Gay Marriage: Bringing Civil Rights and Consumer Dollars to California

Tremendous Business Opportunity for Smart Marketers

By Published on .

Steve Roth Steve Roth
In a groundbreaking decision last month, California's Supreme Court legalized gay marriage here in the nation's most populous state. Starting June 17, same-sex couples can now get married in California and receive the same legal rights and responsibilities as any other couple in the state.

This is a huge civil-rights victory for the LGBT community, as the court's ruling also extends to sexual orientation the same broad protections against discrimination that were previously reserved for race, gender and religion. It's also a very personal victory for many of us -- especially those of us in committed relationships -- as it now means that we can tie the knot with our loved one just like anyone else.

And as the dust begins to settle, many are starting to realize that this landmark decision presents a significant economic opportunity as well.

Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was only half-kidding when he said, following the ruling, "You know, I'm wishing everyone good luck with their marriages and I hope that California's economy is booming because everyone is going to come here and get married."

Since California has the largest population of same-sex couples in the country, and because the ruling allows for same-sex couples from out-of-state to be married in California, the Governor may be on to something. One recent UCLA study estimates that gay weddings could pump up to $370 million into the state economy over the next three years.

Indeed, smart companies and organizations are already looking for ways to reach gay consumers to promote their wedding-related products or services. Within minutes of the Supreme Court's announcement on May 15, the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau issued a press release hailing the justices' ruling and inviting gay couples to get married in San Francisco, "where LGBT history continues to be made." Macy's has already run full-page ads for its wedding registry in the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle with the caption "First comes love. Then comes marriage. And now it's a milestone every couple in California can celebrate." Hats off to Macy's!

A gay married friend of mine, actor Alec Mapa, told me that from his personal experience, the retail industry is already at the forefront in the fight for gay rights. He said that when he and his partner registered for their commitment ceremony at Williams Sonoma, Crate & Barrel and Macy's, no one batted an eye. In fact, he said that on the registration forms at all three of those stores it didn't just say "bride" and "groom;" it also listed "registrant or co-registrant." And that was two years ago, long before the recent California Supreme Court decision.

Gay couples planning to get hitched in the Golden State will need many if not all of the same products and services that straight couples require -- from dresses and tuxes to rings and flowers to cakes and photographs. LGBT couples will need venues where they can host their nuptials and places to visit on their honeymoons.

But since the LGBT market has some of its own unique needs, there will also be some subtle differences and twists to the products and services that most appeal to this demographic, to say nothing of the marketing surrounding them. Think bride-bride and groom-groom statues for the top of the cake and extrapolate from there.

With legal gay marriage just a few days away in California, companies interested in pursuing this potentially lucrative market will need to start tailoring their outreach to LGBT consumers and differentiating their offerings.

For companies new to this process, a good place to start is by first asking themselves if they are gay-friendly. Do they have a strong record of equal rights and protections for their LGBT employees? Are they supportive of the gay community and the causes that are important to it? And have their frontline staff received sensitivity training that extends to sexual orientation? No one wants the awkwardness of booking the honeymoon suite at the best hotel in town, only to be met with blank stares at the reception desk when two men show up to check in together.

Second, are the company's products and services tailored to meeting the particular needs of this market? Hers-and-hers wedding bands? Same-sex banking packages and insurance policies?

And finally, is the company talking directly to its gay and lesbian customers? Does it reach out to them in the LGBT media and at gay-oriented events, in addition to mainstream channels? Are its marketing images inclusive of gay couples and their experiences? Is the language appropriate to same-sex couples, as in "registrant" and "co-registrant"? Just like any other consumer, gays and lesbians want to be recognized and spoken to directly by the companies that pursue them.

These are just a few of the initial steps that companies need to take if they want to seriously embrace the LGBT market and capitalize on the huge opportunity that this market presents, but they are steps in the right direction.

Some business people whom I've spoken with recently wondered if it might somehow be perceived as 'predatory' for companies to capitalize on this unique moment in gay history. The answer is no. The recent California Supreme Court decision has the potential to revolutionize LGBT rights and move companies forward in how they reach out and talk to this significant and growing market. And both are great things for the gay community and for society in general.

Steve Roth is principal and founder of Roth Strategic Communications, an independent communications, marketing and event production firm specializing in travel and tourism, cross-cultural communication and the LGBT market. Read more in our bio section.
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