Brands leverage policies and social for LGBT engagement

Not only has the amount of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) outreach increased in the past decade, the way in which companies are engaging this demographic has vastly changed, with more emphasis on social media and one-on-one interaction.

Not only has the amount of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) outreach increased in the past decade, the way in which companies are engaging this demographic has vastly changed, with more emphasis on social media and one-on-one interaction.

When brands targeted the LGBT community in the '90s, they were much more tentative and mainly talked to the audience about HIV and AIDS-related causes, says Bob Witeck, president and founder of Witeck Communications, a PR agency focused on reaching LGBT consumers since 1993.

“Over time, we said, ‘Don't just think of gay people as victims,'” Witeck says. “They're shareholders, they're customers, they're business owners, they're everything, and they take part in the economy in many powerful ways.”

Witeck explains that social media has accelerated LGBT outreach “because gay people found safety, confidence, and visibility to connect with each other” on the Internet, which opened up communications opportunities for companies.

Rich Ferraro, VP of communications at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) says that reaching gay press is definitely a way to target the community, but since it's so diverse within itself, the LGBT blogosphere is one of the strongest minority communities in the social space.

Business decision
Corporate America, Ferraro explains, has learned that it's “a smart business decision” to engage LGBT consumers because they are “known to be very loyal to companies that support their community.”

He warns, however, that businesses can't just attend pride events or put out ads featuring gay couples – they need to take action internally. “It's also about walking the walk,” Ferraro says. “It's important the company has the right policies in place for their own LGBT employees, including sponsoring and allowing for transgender people to transition in the workplace and offering domestic partnership benefits.”

General Motors was the first car company to offer domestic partnership benefits and the first to advertise to the LGBT audience, says Joe LaMuraglia, GMC communications manager and LGBT communications manager for all GM brands.

When engaging the LGBT market, the automaker takes into consideration its own diversity.

The company is comprised of “both genders, every ethnicity, every nationally, and all religions,” he explains.

Witeck says it's also important for brands to realize that gay people do everything all consumers do, such as shop and travel.

“I buy [specific] laundry detergent because my mother used to have it, so it's familiar, but it's not a ‘gay' brand,” he explains.  

Starbucks takes a stand

In response to Starbucks endorsing gay marriage legislation in Washington state, the National Organization for Marriage launched a campaign called Dump Starbucks, urging consumers to boycott the coffee giant.

SumOfUs.org, a global movement of consumers, investors, and workers coming together to hold corporations accountable for their actions, reacted by creating their own campaign called Thank You, Starbucks.

To date, Dump Starbucks has garnered about 47,000 petition signatures, while Thank You, Starbucks generated significantly more, with 650,000 signatures.

One way the automotive giant reaches out is by meeting members of the community in person. LaMuraglia says GM worked with 40 LGBT influencers and auto writers for the New York and Los Angeles auto shows.

New outreach
Marriott formally got involved in LGBT outreach about 18 months ago and is being advised by Witeck. In June, the brand kicked off its first LGBT marketing campaign, Be You, With Us, aimed at “celebrating and acknowledging Marriott's support of the community,” says Joanna Todd, VP of segment strategy for the company.

Todd says Marriott used focus groups and vetted the strategies internally to make sure “messaging was on point.”

Starbucks, which joined other companies, such as Microsoft, at the beginning of the year in endorsing gay marriage legislation in Washington state, believes in “promoting diversity, equality, and inclusion” because it wants employees to be proud of where they work, says Zack Hutson, manager of global corporate communications.

The coffee business has a vast partner network program with various groups for employees with shared interests, races, or sexual orientations, including Starbucks' Pride Alliance, explains Corey duBrowa, SVP of global communications and international public affairs.

“We tend to make decisions through the lens of humanity and through our commitment to embracing diversity and representing the values of the folks that are in each of the communities where we have stores and serve customers,” he says.

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