Rainbow-Touting Brands Now Need to Practice What They Preach

Pride Month may be ending, but that shouldn’t mean the support does

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This year’s Pride commemorates, as ever, the Stonewall riots, which saw members of the gay community embark on a series of spontaneous uprisings against New York police, who had raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in June 1969. Marking the 50th anniversary of the pivotal moment in the LGBT history in the U.S., this year’s marches were truly something special, and two of the demonstrators caught the media’s eye.

Cody Barlow, a 28-year-old self-confessed “average straight white guy” and U.S. Navy veteran from Oklahoma, emblazoned his pickup truck with a rainbow and spelled out on the back: “Not all U.S. country boys are bigots.” As he wrote, “Obviously doing this isn’t going to change the minds of those who are intolerant, but hopefully it can help drown out the hatred with love.”

Then, Jiwandeep Kohli, a Sikh from San Diego and self-described “bisexual bearded baking brain scientist” went viral after posting a selfie in a homemade rainbow turban. Kohli described it as “one of my normal black turbans that I supplemented with strips of other colors in exactly the right places. Took about an hour of tying, untying and safety pinning, but totally worth it!” He added, “I feel fortunate to be able to express all these aspects of my identity and will continue to work toward ensuring the same freedom for others.”

Embracing the rainbow for generations that were born decades after Stonewall is not about erasing one identity and adopting another; it is about embracing their unique individuality that transcends the labels. Imagine it as the indescribable fluidity of shining colors that form said rainbow.

Ditching stereotypes and labels and welcoming individuality means embracing the messiness and discomfort that diversity brings.

Brands have never come out prouder than in June 2019. More brands than ever are all out to wave the rainbow flag, from Skittles (naturally!) to Apple to Converse to Budweiser to Marks & Spencer to NASA. American Apparel is giving 100% of sales from their limited-edition collection of statement T-shirts to the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Google’s #Pride event at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity was a must-attend for many marketers. And it feels like the entire LinkedIn universe adopted a rainbow filter of their corporate logo.

But who thinks that putting out a rainbow logo for 30 days is enough? Jumping on the happy rainbow bandwagon, many brands are following the societal change as it goes mainstream. The real opportunity is for them to contribute to it. The fight for the right to be yourself is nowhere near over. Around the world, homophobic and transphobic attacks are on the rise, surging almost 80% in the U.K. alone over the past four years. Here is where people behind the brands are absolutely key.

Businesses have the unique power to contribute to the future by taking a stand for the people they employ and represent. In our generation’s quest for transparency and trust, brand authenticity lies in an honest reflection of the values of the companies that power these brands. And this urges the question: When we’re showing a world where everyone is welcome in our ads, are we creating it in our businesses? Tell your customers a story about that.

I still remember an agonizing time of deciding whether to come out at work and the implications it would have on career and relationships. I remember the complete lack of role models to draw lessons from or even just to talk to. Years after, I remember oscillating between keeping a comfortable low profile and the discomfort of taking a visible stand that could be helpful to others. I feel like I ended up making the right choices because I was supported by my employers in very positive ways, though.

Ditching stereotypes and labels and welcoming individuality means embracing the messiness and discomfort that diversity brings. Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks about the critical task she had arguing diversity cases before the Supreme Court in the 1970s in making the nine men on the bench imagine the world seen by a woman. We are programmed to see the world in our way. and it takes a painfully conscious effort to put ourselves into others’ shoes. In business, we should welcome this discomfort and learn to articulate the unique benefits it brings. I call this a “creative rainbow”: creativity and comfort are direct opposites, and multiple distinctive voices lend their uniqueness to a symphony of solutions that emerge.

This for me is the rainbow that brands should adopt. The stories of Barlow and Kohli resonated because of the joy they sparked. They surprised with their individuality, authenticity and optimism. As self-actualization is becoming more important and better understood, the way for brands to own it is to bring it on the inside.

So, I say keep on recruiting diverse teams and finding your creative rainbow. Keep on surprising and delighting your audiences by showing that you understand that we are all unique. Encourage people to embrace and be proud of their individuality so that a constantly curious spirit guides them to provide the best service to your customers and their unique needs, helping to build a better world for all.