Pride logo, or no Pride logo? Companies still grapple with the meaning of being an LGBTQ+ ally

June 23, 2021, 12:40 PM UTC

It didn’t take long for tonight’s make-or-break match in the UEFA European football championship tournament, pitting Germany against Hungary, to turn into an international incident. The bad blood isn’t over the soccer game but rather over what’s going on—or, more to the point, won’t go on—outside the stadium in Munich.

Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter asked the tournament organizers, the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations), to light up the Allianz Arena in rainbow colors, drawing a sharp rebuke from Budapest.

Munich city councillors barely disguised their motives. “On the occasion of the match between Germany and Hungary, the council wishes to send a visible message of solidarity to the LGBT community in Hungary, which is suffering under recent legislation passed by the Hungarian government,” it said in a statement.

The football governing body, UEFA, struck down the proposal, seeing it as a clear political message directed against Hungary’s hard-line leader Viktor Orbán and his government’s anti-LGBT agenda.

The UEFA quixotically tried to mollify both sides, suggesting Munich light the stadium in rainbow colors next week, or the week after—well after the Hungarian team bus has left town. European Union officials, including EU Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli, were not impressed. “Rainbows are not offensive. LGBTIQphobia is,” Dalli said.

Meanwhile, sponsors of the tournament, including Alipay, TikTok, Gazprom, Volkswagen, FedEx, Qatar Airways, Coca-Cola, and, have not issued any public statements about the matter as of Wednesday afternoon.

Welcome to Pride Month in soccer-crazy Europe.

Munich’s Allianz Arena illuminated in rainbow colors for Christopher Street Day, an annual European LGBT celebration, in July of 2020.
Alexander Hassenstein—Getty Images

June: a month to shine

Once again this June some of the world’s largest companies—from Walmart to Bank of America to Berkshire Hathaway—are coming out as LGBTQ+ allies, switching out their usual, monochrome branding for rainbow-clad logos.

It’s hardly a global movement, however.

In countries where Pride parades are common, for example, corporate social media handlers deck out their accounts in colorful hues, and some even reference the 1969 Stonewall riots or the gay rights activist Marsha P. Johnson or show a little love to the trending hashtag #transmenaremen. Meanwhile, their colleagues running corporate social media accounts in, say, the Middle East and sometimes Asia are noticeably quiet on the matter.

As global companies acknowledge the cultural norms and prejudices of different markets, they are once again facing a delicate balancing act regarding when they should speak out and how they should align themselves on social justice issues across different regions—as well as when they should stay mum.

The gap between the two approaches hasn’t gone unnoticed. Some Twitter users have been quick to call out companies’ conflicting accounts as opportunistic and signs of “corporate wokeism”—or shallow efforts to be seen as socially progressive only when it will burnish the brand.

But even if global corporations can’t rainbow-paint their logos in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, does this make all of their efforts disingenuous?

Ian Johnson, chief executive of Out Now Consulting, a marketing agency that specializes in gay marketing content, says that while he wishes the accounts could be rainbow-colored in Dubai and Egypt, “I don’t want to jettison all the progress that’s been made for the sake of winning a binary argument where the choice is lose-lose.”

In other words: It is better for companies to do something rather than nothing.

Dropping Pride flags from global social media accounts just to avoid criticism from Western markets is “a loss for the LGBT community,” Johnson adds.

Pride’s out

This list of companies that have kitted out their Western social media accounts in rainbow flags includes many of those on the Fortune 500 and Global 500. They are consumer-facing companies from the auto industry to food and drink groups.

German car brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Volkswagen, for example, have changed up their Western profiles to be more gay friendly, while keeping their Middle Eastern market business as usual.

Daimler—the parent company of Mercedes-Benz—told Fortune in a statement that while they encourage all cultures, sexual orientations, and identities to condemn discrimination, as a global company it must “comply with the applicable laws and regulations of the respective countries.”

The German car giant added that while there is still “a long way to go before the LGBTQI+ community is accepted completely worldwide, we as a company can only contribute a small part.”

Fortune sought comment from eight global brands about their communications and marketing policy around Gay Pride Month; only Daimler, Nestlé, and Facebook responded.

Rainbow cred

Consumer goods giants, too, from Procter & Gamble to Unilever to Nestlé have converted their logos to rainbow flags.

Tech companies, meanwhile, were more mixed in showing their colors. Facebook added a rainbow circle around its logo for all of its main social media accounts globally.

As a Facebook company spokesman explained to Fortune, “We value diversity and inclusion and support the LGBTQ+ community across the globe. Our LGBTQ+ experiences are sometimes limited in places where members of the community are heavily stigmatized and could be in danger. We will continue to look for ways to make our products more widely available while still prioritizing people’s safety.” 

Alphabet’s Google, which has a distinctly colorful logo, did not change any of its marketing across any platforms. Its subsidiary YouTube did change its cover image to spell out “Pride 2021”—but not so for its massive Indian- or Japanese-language channels.

Such contradictions did not go unnoticed on social media, drawing questions and even mockery of brands that couldn’t keep their messaging consistent across markets.

Far from global

When it comes to Pride-based branding, many organizations and consultancies focused on the LGBTQ+ community say they view companies that can’t or won’t promote Pride in all their markets with a certain pragmatism.

But they also point out how far things have come. Johnson, from Paris-based Out Now Consulting, says that he sees any and all visibility for the cause as good.

“Being visible as a supporter in a public sense is an enormous help to LGBT+ people, especially youth, to look at their world in ways that I couldn’t as a teenager,” he argues.

LGBTQ+ rights charity Stonewall also told Fortune that while it is pleased to see corporations make such strides, it understands how businesses need to adapt their marketing messaging and communications region by region.

Still, Vicky Hayden, head of global partnerships at Stonewall, encourages organizations to publicly commit to ending anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination internationally and to do so “safely and appropriately.” This could be accomplished by supporting Pride Month events, she adds, or by championing equality legislation in a country that doesn’t protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination.

Pride flags—even on corporate accounts—through the month of June make an important public statement, says Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, another marketing firm focused on the gay market. That is, they generate discussion and visibility.

Witeck says he doesn’t blame companies for not using Pride branding in every country, acknowledging that corporations must still balance out the many cultures of their consumers.

“I’ve been involved in this for 50 years,” he says. “I walk past a rainbow flag, and it still makes me feel great.”

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