Joan Rivers Isn't the Only Brand That's Appealing to Gay Consumers

Why Are Marketers Missing Out on Opportunities With LGBT Audiences?

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Chiqui Cartagena
Chiqui Cartagena
Last week in the heart of Chelsea, in New York City, Joan Rivers got a standing ovation from her adoring gay and lesbian fans after the screening of a documentary about her life, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." The sold-out event at NewFest, New York's premiere LGBT film festival, attracted a well-educated, professional (and good-looking) crowd of New Yorkers, most of whom were gay, and all of whom are prime targets for many of today's brands from Heineken to American Express, and yet mainstream sponsors like these two (who, by the way, underwrote the Tribeca Film Festival in April) were nowhere to be found.

NewFest was made possible this year thanks to the generosity, primarily, of the fashion designer Marc Jacobs, with additional sponsorships from Showtime's "The Real L Word," Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams, TekServe, Grand Marnier, IFP, The Gem Hotel, ViƱa Casablanca, Chilean wines Santa Carolina and NYC's Gay & Lesbian Center, among others. Some of these sponsors are certainly big, mainstream brands, but what is interesting to me is that the top three are either owned by gay men or, in the case of Showtime, do programming specifically oriented to the gay and lesbian community. So I scratch my head, wondering if major brands simply don't care about advertising to the LGBT community anymore.

The screening for 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work' received many sponsors, but none of the big guns.
The screening for 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work' received many sponsors, but none of the big guns.
"When brands actually create campaigns specifically targeting the LGBT community, they get comparatively stronger ROI," says Bob Witeck, CEO, Witeck Combs Communications, a marketing communications and strategic consulting firm working in the LGBT market for over 17 years. According to Witeck, the key to tapping into this market is authenticity, consistency and durability. For brands like Orbitz, American Airlines and Kimpton Hotels, to name a few, marketing to the LGBT community has consistently paid off.

Hmm, that sounds a lot like what happens when marketers commit to marketing to Hispanics. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between these two markets. Both are racially and socio-economically diverse; both are trend-setting, technologically savvy, early adopters and heavy influencers; both are highly concentrated in the top ten DMAs of the country; both get the short end of advertising budgets, and yet both are fiercely loyal to brands that make an effort to reach them in relevant ways. Of course, it's the LGBT market that gets the brunt of the hate mongering from conservative right-wingers, although lately I'd say Hispanics are certainly feeling the hate too, need I mention ... Arizona?

But I digress. This month is gay pride month, and all across the nation, cities large and small will be hosting events to celebrate their lesbian and gay communities. According to Richard Florida, a professor of business and creativity at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, gay men and lesbians are a critical part of the so-called "creative class" that help cities become economically more competitive by making them more attractive to the intellectual classes that, in turn, help develop cultural and technological innovation, which foments the growth of our nation's economy.

Research also shows that, even in tough economic times, LGBT communities tend to have more disposable income. So again, I scratch my head and wonder what the heck is going on.

"Gay-inclusive storytelling is what is suffering," says Witeck. "Budgets are shifting to mainstream agencies who claim to have the LGBT competency in-house, but in reality assign the job to someone on staff who just happens to be gay." And then, there's also the issue around push-back from objectors like Bill O' Reilly and interest groups who are anti-gay. "Brands have a hard time navigating what they consider a cultural dialogue or debate, even though public opinion has changed, and acceptance is stronger," says Witeck.

Specialized shops like Witeck-Combs, Prime Access and Target10 continue to do an excellent job for their clients, but the sad reality is that over the past two years, half a dozen gay advertising shops have closed, including the legendary Double Platinum, run by Stephanie Blackwood and Arthur Korant.

It seems like we are at a tipping point where it is tempting to want to bring minority groups into the fold and advertise with a one-size-fits-all message. But we all know that, in this post-advertising era where consumers are in control, it's all about the long tail. NewFest closed last night with a sneak preview of CNN's documentary "Gary & Tony Have Baby," which airs nationwide on June 24th at 8 p.m. After ten fun-filled days of movies and parties, NewFest officials estimate that over 20,000 New Yorkers (who can sometimes be a tough crowd to please) watched, laughed and cried at 100 different stories of our community. What a missed opportunity for those brands who want real consumer engagement!

Chiqui Cartagena is the senior VP of multicultural marketing at Story Worldwide. She is also the author of Latino Boom!: Everything You Need to Know to Grow Your Business in the U.S. Hispanic Market.
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