Why Brands Aren't Heeding Calls to Hire Caitlyn Jenner (Yet)

'This Is Not A Bandwagon Moment'

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Caitlyn Jenner applying makeup in a preview for her new show on E!,
Caitlyn Jenner applying makeup in a preview for her new show on E!,

Three days after Caitlyn Jenner introduced herself to the world on the cover of Vanity Fair -- sparking an outpouring of media coverage and social media chatter -- one cohort remains noticeably absent from the conversation: brands. And so far, Ms. Jenner has not spoken with any companies about potential sponsorships, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Fewer than 24 hours after Vanity Fair released its July cover, there were nearly 30,000 mentions of "Caitlyn" in the media, according to analytics firm IQ Media. That squashes the 5,500 mentions Kim Kardashian got when Paper magazine sought to "break the internet" last December with its provocative cover.

But the only major non-media brand to reference Ms. Jenner publicly during that time was Pizza Hut, whose U.K. account tweeted that she was "welcome at any time" -- and later deleted the message.

A day later, Gap stepped carefully into the conversation with a blog post noting that the Vanity Fair cover "marks an important moment in LGBTQ history, with the trans-rights movement gaining steam in recent months and years." It also tweeted a link to the blog post with a picture of Caitlyn.

Gap has permission to speak up about this topic, marketers say, because it has a history of supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. The company featured a trangendered employee in a video produced with GLAAD as part of a series called #GotYourBack time for Pride Month, which is this month.

"Gap Inc. stands with GLAAD in our belief that lifting voices out of isolation -- and vocalizing support -- is a critical step in achieving equality," Paul Tew, a Gap Inc. executive, said in a statement.

For other brands, even ones with a progressive streak, staying on the sidelines for Caitlyn Jenner's coming out party could be wise for now, according to marketing executives.

"This is not a bandwagon moment," said Jamie Gutfreund, chief marketing officer at digital agency Deep Focus.

If a brand wants to join this conversation, or tap Ms. Jenner for an ad campaign, it had better have a solid track record of supporting acceptance and social causes. "Otherwise, they risk it being seen as a cynical attempt to ride a wave of publicity," said Scott Donaton, chief content officer at DigitasLBi.

But failing to chime in, when appropriate, also risks alienating a younger generation of consumers.

"The generation under 30 doesn't even know why we make such a big deal about these things," said Terry Young, CEO and founder of creative agency Sparks and Honey.

Ripple effects
A couple of brands were thrust into the conversation regardless. On Monday, Wheaties-owner General Mills fumbled its way through TMZ's request for a reaction to the Vanity Fair cover. Bruce Jenner appeared on the Wheaties box in 1977 after winning Olympic gold, and General Mills first told TMZ: "Bruce Jenner continues to be a respected member of Team Wheaties."

TMZ followed up -- offering General Mills a chance to correct itself and refer to the former athlete as Caitlyn -- but the company stood by its statement. Later, the brand found more stable ground, telling Yahoo, "Bruce Jenner has been a respected member of Team Wheaties, and Caitlyn Jenner will continue to be."

The initial tin-eared reaction comes from an organization that built a marketing campaign for Cheerios around showcasing non-traditional families and supporting LGBT causes. But Mr. Young said a fear in even the most forward-thinking C-suites is the broader implications of aligning themselves with Caitlyn Jenner. They ask themselves, "If we lean into this, then what else do we have to do?" he said. The ripple effects could be felt in a company's hiring practices, its culture and its marketing strategies.

Cultural tipping point
The transgender community has stepped into the cultural limelight in the last 18 months thanks to shows like "Orange is the New Black," which stars transgender actress Laverne Cox, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine a year ago with the pronouncement: "The Transgender Tipping Point." Earlier this year, Jeffrey Tambor won a Golden Globe award for playing a transgender father in the Amazon series "Transparent." And on Tuesday, E! released the first preview of its new show with Caitlyn Jenner, "I Am Cait."

Despite the media groundswell, however, Americans say they're largely unfamiliar with the transgender community and even uncomfortable with the idea. A Human Rights Campaign poll earlier this year found that only 22% of likely voters reported knowing or working with someone who is transgender. According to a GLAAD poll from this year, 59% of non-LGBT Americans say they would be uncomfortable if they learned their child was dating a transgender person.

Beauty embraces transgender
But beauty brands are certainly leaning in to the transgender community. In April, Make Up Forever signed transgender model Andreja Pejic -- who in May became the first transgender model to appear in Vogue -- for her own campaign. A month earlier, Clean & Clear brought on Jazz Jennings, a 14-year-old transgender YouTube celebrity, as its spokesperson. And last year, transgender model Lea T became the face of Redken.

A New York Post report on Wednesday said Ms. Jenner was in talks to become the face of MAC cosmetics. Instead MAC on Thursday announced a new collection with U.K. pop star Ellie Goulding.

A spokeswoman for MAC Cosmetics, which is owned by Estee Lauder, told Ad Age:

MAC is a brand that embraces ALL AGES, ALL RACES and ALL SEXES and is a longstanding supporter of the LGBT community. We are inspired by Caitlyn Jenner and her personal journey and we admire her courage and beauty. We have not signed Caitlyn as a spokesperson for MAC.

Ms. Jenner's spokesman declined to comment. Ms. Jenner has signed with talent agency CAA, which will represent her on the speaker circuit and help with craft her message.

Beyond beauty companies, Mr. Young said Caitlyn Jenner might be a good fit for a fitness brand because it would "take into account the feminity of Caitlin and the athleticism of Bruce Jenner."

Opportunity with Gen Z
While there are risks in speaking up about transgender issues, brands that wait too long to jump in also risk alienating a huge swath of young consumers, particularly the so-called Generation Z of young people ages 7 to 17, many of whom don't see what the big deal is about gender identify.

The July 2015 cover of Vanity Fair.
The July 2015 cover of Vanity Fair.

"Gen Z are really the leaders when it comes to transgender equality and acceptance," said Ms. Gutfreund.

Among members of Gen Z, 65% say everyone should be treated equally in society, according to a report from Deep Focus. For 13- to 17-year-olds that percentage jumps to 74%.

"Where younger generation goes is where the future goes," Ms. Gutfreund said. "Use them as a bellwether to anticipate where the market is going."

Failing to resonate with these youngsters could hurt brands later.

"The exponential shift in the last 18 months has been about the rise of transgender," said Mr. Young.

"It's not a slow shift," he continued, "it's a very rapid shift. You have to ask yourself, if this rapid shift is happening, and you have a generation that is completely accepting, how out of sync with the world are you going to be if you're not connecting with them?

"It's a great question for those brands that have done nothing, if you have been silent, why have I been silent about this issue?"