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Corporate sponsorship of gay and lesbian events is on the rise as more companies seek to reach the market.

When marketing strategist Witeck-Combs Communications was seeking corporate sponsors for this year's "Equality Rocks" concert, "We had more extensive conversations farther up the organizational chart than we had for any other event," says principal Wesley Combs. "We had people ask for information that had never asked before."

During the last decade, marketers have realized "a very small part [of the gay community] is out and accessible by normal advertising and communications channels," says Scott Seitz, partner at Spare Parts, a New York marketing services company that specializes in the gay and lesbian market.


"By and large, you're marketing to a group of people who are hiding from you," Mr. Seitz says, but by sponsoring events, marketers can reach out to those in attendance. For example, by having booths at events, corporations can build mailing lists via surveys and sampling.

"Sponsorship is always a great way to reach an audience," says Harold Levine, principal at New York marketing consultancy Levine & Co. "In the gay and lesbian market, where such a large percentage [of the community turn out for] an event, it's very important."

Propecia, a Merck & Co. brand, sponsors "Academy of Friends," a yearly black-tie fund-raiser held in San Francisco the night of the Academy Awards show. It draws 3,200 guests.

"This is exactly the right crowd [for Propecia to target] -- people who are image-conscious and can afford a product that's not reimbursed [by insurance]," says Howard Buford, president-CEO of Prime Access, New York, which handles the hair-loss drug for the gay market.

Propecia's sponsorship promotes and encourages a company philosophy of diversity, says Philip Gimson, manager of public affairs at Merck. "We are spending the money where it will serve the most useful purpose in establishing and building the brand."


According to Greenfield Online's lesbian and gay research service, 77% of gays and lesbians say they have changed the brand they purchased based on a company's positive stance toward the lesbian and gay community.

Seagram Spirits & Wine Group's Absolut vodka, which started marketing to gays and lesbians in the mid-1980s, believes its efforts toward this community are paying off.

"We have a very loyal and large gay consumer franchise," says Carl Horton, Seagram's VP-marketing on the brand. "The brand is well established in that marketplace, and we continue to support it with events such as `Absolut Tom -- Tom of Finland,' marketing of fashion for the gay consumer."

Absolut has sponsored the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Awards for 10 years, says GLAAD Communications Director Stephen Spurgeon. "Absolut vodka is one sponsor that has increased [its] level of sponsorship money every year," he says.

Sponsorship of GLAAD's annual media awards has increased every year. This year, the awards garnered $1.2 million in contributions, up 146% from 1997, according to GLAAD.


The 1996 AIDS Quilt display in Washington also had $1.2 million in sponsorship revenues, while the 1994 Gay Games in New York had sponsorship revenues of $800,000.

"AIDS has always been an area that companies have felt safe sponsoring," says Mr. Combs.

When tallying corporate sponsorship of gay events, Mr. Levine says, one needs to separate the AIDS Walk and other AIDS organizations from the rest of the pack. "The amount spent on events. . .really reflects the gay spending." He estimates total corporate sponsorship of national and major city-based gay events is just less than $10 million.

A reason some corporations would want to be involved with multisponsored events like this year's Millennium March in Washington is to gain category exclusivity.

Bell Atlantic, which uses Arnold Communications for PR, staffed its booth with members of the company's gay, lesbian and bisexual employees organization.

"There is no way to differentiate the value of our services to [this community], so we have to be in the right place at the right time," says Bob Baublitz, Bell Atlantic market manager.


Other visible event sponsors include Seagram's Chivas Regal and Cap'n Morgan's Spice Rum, Miller Brewing Co., Anheuser-Busch and Bacardi-Martini USA.

"Marketing to gays and lesbians [is] not a mystery to liquor companies because bars and nightclubs are fairly visible," says Kevin Boyer, managing partner at Third Coast Marketing, Chicago.

Airlines also recognize gays and lesbians as an ideal market based on studies that show they have more disposable income and a propensity to travel, says Tim Kincaid, manager of corporate communications at American Airlines.

American's creation of its Rainbow team to direct event sponsorships reflects internal policies: In April, American became the first major national airline to implement domestic partner benefits.


United Airlines sponsors gay causes from the Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund to Names Project Foundation to Open Hands Chicago, among others, says Mario Baldessari, director of the lesbian and gay marketing program. At events, the airline sometimes supplies airline tickets as prizes to raise additional funds for causes.

IBM Corp. focuses on gay and lesbian entrepreneurs. In May, it sponsored "Business Expo 2000," in partnership with Chicago's Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

"They feel embraced and [have] a commitment from us, and it helps us drive business, so that's a win-win, which is what we're looking for," says Patti Ross, an IBM marketing exec.

In 1995 Subaru of America became a sponsor of the Visa/Citicorp affinity Rainbow Card, which earmarks funds for gay and lesbian healthcare insurance and cultural and educational initiatives. Moon City Productions in New York handles Subaru's marketing to gays and lesbians. Poux Co. handles media buying and strategy.

"We've done well with lesbians in particular," says Tim Bennett, Subaru marketing programs director.

Saab Cars USA donates a car for charity auctions during the GLAAD awards. It also is a sponsor of the "Gay & Lesbian Film Festival."

During the last decade the world of gay and lesbian event sponsorship has evolved, says Mr. Seitz.

"You used to be able to plop yourself down in a pride event, be visible and get your point across," he says. "Now it's all about matching your products' attributes to a sophisticated group of people whose expectations have gone from `So glad you're here' to `Tell me something about yourself.' "

Contributing: Hillary Chura

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