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Op-ed: New light on the Gay market as American corporations move in a Gay-supportive direction
Op-ed: New light on the Gay market as American corporations move in a Gay-supportive direction
- Special to the SGN

To the dismay of the religious right, in the last decade American corporations have moved rapidly in a Gay-supportive direction, pledging not to discriminate, supporting Gay employee groups, offering domestic partner benefits, advertising in Gay media and contributing to Gay non-profits. To the equal dismay of whatever remains of the anti-capitalist left, these quintessentially capitalist entities have done so at a pace that far outstrips most governments-local, state and national.

No one has done more to promote these changes in recent years than Washington, D.C.-based marketing and public relations consultants Robert Witeck and Wesley Combs of Witeck-Combs Communications. Witeck and Combs have nowwritten "Business Inside Out: Capturing Millions of Brand Loyal Gay Consumers" (Chicago: Kaplan Publishing) to share what they learned about the Gay community as an economic market, how they learned it, and how they used that information to help shift corporate attitudes and policies.

The main lesson Witeck and Combs teach is that corporations have to promote Gay-friendly attitudes and policies internally before they can successfully market to a skeptical Gay community. They explain, "This is the true basis of bringing business 'inside out' and establishing a lasting reputation in the market." So the relationship between Gays and business is symbiotic. Gay consumers will support a company so long as the company supports Gays. Both function on the most reliable economic principle there is: self-interest.

But the key to persuading corporate managers that making internal changes is in their best interest was showing managers and marketers that the Gay market existed and was of a size and economic significance to make it worthwhile marketing to. So Witeck and Combs begin their book with a history of the growth of Gays as an identifiable market and early efforts to measure the Gay market by surveying Gay newspaper readers or attendees at pride rallies.

Serious research really began in 2000 when Witeck and Combs formed a partnership with the highly respected survey research firm Harris Interactive. Harris had developed an enormous panel of online respondents it drew on for its research, then compared the results with an identical telephone poll to adjust for the fact that not every American is online.

Harris and Witeck-Combs separated out a sub-panel of people who self-identified as Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual to use for Gay research and comparison with a similar panel of heterosexuals. Since the Gay panel was not selected from identifiable Gay sources, it was more nearly representative of the community as a whole than earlier samples.

Online research consistently found that 6.5 to 7 percent of respondents identify as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual. (Bisexuals are included if their current or most recent partner is the same sex.) Based on Department of Commerce calculations that the total U.S. buying power (disposable income) is $9.1 trillion, that works out to $610 billion in buying power for the Gay community-an enormous sum by any measure. And that is before you factor in the greater likelihood of two same-sex partners to be employed and the lower incidence of dependent children among Gays.

Online survey research also found that most Gays (78 percent) said they preferred doing business with companies that were committed to diversity and equal treatment of employees; 86 percent said they were "likely" to "extremely likely" to consider brands that treated Gay employees equally; 63 percent were likely to extremely likely to consider brands from companies that marketed directly to them. And Gays were attentive to these issues, saying that they would seek information from friends, acquaintances, Gay newspapers and Gay websites.

As many of us have long observed among our own friends, the research found that Gays were important "early adopters" and "trend-setters" for many types of products and services. Just as they quickly took up the Internet and personal computers, so too they quickly adopted other consumer electronics, personal care products, beverages, and certain clothing styles. Absolut Vodka achieved its initial success among Gays, for instance. So the Gay market is important beyond its own bounds because it influences other consumers.

Finally, Witeck and Combs turn to those old corporate bugaboos, the fear of bad publicity, backlash and boycotts. They point out that most boycotts are paper tigers: They are short-lived, fewer people participate than say they will and most Americans pay no attention to them. Those who call for boycotts generally move on to other things after they have reaped the initial publicity. Witeck and Combs recommend that business simply stay on course and either ignore criticism or respond with solid business-based reasoning such as the economic importance of diversity and fairness to all employees and customers.

Although "Business Inside Out" chiefly addresses corporate managers and marketers, it will be of keen interest to many Gays and Lesbians as well because of the amount of solidly based information it contains about them, their lives and their attitudes. After all, who does not like to read about themselves and their importance?



Many of Paul Varnell's previous columns are posted at the Independent Gay Forum (www.indeGayforum.org). His e-mail address is Pvarnell(at)aol.com.

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