to support the LGBTQ+ community. This has led some to label their practices as “rainbow capitalism” or “pride-washing.”

Sorin Nastasia, associate professor of public relations, said in recent years there has been an accelerated shift from practices related to corporate social responsibility to practices related to corporate social justice.

“The reasons for the shift are coming from the fact that three-quarters of Generation Zers and 80 percent of millennials think it’s important for brands to take a stand. So 75 percent of the people are likely to start shopping at the company that supports an issue they agree with,” Nastasia said.

Nastasia said he has identified best practices for corporations using social media to speak on social justice issues in his research.

“A majority of consumers say brands are effective at raising awareness around important popular issues when they speak out on social media, and consistency and coordination leads to campaign success — really understanding the cause, aligning brand values to the cause, that is very important. They have to change their statements of mission and vision, commitment to the cause, activism efforts to support the cause,” Nastasia said.

Nastasia said there are telltale signs to know if a company is only doing lip service to an issue.

“Are they promoting important functions in their companies, important positions, [to] these categories of [the] population? Or are they really putting in jeopardy their business to side with these people … are they donating money … are they in the C-suite, at the decision-making level?” Nastasia said.

Sarah VanSlette, associate professor of public relations, said companies that have anti-discrimination policies, diverse hiring practices and LGBTQ+ workplace initiatives are less likely to be criticized because they are consistent in their words and actions.

“Putting out a few rainbow flags and saying, ‘Hey, happy Pride, come buy our stuff,’ it’s taking advantage of the cause. It’s not truly putting your money where your mouth is, and I think the criticism is valid,” VanSlette said. “If they’re backing policies or laws in their state that are discriminatory, then you can’t turn around and sell T-shirts, sell merchandise for the LGBTQ community.”

Stephanie Batson, instructor in the applied communication studies department, said the benefit for brands to endorse Pride is to solidify the individuals who have been consistent with their brand, as long as they’ve identified their loyal customers correctly.

“It’s a trend in organizations that’s probably not going to decrease over the next five to 10 years, because it is building loyalty and a stronger sense of identity of people identifying with the brand into their lifestyle,” Batson said.

Batson said for example, Starbucks may not sell more drinks for serving them in rainbow cups, but they will build brand loyalty that overtime motivates people to go to Starbucks because that’s who they are.

“I don’t foresee a negative side for anyone to endorse the LGBTQ community, except if you have misidentified [your target market] or if you’re on the line — if you have, say, a tractor company, or you have a lot of consumers who wouldn’t be supportive of that movement or are scared of that movement. I don’t know if it’s an immediate profitability situation that companies would admit to, but that is definitely building brand loyalty,” Batson said.

Matthew Burgess, a junior chemistry major from Girard, Illinois, and president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, said while he doesn’t think it’s necessarily bad for companies to sell Pride merchandise or change their logos, their motives need to be consistent.

“If you are just changing your logo, you aren’t really doing much else, then there’s not much point behind changing your logo in the first place because you’re sending a message that has no push behind it,” Burgess said. “We’re seeing that when companies are changing their logos just in the United States, and they’re putting a promotion on to send 40 cents of a chicken sandwich over to some LGBTQ organization that is unnamed, it really doesn’t feel like that much is happening.”

Burgess said he prefers that brands don’t change their logo during June unless they are supporting a specific cause. For this reason, he is pleased that SIUE hasn’t changed its social media profile pictures.

“I was worried that SIUE would change its logo on its social media and I’ve noticed that it hasn’t, and I was really, really pleased about that because I don’t think that the month of June is the only time you should be supporting something that you care about. If you care about it year-round, then you care about it year-round,” Burgess said.

However, Burgess said he is fine with the Cougar Store selling Pride T-shirts.

“I think Pride T-shirts are great. I think any kind of merchandise is great, but I feel like going so far as to say, ‘My whole brand is this,’ when it’s clearly not, is probably inappropriate,” Burgess said.

Burgess said it’s a shame that bigger companies don’t change their logos in other parts of the world because they don’t want to hurt their sales there, but change their logos in the U.S. to increase sales.

“It’s a shame to see when there is real action that could be taken by corporations in other countries or in other parts of the world where there is heavy discrimination against LGBTQ+ people,” Burgess said.

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