Transforming logos for Pride has lost brand impact and become ‘rainbow-washing’

With more brands altering their distinctive assets more frequently, often for the same reason and at the same time, code play is becoming far less effective.

Source: Marks & Spencer

M&S is in a bit of hot water. Its customers are telling them things on social media like “show some respect” and to “get real” and “show a bit of patriotism”. The source of all this ire?

The M&S logo.

Not the usual boring green one. The new, special, LGBTQ+ version that the British retailer is adopting throughout June to celebrate Pride. It’s not that M&S customers are homophobic – well, I hope it’s not that­ – it’s that June is also playing host to another major milestone (cue the marching band): the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

Most of the outraged M&S customers on social media last week weren’t upset by the rainbow colours of the adjusted logo. They were outraged that M&S had not recognised what they felt was a more important cultural moment with a Queenified version of the logo instead. “Your profile picture should be about the Jubilee,” Carole Clegg commented online. “What’s that supposed to be??? M&S, just fly our Queens flag. She’s earnt it.”

But there was just as much support for the Pride alternative logo on the other side of the high street this week. “Oof calm down people,” tweeted Katy Parry, “your homophobia is showing… and that doesn’t look good on anyone, regardless of how many pretty M&S pieces you have.” Many pointed out that it was impossible to avoid the Jubilee paraphernalia being sold by M&S this week.

When the mass market starts arguing over who gets the specially altered distinctive asset for the month, it’s probably time to retire the whole code-playing business forever.

Meanwhile, the unlucky M&S spokesperson had to pick their words very carefully and take an extremely ‘bothist’ approach. “M&S is a proud sponsor of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee pageant to celebrate Her Majesty’s 70-year reign and is celebrating the momentous occasion across all stores and channels,” was the first part. “Like many other retailers, we have updated our social media logos to mark the start of Pride month, as we did last year,” was the second.

In the end, it became apparent that everyone was missing the point. Except me, obviously. When the mass market starts arguing over who gets the specially altered distinctive asset for the month, it’s probably time to retire the whole code-playing business forever. Monkeys cannot run the zoo – especially the zoo’s Special Surprise Tricks Unit, which designs things to influence the monkeys without them knowing anything about it.

Forget tokenism: How brands can genuinely appeal to LGBTQ+ consumers

Distinctiveness and differentiation

There are only two reasons to alter your logo. The first is to embark on some code play, refresh a well-known asset and add distinctiveness to it. When Absolut started messing around with its silhouette in advertising in the 1980s, the impact was astonishing. In an era where the ‘brand police’ ensured every logo and every pack shot was presented exactly the same way, Absolut went a different way. First Warhol, then Haring, then a long line of art directors created versions of the simple Absolut bottle that broke all the traditional rules of brand consistency. And won big as a result.

In 1998, Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin finally took a holiday from their business and went to Burning Man for the weekend. Just as they were leaving the office, they decided to change the Google logo on the home page to reflect their recreational absence. Google Doodles were born and, for the next quarter of a century, Google has continued to stray from its traditional logo and spartan web design to reflect the events and anniversaries of the day in altered logo form.

Source: Google

By changing that most central of branding devices – the logo – marketers could grab attention and, in an impressively paradoxical marketing move, make people remember the traditional logo far more clearly as a result. But when everyone does it, all the time, often for the same reason, and over the exact same period, is the effect still so impressive? During June, we will witness hundreds, probably thousands, of brands donning the rainbow colours of the Pride movement to show their support. Will anyone even notice anymore, given every other brand has the same rainbow hue? Has this become the June standard?

Of course, there is a deeper reason for playing with a central code like a logo. Sure, it can generate distinctiveness. But, on a deeper level, it can also help to convey brand meaning and aid in differentiation. At the start of the new century, when Louis Vuitton famously turned its traditional brown and gold logo multicoloured under the playful eye of manga demigod Takashi Murakami, the limited edition collection not only drew attention to LV, it also signalled a modernity and playfulness that had been missing for decades at the Maison.

Growth of ‘rainbow-washing’

The original rationale for the handful of brands that used the rainbow colours of Pride on their logo was all about meaning. All about a chance to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community. But even that argument has lost force and favour in recent years, as more and more brands have jumped on the rainbow bandwagon, not least among the community itself.

“The bar for approval from LGBTQ+ communities in 2021 has risen,” wrote Lily Zheng in the Harvard Business Review a year ago. “Rainbow marketing just doesn’t cut it anymore. Let your actions between now and Pride 2022 demonstrate your commitment to the LGBTQ+ community instead.”

The brands that zagged while others zigged are now seeing everyone zagging. It might be time to zig again.

To understand Zheng’s point, you must first appreciate that superficial symbolic support like logo changes can often obscure and obfuscate the need for brands to enact more meaningful, deeper-rooted actions. We saw it when so many big brands ‘blacked out’ their logos in support of Black Lives Matter, only to then carry on with an exclusively white leadership team, content in the knowledge that they were supporting the brothers and sisters out there with temporary pantones and outraged press releases.

If ‘Black Lives Matter’ to brands, where are your black board members?

And we are seeing it now with the superficiality of ‘rainbow-washing’. Coca-Cola, Adidas and Visa are all proud supporters of Pride. Each is also equally proud of its sponsorship of the upcoming FIFA World Cup, which takes place in a country, Qatar, in which homosexuality is illegal. FIFA has pulled a few strings so that, provided LGBTQ+ supporters don’t look, speak, act or do anything remotely gay, they might be able to get home without being punished. But it’s not a dead-set certainty at this stage.

Source: Adidas

It’s one thing to fly the rainbow flag, but quite another to pull your sponsorship from an event taking place in a homophobic land. Or – as important sponsors – to block the original, hair-brained decision to host the games there in the first place. Not because it’s too fucking hot to play football during the summer there. Not because it’s a country with the population of Kent. Or because Qatar has the footballing traditions of the moon. But because they’re a bunch of miserable homophobes by law and don’t deserve even the smallest slice of 21st-century culture until they Move. The. Fuck. Forward.

I wonder if we saw not only the last great celebration of our last great royal and an important milestone in LGBTQ+ history, but also a change in the water around brand management too. Perhaps we are witnessing the generic decay of logo play.  It has been a wonderful couple of decades, filled with fun, risky, adventurous marketing moves. But when every brand does it and most consumers are expecting it, is this once radical branding move fit for purpose? A few brands zigged their logo while the others zagged. Now that everyone is zigging, is it time to zag once again?

Mark Ritson is PPA Columnist of the Year and teaches code play as part of his celebrated  Mini MBA in Marketing and Mini MBA in Brand Management.