Students are no longer solely basing their education decisions on league tables; they’re looking at the overall commitment of institutions to the causes they care about. If your institution has already begun to address these issues, that’s great. But your commitment needs to be deep-rooted and fundamental in all that you do.

Year on year brands alter their design to show support for Pride. But is it really that supportive? Splattering a rainbow over your branding during Pride month, also known as ‘rainbow washing’, in a bid to showcase your institution as progressive, accepting and inclusive is almost certain to fall flat. Students want to see institutions follow through with their civic duties behind the scenes too. Finding out that your institution superficially supports Pride, diversity and climate change initiatives but fails to commit deep down will only damage your brand. 

So, what can institutions do to avoid rainbow washing but still show support?

1. Be in tune with your students 

How can you understand what your students want to see if you can’t empathise with the causes they care about? Ask your students what causes they would like to see supported and how they would like that support to manifest itself. Empower your student voice and allow it to power your campaigns. ​

BLM protest

The BLM movement demonstrated the importance of listening to those who are often marginalised. We didn’t want to just guess how Black students felt amid the movement, so we asked them. What they want to see from their institutions and which brands they admire. The key takeaway? Posting a black square (or rainbow) on social media won’t cut it. But working with your students can have a profound impact on brand perception while increasing feelings of inclusivity and positivity on campus. Read the full whitepaper here to discover how your students want you to approach the causes they care about. 

2. Connect with the power of pronouns

For members of the LGBTQ+ community, pronouns are significant. And they’re becoming commonplace among Gen-Z, regardless of their affinity with LGBTQ+. Show support for dismantling the binary construction of gender by being open and inclusive in your comms, and giving students and staff alike the option to state their preferred pronouns if they wish. And don’t assume the gender of your prospective students - always ask. 

But you need to be authentic. To avoid rainbow-washing, you can’t just jump on the pronoun bandwagon. You need to live your values for students to connect with your brand as a true ally. Don’t make the same mistake Barclays did recently: they released a series of videos highlighting the importance of pronouns, the dangers of misgendering, and how actions are more important than words. All admirable sentiments, until you see their gender pay gap standing at 66p for women to every £1 for men. Can they really claim to be true supporters of gender neutrality and flexibility when their own culture is so highly gendered? Avoid looking like you’re paying lip service to the cause by ensuring your commitment to diversity and inclusion is embedded in all your comms and everything you do.

3. Don’t fall victim to brandalism

pride event

Support for inclusivity shouldn’t be a selling point. Whether you’re advertising your new online courses, your students’ stories or an Open Day, make your adverts relevant. You don’t need to include the rainbow flag unless it relates to the content. Students will immediately detect this as a virtue-signalling tactic and you could lose integrity.

4. Convey your support through your copy 

Tell a story through your copy. Consider your people, their environment and your vision for the brand. What is your role in society and what preconceptions do prospective students have of your institution?

A study by the School of Law and Social Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London revealed the top concerns for UK students, with ‘racial, ethnic or religious discrimination’ a priority for 51% of those surveyed. How do your commitments reflect their priorities?

Strategically planned campaigns (with students at their heart) will help you to communicate your value. We’ve got a formula for creating branding and advertising that stands out in a saturated market. Catch up with our Head of Copy Cem Topcam’s webinar from our Think Student Live - Online event to find out how to showcase your USP. 

5. Don’t lecture your students outside the lecture theatre

students learning in class

Gen-Z have information at their fingertips and are constantly in tune with the issues affecting them and their peers. They don’t want (or need) companies telling them about the importance of celebrating the gender spectrum during Pride month.

Brands that commit rainbow washing will be immediately detected, whereas brands that live up to their values and ideals will be celebrated. Showing true support for the issues that students advocate (mental health, climate change and a commitment to anti-racism) will help you to gain support with this progressive audience. 

In short, rainbow washing, green washing, virtue signalling and any other forms of superficial support won’t win over your students. Taking responsibility for your actions and living your values is what students want to see. Authenticity and genuine good intentions are what they will really notice, not a colourful background. Walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

At Net Natives, we’ve conducted research on gender stereotyping in branding, looking at the impact it has and zooming in on students’ thoughts and feelings around this topic. If you are interested in this research, catch up with our webinar ‘How to solve the problem of gender stereotyping in marketing and advertising’ and read our blog on gender neutral marketing here. 

And, if you’re looking for more advice on making your brand more inclusive with students at the heart, then get in contact today. ​

Article by


Lois King

Digital Marketing Assistant