Allyship. With the backlash against Target coming on the heels of the Anheuser-Bush, Bud Light-Dylan Mulvaney fiasco, Pride 2023 presents a perfect moment for business leaders to reflect on what allyship, DEI and belonging genuinely mean to them, both externally with customers, investors and other stakeholders and internally with employees.

Specifically with respect to Pride, is your allyship about more than waving a rainbow logo and a commercial focus? Does your brand – or the human face of your business with which people form a relationship – have an intention-action gap when it comes to LGBQT?

If you’re pressed for time, click here to download The Takeaway from the end of this post for five steps for brand leaders to stay the course that allyship demands.

The rainbow flag + pride = agency

The rainbow flag was popularized amongst companies after the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v Hodge in 2015, when brands such as American Airlines, BuzzFeed, Honey Maid, Ketel One, MasterCard, Spotify, Target and Uber, flew it in support of marriage equality – and generally were praised for doing so. Though, the flag’s earlier history tells a deeper story of unity in a struggle for equality and a quest for agency….

Urged by Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, to create a symbol of pride for the gay community, Gilbert Baker, another openly gay man and drag queen, designed the first rainbow flag in collaboration with his friend Lynn Segerblom (aka Faerie Argyle Rainbow) in 1978. Each of the original eight colors had its own meaning: hot pink – sex; red – life; orange – healing; yellow – sunlight; green – nature; turquoise – magic and art; indigo – serenity; and violet – spirit. And the flag debuted at San Fransisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade.

Then in 1994, Baker made a mile-long version of the flag for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in NYC’s Greenwich Village. As a watershed moment in the public visibility of LGBT+ repression, Stonewall acted as a catalyst for the wider gay rights movement.

Ceding to pressure = rainbow capitalism

With over 540 anti-LGBQT+ bills introduced in state legislatures and 45 anti-LGBTQ laws enacted so far this year, the LGBQT+ has become more vocal in its call for brands to show genuine support of their civil rights. And as the culture wars have escalated alongside political polarization, scenario planning possible outcomes before taking a stand of any sort, regardless of how harmless it may seem, has become a must for all brands.

Although Target has sold merchandise for LGBTQ customers, employees and allies for the past decade without incident, having faced a boycott in 2016 over transgender bathroom issues, I’m surprised leadership and the brand team weren’t better prepared for potential backlash. Pulling Pride merchandise and promotional materials back from store windows after harassment and threats from conservative activist groups, the brand now faces repercussions from LGBTQ+ advocates calling them out for “rainbow capitalism” and “pinkwashing.”

Allyship is about staying the course

For The North Face, Walmart and Kohl’s, allyship with the LGBQT+ community has been about standing firm in the face of backlash. For many more quiet companies, allyship is about ensuring their brand has a reputation for inclusivity and belongingness with employees. And that customers, investors and other stakeholders associate that operating principle with their standard logo for 12 months/year. And after going back and forth, the Los Angeles Dodgers have concluded that allyship includes re-extending an invitation to a drag group after earlier disinviting them from the team’s Pride Night at Dodger Stadium.

Perhaps most importantly, for the LGBQT+ community, Pride and allyship is about a 24/7, 365-day commitment and visible show of support. While sporting a rainbow logo and a one-month effort to reach out to the community worked in 2015, it no longer does and often is perceived as tokenistic and pandering to the community – by those in and those outside of this circle.

Even conservative darlings are at risk

As Pride month continues so, too, will political backlash against support of the LGBQT+ and other marginalized communities. Indeed, many believe that brands like Bud Light and Target that have reversed course are empowering it.

Consider how a right-wing activist has now called for a boycott of Chick-fil-A, a brand well-known for its religious principles and whose foundation has donated to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations. In a tweet, the activist stated that Chick-fil-A had just hired a VP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion…. Even though the VP of DEI has been in his position since 2021 according to LinkedIn.

Regardless of positioning, the risk of being attacked for taking a stand is heightened for all brands.

The takeaway

Taking a stand is a filter of sorts for all of a brand’s actions and behaviors – not a one-time campaign, month-long event or, perhaps most importantly, reversible decision.… The lasting change that allyship is meant to cultivate comes from collaboration and sustained advocacy.

So what can brand leaders practically do?

  1. Unite brand and communications leaders across often siloed functions of marketing, public relations, investor relations, government affairs and HR to develop a system-wide perspective and unified view of key constituents (customers, employees, investors and other stakeholders) and their expectations for your brand.
  2. Audit values, key messages and policies, operating procedures and other guidelines to ensure words and behaviors align and where they don’t identify ways to close intention-action gaps. (Be certain to include a review of positions/voting records of candidates you’ve donated to. Many brands “supporting” LGBQT+ community have been called out for donating to anti-gay politicians.)
  3. Scenario plan possible reactions among key constituents for all programs, campaigns and other initiatives and assess the risk of potential outcomes. Be sure to think twice about the audiences you are targeting and the language you are using. In today’s climate, anything might be political risk!
  4. Know where the C-suite and your board stand on issues and use this information as a filter in scenario planning. (A number of brand and sustainability leaders have confidentially told me how they had to stop a campaign because one or two directors had a different take on an issue.) It’s essential that executive leadership and board directors “defend” actions, rather than take a reversed position and blame middle management.
  5. Consider doing research outside your echo chamber and target audience – among people with lifestyles and opinions that are the “opposite” of your target customers. Understanding their read on things will help you to scenario plan and prepare for unexpected outcomes.