Summer's here and for gay men and women, that means it's the perfect time to take to the streets in celebration of their sexuality in a series of Gay Pride events held across the UK.
For PROs, this represents a huge opportunity to target a market with ample spending power. There are an estimated six million homosexual men and women in the UK who, between them, have between £6bn and £8bn a year at their disposal. Research by marketing and PR agency 90TEN shows that 67 per cent of gay people are ABC1, compared to the national average of 43 per cent, and that 78 per cent say they're more likely to buy a product if they know there's a gay-friendly company behind it.
The challenge is that positioning a firm or client as gay-friendly is more complicated than sponsoring a float or having attractive models hand out freebies at gay festivals. There's a fine line between embracing and offending this community, and even the most well-intentioned campaign can get it wrong.
Big-name brands such as Virgin Mobile, Piper-Heidsieck and Ford have all been part of gay festivals in the UK in their pursuit of the so-called 'pink pound'. But consensus among the gay community is that waving the gay flag at events such as these is secondary to corporate policy.
'The gay community is incredibly suspicious of this,' says Jason Pollock, Pride chairman and director of the Big Gay Out party in London. 'You can't go into these events and expect they're going to flock and buy your product. But while there is initial suspicion, there's an amazing brand loyalty if people really think a brand is gay-friendly.'
Paul Tanner, a director at 90TEN, which designs campaigns specifically aimed at the gay and lesbian market, says being gay-friendly starts on the shop floor rather than in Hyde Park.
Gay-friendly policies often generate their own PR, as in the case of BP when CEO Lord Browne said in 2002 that the firm's outlook would improve if it was able to attract more talented employees from the gay community, a sector it had previously failed to inspire. The story made page two of The Guardian and was in the first five pages of most of the nationals.
'Step two,' adds Tanner, 'is looking at the overall market and how you can promote that diversity, then you can look at events such as the Pride festivals.'
At this point, a balance needs to be struck between creating something that is clearly targeting the gay community, without over-doing stereotypes or causing offence by being patronising. Companies that have done it well include Interflora, which has run a 'blessings tent' for gay couples at the Big Gay Out, and Virgin Mobile, which has run a cabaret tent at the same event and a disco float in the London Pride parade.
Three years ago Nivea for Men set up a grooming stand at Gay Pride in London with basins, where festival-goers were given massages, shaves and facials for £2 each, with the money going to a Gay Pride charity. They could also sample Nivea products. And car maker Ford, which is widely praised for its support of the gay community, is sponsoring a dance tent at the Big Gay Out this year. Other PR work aimed at gay consumers includes the creation of a pink, diamond-encrusted Ford car that sat on the catwalk at London Fashion Week, created in co-operation with designer Julien Macdonald.
Some of what works or doesn't is obvious: 'If a product portrays a gay man as a handbag-swinging, limp-wristed poof, it's not going to go down very well,' says David Allison, spokesman for gay rights group Outrage.
Pollock adds that anything laddish or family oriented excludes gay consumers and is therefore out. Sexually suggestive messaging often works, but is not always necessary. 'Sex sells, just like in any market, but it just has to recognise that a product knows that there's a market of same-sex (couples),' he says. 'Imagery of two guys or two women - they don't have to be hugging or kissing, but they look obviously gay - is good.'
The strategy for Nivea in pursuit of the gay community was only slightly different to that used for heterosexual men. 'Our targeting is directed at skin care attitudes rather than socio-economic groups, so gay men will be targeted as one of these groups, not as a separate entity defined by sexual orientation,' says Ann-Louise Holland, PR manager at Beiersdorf UK, which makes Nivea. 'They read the same national daily press as hetero males, but they have their own magazine sector that we target in the same way as other male titles.
Continuity of messaging
'At Gay Pride, our message was about a regular grooming routine and awareness of our products and their benefits, encouraging trial and likeability - we have used the same grooming environment at sporting events and shopping centres to communicate to other relevant target groups.'
Tanner says this kind of continuity of messaging is essential if the gay market is to accept a brand as gay-friendly, without the straight consumer feeling alienated: 'It's important to ensure you've got the same brand values and, while there needs to be some tweaking of the campaign, you're getting across the same message overall.'
Ford diversity marketing manager Mark Cameron says this has been the thinking behind promotion of its Ka brand; it has a youthful, fun image adapted slightly for the gay market.
If in doubt about whether a particular strategy will charm or turn off the gay community, Tanner says there's no substitute for asking your target market first. Focus groups are invaluable in ensuring that what you've got in mind isn't patronising. PROs should also be clear about exactly who they have in mind when they start chasing 'the gay community'. Not all turn out to events like Pride, and not all read the gay press.
THE PINK PAPER
The Pink Paper editor Tris Reid-Smith describes the title as the UK's only national news magazine for gay men and lesbians. It is available for free at gay venues, bookshops, libraries, universities and community centres
What kind of story is likely to interest you?
'We're a news magazine so we want interesting news angles that follow traditional news values.
A lot of people come to me with stuff that is a bit camp and the reality is there are gay people who are camp but the huge majority aren't.
So if there's any old West End show or someone's going to be releasing a pop song, people think we'll love it. It's important to understand the stereotypes and avoid them if you're going to appeal to the gay audience.'
When's the best time to get in touch?
'For features, we try to get them done almost a week in advance. For news, we'll go up until Tuesday, which is when we publish. Good pictures can help. And, like anybody, we have a silly season over the summer, when sometimes people can interest us with quirky stories that, at other times, we wouldn't be running.'
Can bad PR be undone?
'Absolutely. The best thing to do is come to the gay press and sort it out. What I can't stand is hypocrisy. For example, if an organisation is supporting Pride but is also supporting someone with homophobic views, I don't think that's acceptable - they can't support both at the same time.'
Does it help to be gay to understand the market?
'If people understand the gay world enough I would give them a reporter's job, for example. The gay community extends beyond pubs and clubs - a lot of straight people have gay friends, and some gay people have a majority of straight friends.'