Rainbow watercolours blending together

The Rainbow Gap: The differences between how brands & consumers perceive LGBTQ+ issues

Max Willson, Luke Powney, Jess Cox

Ask yourself, have you ever purchased a rainbow product or pride product during Pride Month? And if you have, do you know where the profits have ended up? You’re probably shaking your head, but this is the best example of the ‘rainbow gap’, the gap between how brands perceive LGBTQ+ issues and the reality for LGBTQ+ people. We therefore have two audiences – our well-intentioned, but potentially misguided brands, and our frustrated LGBTQ+ community.

Brands are under more pressure than ever to prove to audiences that they are truly and authentically inclusive, especially when it comes to LGBTQ+ inclusion strategies. Audiences are quick to spot what is now termed ‘rainbow washing’. Many brands face damaging scenarios each year when they’re perceived to be covering up a lack of tangible work to support the LGBTQ+ community by adorning rainbow flags and celebrating Pride month, only to seemingly ignore the matters after June. The impact on brand perception is huge, leading to distrust and further isolating LGBTQ+ audiences.

However, organisations also suffer from inaction. Failing to do anything at all is damaging brands’ reputation. Many businesses feel apprehensive and nervous about engaging with LGBTQ+ issues because they’re fearful of ‘getting it wrong’, but most LGBTQ+ consumers are ready to engage with those who are willing to try to get it right, as there is an appetite for brands to have a point of view.

There is clearly a gap between how consumers and organisations perceive and respond to LGBTQ+ issues. So, what are the key differences and what should businesses do to close the gap?

The brand perspective

Brands want to do the right thing, but they don’t necessarily know what that is. For various reasons, brands are unsure how to effectively engage with their LGBTQ+ audiences. Many feel they have no right to play in this space. They want to be authentic, but they don’t know whether they have a meaningful story to take to the community – one wrong move and they risk immense reputational damage.

Unfortunately, as many brands recognise that they lack an understanding of LGBTQ+ issues, they instead allow other issues to take precedence, such as COVID-19, the cost-of-living crisis, or sustainability. Most brands don’t have the resources or the know-how to face a battle on multiple fronts, so choose to focus their efforts on the safe zone (i.e., things that affect most consumers).

Nevertheless, work is being done to change what seems like a lack of support for LGBTQ+ issues. Businesses are often falling short of their audience’s expectations because they are making improvements internally that will enable them to make strides externally. Most companies want to be as transparent as possible with consumers about how LGBTQ+ campaigns and products are developed. They want to communicate the “who” behind the campaigns and products, ensuring that the people making the decisions are coming from a lived experience and that they are part of the LGBTQ+ community. They are also aware of the added benefits that a diverse workforce brings to their business. However, these changes will not happen overnight.

No matter the reason, the reality is that most organisations today are failing to engage with or support their LGBTQ+ audiences. So, what can they do? Where does change begin? Brand strategies should be based on audience insights and real understanding. Companies therefore have a responsibility to ensure they are using high-quality, diverse and inclusive data. So, it is more important than ever to seek lesser-known voices in your research. Listen to them. This is the only way you can go back to the community with authentic stories to tell.

The LGBTQ+ consumer opinion

LGBTQ+ consumers really do notice that brands are holding back. But they’re ready to engage with and speak to brands when they’re willing and trying to do the right thing. Our research shows that individuals are adept in identifying brands’ engagement. However, they rally around those that produce informed and authentic campaigns (Dr Marten’s was given time-and-time again by respondents as an example that stood out for LGBTQ+ people).

According to our research, 51% of LGBTQ+ individuals think that rainbow products are not authentic, but there are some within the community who feel that they have a vital role to play. They cited rainbow products as having the power to reach those who would otherwise have no contact with LGBTQ+ individuals.

The community faces huge challenges, and despite an organised effort, they can’t achieve success by themselves. They need engagement and support from those around them. This is where the power of brands comes in. Our research identifies the key issues that the LGBTQ+ community want to see brands unafraid to talk about, including:

  • Trans rights – the public discourse around Trans individuals in the media is causing many to feel the whole community is under attack
  • Bullying/Harassment – 38% are concerned about abuse towards the community with 25% citing physical violence
  • Health – many wider systemic issues came out, particularly around healthcare; including having children, how the monkeypox pandemic has been handled compared to COVID and a third are concerned about mental health issues

Despite this, 28% of those outside the community see no issues for LGBTQ+ individuals. It is crucial that brands include LGBTQ+ voices in their research if they want to authentically engage with and support the community with its challenges.

It is, however, important to acknowledge that among the LGBTQ+ community, there is still a fair amount of positivity towards the future of LGBTQ+ rights in the United Kingdom. A lot of LGBTQ+ people are optimistic about the direction LGBTQ+ rights are taking, less so for trans rights specifically. This presents an opportunity for brands to have a voice and a point-of-view in the future of LGBTQ+ rights and the trajectory that they take.

What can brands do?

We have spoken to both brands and LGBTQ+ consumers, and identified 5 principles that we think could help close that rainbow gap between brands and LGBTQ+ consumers:

  1. ADVOCACY – if brands believe in LGBTQ+ people, their employees, their customers, their friends, and family, they should shout about it. They should be the definition of an ally (someone who stands up for, supports and encourages the people around them).
  2. LISTEN – how can you listen to someone that you don’t speak to? 40% of LGBTQ+ people want businesses to listen to the issues they face and help them try to address them.
  3. DONATE – 67% of LGTBQ+ people believe profits and pride products should be donated to LGBTQ+ charities.
  4. ALL YEAR ROUND – regardless of what month it is in the year, brands should be advocated, listening, and donating. Pride Month is not Christmas and LGBTQ+ are for all year around.
  5. TRAINING – as well as external endeavours, 44% of LGBTQ+ people want brands to promote internal training and awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and concerns.

Effective business strategies start with audience insights. Brands that want to better appeal to and serve their LGBTQ+ audiences therefore have a responsibility to actively seek out LGBTQ+ voices. Unfortunately, most brands are falling short of expectations. Are you engaging with and supporting your LGBTQ audiences outside of Pride month? We hope that by identifying these five principles, brands can start having meaningful and authentic conversations with the LGBTQ+ community. By applying these principles, we hope the rainbow gap can become a rainbow bridge.