Beyond Rainbow Washing in June—Successfully Targeting the LGBTQ Market Requires Effort Year-Round


By Andy Smith

To build an inclusive customer- or client base, businesses of all sizes need to step up their games, understand their audience(s), and market to communities year-round, not just during specific times of the year. 

Case in point: Pride Month. Throughout June businesses of all sizes attempted to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community, with varying degrees of success correlating to the amount of analysis and effort behind their initiatives. And for those that just make an effort in June, results will be minimal at best.

“Companies need to show their commitment and support for the LGBTQ+ community year-round – not just during the month of June,” says Matthew Shinabarger, SVP Marketing Portfolio and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lead at FleishmanHillard, a St. Louis-based PR and Marketing Agency with offices and clients worldwide. 

Look Beyond the Rainbow

His first piece of advice might be a bit surprising—Be patient with yourself as you get up to speed marketing to any new community. “It is important to understand that many companies are on their own personal learning journeys and mistakes and missteps are bound to happen along the way,” Shinabarger says.

“You can easily find many examples of poor corporate decision making when it comes to marketing to the LGBTQ+ community by simply searching the internet, the most common of which is rainbow-washing,” he says. “Rainbow-washing is when a business attaches the iconic rainbow flag or associated imagery to their brand during Pride month but otherwise do not actively work to support the LGBTQ+ community.”

“It is much more complex than simply ‘How do we market to the LGBTQ+ community?’ Many of our clients are also seeking counsel on how to talk, act and engage in this fragmented, emotionally charged high-stakes environment.”

Getting Started: Your To-Do List

When marketing to the LGBTQ+ community, Shinabarger lists a few best practices:

  • Work With Those in the Know. “When developing LGBTQ+ marketing strategies, companies should be employing and incorporating LGBTQ+ talent, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, into their plans and campaigns,” Shinabarger says.
  • Don’t be Obvious, Oblivious, or Insensitive. “Companies should avoid reinforcing LGBTQ+ stereotypes by depicting characters in a way that may alienate consumers,” he says, advice that applies to many market sectors. 
  • Show Courage. “It is important that companies not back down or pull their campaign or advertising if they receive negative criticism after launch – because it will happen.”

Advice for Small Businesses

FleishmanHillard works with large clients, but small businesses and solopreneurs can benefit from the marketer’s suggestions too. “It truly does not take a big budget to visually and audibly diversify your messaging,” Shinabarger emphasizes. 

“It’s important to build a relationship with the community before you start marketing to them.”  Small businesses and entrepreneurs can donate time, money, or resources to local LGBTQ+ organizations by: 

  • Hosting fundraisers.
  • Sponsoring or participating in local LGBTQ+ events and activities, and
  • Organizing group volunteer projects or inviting guest speakers to share their experiences with your staff. 

“I think the best piece of advice I could give a small business owner and/or entrepreneur that is looking to market to the LGBTQ+ community, or any under-represented community for that matter, is to be inclusive and diverse in your marketing and advertising,” Shinaberger says.