December 05, 2023
In 2023, brands should wear their flags with Pride
There used to be a question on OKCupid that (for me) separated the wheat from the chaff:
Which is more offensive: Book burning or flag burning?
When my dating prospects (and friends when questioned) would shout “book” reflexively (the knowledge!) the Pride flag came to mind for me. Flags represent identities, ethnicities, communities. Whether you felt personally attached to them or not, they represented people. And burning a flag was an unequivocal attack on their identity.
I’m reminded of this question again in 2023 as we enter Pride month. The conversations around ‘pinkwashing’ for brands have given way to a different kind of concern – safety.
Brands as mainstream and purportedly DEI-driven as Bud Light, Target and Starbucks are seemingly pulling back from LGBTQ+ representation in the name of very real concerns of safety. In the case of Starbucks, the safety concern was due to the Pride flag itself on display. This is part of a growing wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, and flag vandalism from Salt Lake City to Stonewall.
Conversations around safety in LGBTQ+ representation for brands certainly aren’t new and certainly aren’t confined to the USA. A Russian supermarket ad featuring lesbian couples resulted in death threats to their children and having to flee the country for their safety. What feels new in America, at least, is how much the safety threats are tied to just being visible. And in turn how larger, mainstream brands are part of the frontline attack on visibility.
We often talk about cultural relevance for brands in terms of using their platform to amplify or elevate. Mainstream retail outlets amplifying LGBTQ+ representation may make business sense, but it also helps the LGBTQ+ kid going on a shopping trip with their parents feel a little bit more seen, a little bit less hidden. And that can be something as simple as a unicorn waving a pride flag. Or even, a trans woman drinking a beer in a social post.
Brands have an opportunity to embrace the moment as true allies by letting their values show through their actions and reactions to this new reality. Visibility matters, and if they are seeking to make an impact on culture, they need to be authentic in how they let LGBTQ+ audiences be authentically visible. The era of couples in matching Van Heusen shirts with dogs on a sofa is no longer going to cut it for a generation accustomed to and fighting for raw, candid expression.
Stand by your decisions and values. Let your employees be part of championing those values vs. thrusting values upon them. Think about ways to amplify and elevate that make people feel seen. Plan for safety, but not for fear.
In short, wear your values, like your flags, with Pride.