What Happens When Brands Come Out of the Closet

How Brands See a Boost on Both Sides of LGBT Issue

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The last year has brought with it a meaningful shift in gay rights. And from a marketing perspective, there has been an interesting parallel with more brands than ever coming out of the closet on this particular issue. We've seen a year filled with brands catering to -- or in other cases completely alienating -- the LGBT audience (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender for those of you scratching your heads). And the response has been as charged as the issue of gay rights itself.

I'm thankful to see the dialogue, but I do wonder what these potentially polarizing choices mean for the parent corporations? What do they mean for us as consumers? And how these choices actually come to fruition in real life?

Most of us read about the Chick-fil-A controversy last year when company President Dan Cathy made public comments opposing same-sex marriage, also bringing to light $5 million in company contributions to organizations that vehemently oppose LGBT rights. Within days there were terminated contracts, threats of boycott and pushback in new markets. Polls conducted at the height of the story stated that more than 50% of respondents would withhold patronage of the chain.

Erroneous reports calling Mike and Ike split a
Erroneous reports calling Mike and Ike split a "gay divorce" prompted some protests -- and a business boost.

Overnight, Chick-fil-A became the poster child for the fastest way to damage a brand, right? Maybe, maybe not. When I recently revisited the story, it surprised me to learn that the chain's earnings are actually healthier than ever. While many of us may not like it, and Mr. Cathy may have done everything wrong according to the PR manuals, his sentiments appear to have captivated a very loyal, very conservative consumer. I wonder if Chick-fil-A has become, in effect, the Fox News of the fast-food world.

Caught in the crossfire of the gay-marriage debate were Mike & Ike, Just Born's old-school fruit-flavored candy from our childhood. The candy brand has been around since the 1940s, but has been relatively quiet the past few years. All that changed in April 2012, when in an attempt to capture a younger demographic, the company launched a marketing campaign based on Mike & Ike's troubled partnership.

Though the advertising, social media and packaging campaign attributed the split to creative differences, it wasn't long before rumors were flying that it was part of a "gay divorce." The Family Research Council publicly denounced the brand, saying, "It's just another subtle example of society chipping away at the value of marriage." Is the world ready for a maybe-gay candy? It appears so. Mike & Ike had its best year sales-wise in a decade, up more than 7%; it also tripled its Facebook fanbase.

You may have also heard that in 2012, JC Penney made Ellen DeGeneres as the company's spokeswoman. JC Penney is another company looking to reignite its brand with a younger audience. "Ellen" has repeatedly swept the Emmys and is one of the country's top-rated daytime talk shows, so it's a no-brainer to partner with such a likable personality. Oh right, she's a lesbian. A group called One Million Moms accused JC Penney of "jumping on the pro-gay bandwagon," calling for a boycott of the retail chain. Interestingly enough, JC Penney is in fact struggling, with declining sales and a serious identity crisis, but the bright spot seems to be DeGeneres herself. According to social-intelligence company NetBase, online chatter over the holidays concerning the retailer was "positive but mediocre." Added NetBase Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Joy Rosner: "One thing that is resonating is that they love Ellen."

While these are very public examples of how brands are interacting with the LGBT community, there are endless ways that companies are showing their support for -- or sadly, opposition to -- gay rights. It can be as fundamental as providing health coverage to same-sex couples (bravo, Home Depot), or as fun as launching Gay Pride-inspired advertising (rainbow Oreo, anyone?). Other brands have very simply broadcast their position through an official memo (Starbucks), opposed ballot amendments that recognize marriage only between a man and a woman (General Mills) or added inclusive messaging to their company vernacular (same-sex marriage icons on Facebook).

Personal opinions aside, it's impossible not to recognize the gay community's value to advertisers. Research shows that gay consumers have above-average disposable income, education and rates of employment. They are also incredibly brand-loyal, and their influence on mainstream trends is undeniably powerful. In addition, the LGBT community is estimated to make up nearly 7% of the U.S. adult population -- or 15 million people.

So what's the big takeaway? To be frank, I'm not quite sure. It's likely that similar to the political advancement we've seen for the LGBT community the past year, more brands are going to start pursuing this appealing audience. Some will succeed, some will fail, and a few will most definitely surprise us. The one thing I can say with 100% certainty is that the world isn't going to end because of unbiased or inclusive marketing. That, and the world could use more gay candy.

Crystal Bennett is a partner at Little Big Brands, a New York-based branding firm that specializes in strategic brand design. littlebigbrands.com.

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