Being an Ally vs. Just Using Symbols

Consumers increasingly are able to recognize, and don’t take kindly to, organizations whom they suspect are “purpose washing,” says best-selling author Dan Goleman.

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

In a purpose-driven economy, sussing out good marketing from true meaning is a much-needed skill. While there may be an argument about the degree to which purpose currently matters for marketing, the data shows it may become an increasingly important factor as the years go by. Younger generations seem more attuned than their older counterparts to a company’s purpose.

Seventy-eight percent of Americans believe companies must not only make money, but also positively impact society. No matter what the cause, companies are finding it more and more important to communicate their commitment to something larger.

Which gets us to purpose-washing. As with most purpose-driven efforts these days, consumers are quick to call out the gap between what a company says it supports and what it actually does in terms of its operations. The callouts on “greenwashing” have been in the spotlight of late.

But consider the same gap when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Case in point: the LGBTQ+ community.

June was Pride Month in the United States, honoring the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, a historical turning point for gay awareness. According to current census polling, the LGBTQ+ community makes up over 7% of the US population. This percentage is even higher in the younger generations: for Gen-Z Americans who have reached adulthood, roughly 20% identify as LGBTQ+.

For years now, companies have viewed Pride Month as a clear way to show their support for DEI. Retail displays boast rainbows and shelves are stocked with limited edition Pride Month products. The list of corporate partners for New York City Pride is replete with high-profile brands.

But there is a great debate among conscious consumers and members of the LGBTQ+ community as to whether or not this corporate support is genuine. Corporate efforts during Pride Month have led to what many call “rainbow capitalism,” a term used to describe the way LGBTQ+ symbolism is wielded in order to boost sales and consumerism. It has also led to what many people describe as “pinkwashing”—a form of purpose-washing distinct to the LGBTQ+ movement.

And when it comes to DEI—which holds significant meaning for many consumers—there are often differences between what a company claims to support in their marketing versus what they are actually doing internally to mitigate bias.

Upon interviewing 30 founders, CEOs, and senior executives at consumer companies with visible and authentic purposes, Korn Ferry identified this key insight: “Although these brands are celebrated for their external images, customer engagement, and positive impact in the world, their commitments to people and purpose inside their companies fuel their success.”

Korn Ferry identified certain key conditions that distinguished thriving, purpose-driven organizations from those that only engaged superficially with purpose.

These conditions include:

  • Having leaders who embrace purpose-guided decision-making on all levels of the business;
  • Living by the idea that people matter most and that investing in them is what drives growth;
  • Creating environments where people can bring their whole selves to work; and
  • Having such a pervasive commitment to purpose that it can be seen in every part of the organization and across all roles and departments.

When trying to determine which businesses that show up during Pride Month are truly committed to this purpose, it’s worth looking for the ones that are supporting LGBTQ+ rights throughout the year. A Harvard Business Review article, aptly titled “Your Rainbow Logo Doesn’t Make You an Ally,” identifies key features employees and consumers can look for in order to see if a company is “pinkwashing” or if they are serious about their commitments.

These include: support for LGBTQ+ partners and creators; forward-thinking programs and policies—such as inclusive healthcare benefits and parental leave—to support LGBTQ+ employees; advocacy efforts that promote collaboration among more than one marginalized group; year-round contributions to organizations that support LGBTQ+ communities; and using corporate power and influence to advocate for LGBTQ+ protections throughout the calendar year.

What’s more, we can infer that one in five entry-level employees in any organization identify as LGBTQ+—more in some industries and geographies than in others. For companies that want to recruit top talent, showing up for LGBTQ+ rights will continue to be a major differentiator. Lastly, for brands that market to younger generations, it’s becoming more and more likely that a vast number of their consumers—even if they don’t identify as LGBTQ+—see themselves as allies. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.