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Pride Campaigns: The Good, the Bad & the Rainbow-Washy

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 06/29/2023 | 12 Minute Read

Every June, our favorite brands become a bit more colorful in honor of Pride. But Pride means so much more than rainbows—it’s a chance to remember the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which was a catalyst for the gay rights movement, and it pushes us towards a more equitable future for everyone, regardless of their gender identity or who they love. 

And when you think about that, it almost seems crass for brands to monetize on Pride in the first place.

“On one hand, I've seen in my lifetime how visibility and awareness and compassion have increased,” said Brandi Parker, a brand-level sustainability consultant. “But, at the same time, those ideals run through a capitalist filter and perhaps take advantage of and exploit. It's also no secret that Queer couples have been historically categorized as ‘DINKs,’ double income, no kids. They’re a wealthy demographic to target.

“I guess, at the base of it all, if a company is saying it, then I have to believe there is a broader motive than just saying, ‘We love gay folks.’”

It’s only reasonable to remain skeptical, especially when the most significant end goal from a brand’s gesture of goodwill might be a boost in visibility and sales. Brandi admitted that she could never make a blanket statement about all Pride merchandise and campaigns. Perhaps some are genuine expressions of appreciation and respect for the community. How, then, could brands approach a Pride campaign if they want to honor the LGBTQIA+ community appropriately?

Kaitlyn Barclay, CEO & co-founder of Scout Lab, emphasized two key points. First, the team working on the campaign needs to include people within the target audience. Second, no one can assume that the folks working on the project represent the whole community.

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“Just because I'm Queer doesn't mean my experience represents that of the entire community. Far from it,” Kaitlyn said. “LGBTQ+ marketers must be a part of building briefs for Pride. But it's not their responsibility to represent the entire Queer experience. Marketing teams need to be willing to do thoughtful research on Queer culture, as well as policy and legislation impacting the community."

“The goal when marketing to any historically marginalized community should be an investment in long-term advocacy, and an authentic message, prioritized in that order,” Kaitlyn added.

Matthew Bradley, head of 3D design at GLOCK, agreed that the right motivations matter, and the goal shouldn't solely be driven by money. “Such an approach reflects misguided intentions,” he said. “What matters is having a genuine purpose behind it all. Do the groundwork, take the time to listen and engage with the LGBTQIA+ community and ensure the message is authentically embodied. You should take the time to craft something unique and thoughtful. Simply slapping a rainbow on your logo is not often well received.”


Zipeng Zhu, founder and creative director of Dazzle Studio, has a few requirements he looks for when working on Pride campaigns. Zipeng jokingly referred to himself as the “designated Pride designer” since he’s no stranger to working on Pride designs—he’s put his dazzling touch on brands like Harry’s, Love is in the Air, JVN, The Love Spectrum, and the 2023 Skittles Pride packaging. When he’s approached by brands, he wants their brief to have a specific vision or goal, he and any other artists should be treated fairly and allowed to express their experiences in their work, and preparation is vital. “Do not hit me up in June and ask me for a Pride project. That's just plain rude.”

Something else he expressed was the importance of a charity donation. In some cases, Zipeng even gets to choose which charity the funds go to, allowing him to spotlight organizations that don’t always get it. But if the Pride merch only funnels money back into the brand, it takes a marginalized community’s pain and monetizes it.


“I don't take on any Pride project if there isn't a charity donation,” Zipeng explained. “It’s also very important how charity and profit are divided. If you're like, ‘Oh, we're gonna donate one percent,’ I'm not going to take on that project because that is not even a gesture. For most of the clients I take on, I try to figure out what the percentage amount is going to charity and what charity that is going to.” 

Harry Kinnear, associate director at Space Doctors, echoed Zipeng’s point. “Unless your campaign directly supports LGBTQIA+ employees, workers, designers, charities, initiatives, and people in material terms—money talks—then it exploits those people. Amplifying voices doesn’t count when it’s only for your brand!”

Showing support for the LGBTQIA+ community can be seen as a risk, and it should be. Brandi said that the early Pride campaigns felt so monumental because there was a gamble on how the general public would accept it. But with Pride campaigns being far more common, to risk something and take a stand requires brands to do more—yes, even something that might not be well-perceived by hateful individuals. We’ve seen instances of this in 2023 with brands backtracking on their Pride campaigns, like Target pulling some or all of their annual collection to protect employees due to hostile backlash. Safety concerns aside, this kind of response can scare brands into doing nothing (or simply doing the dreaded rainbow-washing) to appease loud, angry consumers—and it’s the exact opposite of the kind of support brands should be showing.


“I think the sentiment that we should focus less on ‘love is love’ and more on ‘Queer and trans people are in danger’ (as expressed in a tweet by Claire Willett) to set the context for any Pride campaign,” Harry Kinnear said. “There needs to be a sense of urgency to Pride campaigns, a sense of something actually being on the line, and a sense that brands want to put something on the line for LGBTQIA+ people. Love is love—yes! But hate is also hate, and it tends to be louder.”

Brands can approach Pride in a thoughtful, inclusive, and well-designed way. Matthew said Converse embodies the spirit of inclusivity and equality during Pride by releasing unique designs created by LGBTQIA+ employees. Kaitlyn credited The North Face for their second Summer of Pride campaign featuring drag queen Pattie Gonia, especially when they stood by their ad despite a homophobic response from some. Harry appreciates how Savage X Fenty celebrates Pride, encouraging people to mix and match items and find joy in everyone not being all the same.


Brandi said that the updated Virgin Atlantic gender identity policy to eliminate gendered uniforms for employees stood out to her as LGBTQIA+ support done right. “While it's not specifically Pride-related, it is adjacent, and it's a method by which a company is showing support and acting on that support in a way that is taking a risk,” she pointed out. “The public could reject them. Those people on the plane may not be comfortable with it. But that's not the point, is it? The point is to make the employees comfortable and to celebrate all of the varieties and diversities of human beings.”

That brings up one final and critical thing brands should remember—Pride doesn’t turn into a pumpkin when the clock strikes midnight on June 30th. Extend that enthusiastic support for the LGBTQIA+ community beyond just one month. “If brands want to reach the Queer community, they must be willing to advocate for the rights of that community beyond June,” Kaitlyn said. “Brands need a long-term advocacy plan if they want their rainbow logo to mean anything. Consumers have a forensic ability to sniff out bullshit, so brands must be thinking beyond June optics.”

Pride Campaign Lightning Round

Time for the Pride edition of the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

We asked designers to look back at Pride campaigns from this year and years past and give us their honest thoughts and feelings. While some designs might hit the mark, others undoubtedly deserve the bombastic side-eye they get.

Nascar 2022 (and this year), including their YAAASCAR shirt

“Choosing three white-passing male models doesn’t scream an inclusive message to me, and the use of color feels somewhat uninspired. Simply turning a logo rainbow makes the sentiment feel like an afterthought, and the lack of visible donation only solidifies this.” 

-Matthew Bradley

“I actually really like the graphic of this YAAASCAR, but I hate the other two. But if you don't donate it's absolutely not for me.” 

-Zipeng Zhu

“Is this real? As someone in the deep south, NASCAR is a whole culture. So to see this, to me, is slightly shocking in the best possible way. Because of the inherent hetero kind of culture that NASCAR can be, this seems like a high risk. They could alienate their fan base with this, and obviously, that's not the point. It's to show acceptance. But YAAASCAR? Hilarious. Why didn't I think of that?” 

- Brandi Parker


Bombas 2023

“I mean this in a positive way, but these socks are not just like, ‘Hey, this is pride!’ They’re lovely socks that you can wear anytime. And it's not about specifically making a statement, but it's great knowing that the purchase goes to an organization.” 

- Brandi Parker

“This one is the best out of the selection. It recognizes some nuance and difference within LGBTQIA+, allows people to represent themselves, and supports Queer youth doing so.” 

- Harry Kinnear

“What's cool about this packaging is that it celebrates different types of people within the community. Every person looks like they're carrying a designated flag that they identify with. It's raising awareness in a very, very clever way. I like the illustration. I love the non-specific skin tone they're using. And I think it’s cool because I feel like it could then get applied to more people.” 

- Zipeng Zhu

“I love the messaging here. It feels purposeful, and the inclusion of all LGBTQIA+ flags is a great touch. Plus, socks are a great way for people to express themselves in more subtle ways, especially for those who are less comfortable or live in less accepting areas. And providing donations shows Bombas are putting their money where their mouth is.” 

- Matthew Bradley


Bud Light 2019 cans and 2021 “Let’s Grab Beer Tonight Queens”

“I don't particularly love using the LGBTQ slogan, but I think if we're criticizing the packaging alone, then the packaging is really, really beautiful. I just don't love the copy.” 

- Zipeng Zhu

“Brands trying to tap into Queer vernacular, such as ‘Queens,’ feels somewhat cliché. But the choice of aluminum instead of glass in the bottle design is a well-considered touch, as it means it could get taken to, and sold at, Pride Events, which don’t typically allow glass.” 

- Matthew Bradley

“ I know that Anheuser Busch is a big supporter of GLAAD, and GLAAD does amazing work. But because Anheuser Busch is a big company, it's hard to know if it's really about authenticity. They were among the bigger companies to really take in Pride as an opportunity, and it's paid off for them historically. I can applaud where they started, which was the risk-taking kind of situation, but I think, at this point, it's hard to feel any type of way about it, honestly. I don't feel like they're trying to be inclusive. I think they support GLAAD, which is good, but it's just a move to get more sales.” 

- Brandi Parker


Target Pride Collection (happens annually for the last ten years)

“It’s great to see a campaign rooted in great foundations, especially one that has been running for over a decade—longer than most other brands’ campaigns. I do think there is progress to be made in the design, and more thoughtful consideration of colors in the clothing would likely enhance the overall impact. Either way, it’s disappointing to see that they buckled to overt homophobia this year.” 

- Matthew Bradley

“If I was in the same position and I knew my employees were in danger, I would have to think about it. But at the same time, why are we catering to people that would do violence or target employees? It’s the terrorism that continues throughout the country. And when you put it out there and then you pull it back, it's almost worse than not doing it at all.” 

- Brandi Parker

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“I love most of the Target Pride celebrations, and they're one of the few companies that dedicate a lot of effort to design. The rollback this year is a complicated thing for me. Protecting employees is very, very important. However, I don't know that taking things off the shelf is exactly the right move. Are they going to keep up with the same promises of what they donate to organizations? Are they going to also celebrate the artists regardless? I don't know some of the answers, and it makes me think of the origin of Pride, which started with lesbians, drag queens, and trans people fed up with oppression and threats. I feel like this is not exactly the right time to shrink. In fact, it’s time to be louder and prouder.” 

- Zipeng Zhu


Burger King Pride Whopper

“I hate it so much. Some people might find it very, very clever, I guess. But I think this is quite a lazy solution. The two top buns or two bottom buns are also a very binary concept. And also, it's very gay-oriented. There’s so much more complexity within our community. And what did they really do here? They are just using everything that's existing and available to them and not adding any of the extra attention to create this product.” 

- Zipeng Zhu

“I mean, it's funny, but it's a fucking burger. It's a gimmick, obviously, and people would chuckle, and maybe they would sell another burger because of it. But I don't feel any particular type of way about it.” 

- Brandi Parker

“The flag colors get used in an interesting way here, but the joke with the buns could be made clearer. They’re running a risk of oversexualizing the community, which could be seen as regressive or even borderline inappropriate, reinforcing stereotypes that many feel uncomfortable with.” 

- Matthew Bradley


House Wine 2023

“I love how much they're donating. If we're judging solely by the packaging, I feel like there are more tasteful and beautiful solutions I might do if I were the designer. However, the message is good, the donation is good. As a person in the community, I care about how much they donate more than how beautiful the product looks.” 

- Zipeng Zhu

“Again, great to see brands donating to causes with these campaigns, but they could have used more consistent colors across the packaging to make them feel more cohesive. The cans risk appearing dull when placed next to the wine bottle, for example."

- Matthew Bradley

”I feel similar to this than I do to Bud Light because it's kind of an obvious thing. But they're huge donations. I think that that's key.” 

- Brandi Parker



“Harry's has always had a very minimal approach to their aesthetics, so it's surprising to see these with all the color stuff going on. It’s very different, and I like it. It feels authentic because of its aesthetic presentation, and I don't know if I could have put that into words before seeing it. It’s like, just putting rainbow stripes on a can is one thing. This feels more original and more authentic.” 

- Brandi Parker

“This is a great example of a pride campaign done right. A clear focus on inclusivity and a design that feels intentional and non-generic. You can feel the love that went into this one.” 

- Matthew Bradley

“I am personally biased because they were a great collaborator to work with when I did the Pride box. What I love about this year's is that it's so simple. It's so minimal, but it's so elegant and elevated. Loud and proud is great, but loud and proud can still be elegant and elevated.” 

- Zipeng Zhu