Closets Are for Clothes, Not Brands

Of all the political issues tirelessly debated, the one that stands at the forefront for me is gay equality. No I'm not a lesbian... I'm a 30-something small business owner, living in Brooklyn, with a focus on keeping my toddler entertained, scheduling monthly date nights with my husband, and remembering to pay the dog walker. So why is this such a significant topic in my world?

First, many of my best friends are gay and this is the way my circle has always been. Not only are equal rights important to me because the gays are my peeps, but it is antiquated thinking that not everyone is treated as an equal in 2013. And unlike other political hot buttons, ($14 trillion dollar deficit or foreign policy with North Korea anyone?) this is an issue where -- surprise -- we can actually see some progress. Our nation has come so far but we certainly have not come far enough.

Given my personal and professional passion for branding (as owner of a brand design agency), paired with lots of contemplation on gay rights, I have been curious about how the two intersect. Some brands come out to show their support, some publicly state their disapproval, and some sit quietly in the closet hoping nobody will ask. What do these choices mean for brands and parent corporations? What do they mean for us as consumers? And how do these choices manifest themselves in real life?

There are endless ways companies show their support for -- or sadly, opposition to -- equal rights. It can be as fundamental as providing health coverage to same sex couples (a round of applause for The Home Depot), or as fun as launching gay pride-inspired advertising (care for a rainbow Oreo?). Other brands have simply broadcast their position through an official memo (Starbucks), opposed ballot amendments which recognize marriage solely between a man and a woman (General Mills), or adopted inclusive messaging in their company vernacular (same sex marriage icons on Facebook). In fact, Facebook recently took it a step further and went almost completely red in support of marriage equality. There are also the brands who build inclusion into their DNA. I am fond of Amazon's recent Kindle Paperwhite TV ad which is light and cheerfully inclusive. And at the top of my list of brands that do it best -- bravo to Bravo -- a brand that successfully speaks to straight and gay audiences equally. In fact, Andy Cohen has publicly described the network as "bi". I agree, Andy.

There are a number of very public cases of how brands interact with the LGBT community as well -- both good and bad. We're all familiar with last year's Chick-fil-A controversy where Dan Cathy was outed for his corporate donations to anti-gay groups. Based on the immediate fallout, I was convinced past Chick-fil-A consumers would never forgive and forget. I was shocked to learn, however, that today the chain's earnings are healthier than ever. What the... ?

Then there's Mike & Ike, the old-school fruit flavored candy... and a long-standing gay couple headed for splitsville. After years without a peep, in 2012, the brand launched a campaign based on their troubled domestic partnership. The story manifested itself via advertising, social media and on packs with one of the two names scribbled out, depending on the flavor. Hilarious, right? What I considered to be fun, creative thinking caused a stir with right wing organizations that claimed society is chipping away at the value of marriage. Barf. Though it did beg the question -- is the world ready for gay candy? Apparently so, as the latest buzz says Mike & Ike have officially reunited, and in 2012, the product experienced its greatest sales in a decade. Yay.

And, of course last April, JCPenney (or is it jcp?) announced Ellen Degeneres as their new spokeswoman. Ellen is one of the country's top-rated talk shows so it's a no brainer to partner with such a likable personality. Oh right, she's gay. Conservative groups rallied for boycotts and the chain was labeled "pro-gay." Hmm... I consider that a good thing. Despite the fact that Penney's may be a struggling business, according to analytics firms, the bright spot appears to be Degeneres herself. And in my humble opinion, if the retailer loses a few close minded (not clothes minded) consumers, then so be it. The trade off for more loyal, forward thinking shoppers is a welcome change.

Personal opinions aside -- it's clear where I stand -- it's impossible not to recognize the gay community's value to marketers. Gay consumers have above average disposable income, education and employment rates. They are incredibly brand loyal and their influence on mainstream trends is undeniably powerful. In addition, the LGBT community is estimated to make up almost 7 percent of the U.S. adult population or 15 million people. Based on facts alone, why wouldn't brands consider gays in their marketing mix? That said, there are a few simple steps I feel marketers can take to speak to this audience:

  • Play fair. We've all heard the quote "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice." Fast forward a few years and won't we all chuckle that being unprejudiced was ever considered risky? Invite more consumers to become part of your brand experience -- the more that show up the merrier.
  • Have a sense of humor. Love, friendship, sex, family -- this is fun stuff (ok, well sometimes), so let's not take it so darn seriously all the time.
  • Be ahead of the curve. Though we are moving in the right direction with equal rights, we still have a ways to go. The time is now to be a trendsetter and lay the groundwork for more brands to follow.

So what's my takeaway from all this? Coming out and supporting equal rights for the gay community can still be a polarizing stance for brands today... but not for long. There may be backlash and a few lost consumers, but it's worth the addition of the fiercely loyal ones. And don't we all agree that gay equality is one of the last remaining civil issues of our time?