Wal-Mart Quietly Hires Gay Ad Agency

Retail Giant Moves to Court Demo's Dollars But Stays Mum on Details

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- In an unprecedented push, Wal-Mart Stores has hired a gay-marketing shop, joined the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and begun discussions with activist groups about extending domestic-partnership benefits to its employees.

"Wal-Mart is going about this in a very pragmatic way," said Justin Nelson, president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, an independent organization with 24,000 members. "They have been viewed with some degree of skepticism by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, and it's important for them in terms of gaining market share to change that."

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman would only confirm the company's partnership with the NGLCC.

The initiatives come as Wal-Mart aims to broaden its appeal and woo both upscale and urban markets, but this is not the first time Wal-Mart has attempted to appease critics in the gay-and-lesbian community. In 2003-after years of lobbying by activist groups-Wal-Mart extended its workplace-nondiscrimination policy to include sexual orientation.

Despite a continuing review for its $578 million ad account, Wal-Mart hired Witeck-Combs Communications, a marketing shop known for its work targeting the gay-and-lesbian market, according to Bob Witeck, president of the Washington firm. Wal-Mart would not confirm the assignment, and Mr. Witeck declined to comment on the "nature of the relationship," but added: "We work in more a consulting role with most of our clients."

Mr. Nelson said Wal-Mart approached the NGLCC four months ago, expressing interest in the supplier-diversity initiative. "The expectation is that Wal-Mart will encourage their core suppliers ... to also diversify their revenue streams to include LGTB businesses," Mr. Nelson said.

He said the retailer is "working right now on providing domestic-partnership benefits" and that Wal-Mart may soon join the 261 members of the Fortune 500 that offer the benefits.

"This partnership shows Wal-Mart is changing," said Nu Wexler of Wal-Mart Watch, the Washington-based coalition backed by the Sierra Club and the Service Employees. "It's worth noting they declined to publicize this partnership and left it up to the chamber. Wal-Mart is very eager to publicize partnerships. It's possible they fear a backlash from their conservative consumer base."
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