As the global season of Pride gets rolling, there’s been a lot of healthy debate (and more than a little eye-rolling) about how brands engage with this annual celebration of visibility and acceptance for LGBTQIA+ people. For many, the rainbow logo treatments and rainbow merchandise drops ring hollow. They raise valid questions about how deep the actual commitments are behind these public displays of support. While the dialog is important, ultimately, we support company Pride activations no matter how small, self-interested, or hollow they may be.
Brand acts will always seem a bit phony. There is some level of corporate self-interest inherent in anything that a for-profit company does, obviously. But our dream is for the entire world to be inclusive, safe, and equitable for LGBTQIA+ people. We believe there is responsibility, accountability, and opportunity for brands to contribute to pursuing this goal. Frankly, if we didn’t think there was a role for business in changing society, we wouldn’t be in business.
While corporate displays of support for Pride may seem superficial (and they are definitely not sufficient on their own), the research is clear that virtue-signaling works. If we want to normalize inclusivity, it behooves us to recognize the actual mechanics of social norms and how they change. The brain tracks millions of individual points of social data and assesses norms in an endless real-time algorithmic attempt to fit in. Public, visible displays of values are strong signals that figure prominently into this unconscious calculus. Shifting individual and collective behavior requires feeding enough signals into this calculation to make acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people seem “normal” and “socially acceptable.”
Despite the negative reaction that virtue-signaling often elicits (even in us), the research substantiates it. You can’t influence only by thinking happy thoughts. It’s about surface area—sheer volume and reach. For better or worse, brands take up a lot of the surface area in our lives. That rainbow logo, those Pride store windows that Pride-themed merchandise—they add to the total collective signal that it’s normal to accept LGBTQIA+ people—and perhaps more importantly, it’s not normal to discriminate against them.
We expect companies to take on diversity in a more substantial way. We have a special level of respect for the brands we have featured in the illustrations in this issue. These brands have paired their virtue signaling with direct support of activist groups who do the work every day. Most of these brands have also demonstrated consistent commitment to LGBTQIA+ rights over the years. But there is more to do. Companies should look to objective measures of inclusivity like the HRC Corporate Equality Index. They should examine hiring practices, audit their compensation for fairness, and demand balanced Board representation, among other things.
The corporate presence at Pride parades has become a particular flashpoint in this debate. Groups like Reclaim Pride Coalition seek to return the annual New York Pride march to its activist roots and cut out the corporate presence at the parade.
We feel that the need for activism has not diminished in the more than fifty years since the first Pride Parade—quite the contrary. But our point of view is that the movement for equality benefits most by having BOTH grassroots activism and corporate shows of support: both the Heritage Pride March and the Queer Liberation March.
As the saying goes, “It’s always somebody’s first Pride Parade.” Every year, people of all ages experience for the first time the beauty, diversity, and sheer size of the LGBTQIA+ community at a Pride parade. It can be a life-changing experience. In the 1980s, a young gay man might have been inspired by a march that was activism and protest-focused. But a young person today might be liberated by seeing the broad mainstream acceptance of the values of diversity and inclusion taking hold in the corporate world. A recent set of studies indicates that the perception that norms are shifting is actually more influential than the level of their acceptance alone.
Activists always lead the way. They are the creators, the innovators, the visionaries. At their best, companies amplify and support the work of activists. They help spread the activists’ message to a wider audience and push broader acceptance of it. But the exchange also inevitably has an impact on the activists and their institutions. Maybe they get bigger and more cautious. Maybe they get alienated and reactionary. It can be sad to see a cultural institution change. It can feel like a sell-out, or even a betrayal. But this is a natural outcome for a healthy movement. Successful activism progresses the culture and reveals the next horizon of change to be made.
We hold ourselves to a higher standard than making a rainbow logo once a year. We support activists who are on the front lines of the ongoing battle for equality. We examine our actions through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But in the interest of those causes, we also support broad-based virtue signaling from brands, no matter how ham-fisted, cringe-worthy, or performative.
How can you know if a company’s actions are genuine or just performative wokeness? People have measured corporate social and environmental impact as long as we’ve been boiling oceans. Nevertheless, the answer to the question of performative wokeness is straightforward. If x = positive impact, y = negative externalities, and x < y, then it’s performative. Fortunately, the converse is also true. We built a prototype for a performative wokeness calculator. Try it for yourself here.