Automotive Advertising in the Gay Market
Pride and Prejudice - The Automotive Industry and "The Gays"
It wasn't that long ago that it was considered heresy to utter the words "gay" or "lesbian" in the halls of the world's automotive headquarters. It is amazing what a difference time and the efforts of a few daring people can make. Not only are automotive manufacturers recognizing the importance of providing safe and equitable work environments for their GLBT employees, a select few are courting them aggressively in print, TV, online and through grassroots efforts.
The GLBT Consumer - What the Data Says
The country is slowly acknowledging that the "gay movement" is far from detrimental to the fabric of society and in fact, adds color, texture and panache to the weave. This comfort level brings awareness which leads to curiosity and ultimately the desire to know more about the GLBT consumer. There has been anecdotal evidence of the purchasing power of this demographic but it wasn't until experienced researchers began focusing on the GLBT community did the real power of the market come to light.
The most quoted fact is that statistically, GLBT households have more disposable income. According to the recently updated analysis by Witeck-Combs Communications and Packaged Facts, the total buying power of the U.S. gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) adult population in 2008 is projected to be $712 billion.* That is an upward trend from $690 billion in 2007 and $450 Billion in 2004. From a pure purchasing power perspective, this is a desirable segment of the market.
Additional data shows that GLBT consumers are early adopters of technology, fiercely brand loyal and more recently, very interested in spending their money with companies that treat their own GLBT employees equally.
Data as a Catalyst for Change
The last point is the cornerstone of the founding of Gaywheels.com; the first automotive web site to target the GLBT consumer. The site is a full automotive resource with a twist: it classifies automotive brands as gay-friendly or not based on their corporate policies in the U.S.
Since its inception in June 2005, Gaywheels.com has raised the level of awareness on both sides of the automotive purchase equation. GLBT consumers are using the information to alter their research patterns and the manufacturers have realized the importance of providing an equitable work environment as well as reaching out to the GLBT consumer. In the three years since Gaywheels.com launched, two major automotive manufacturers have changed their corporate policies effectively putting 5 additional brands in the "gay-friendly" column.
They Have Cash But What Do They Drive?
The nature of Gaywheels.com allows data to be revealed that prior to its existence was difficult to gather. In July 2006, Gaywheels.com published its first Top 10 Most Researched vehicles list which for the first time shed light on what GLBT automotive consumers were researching. The information largely dispelled many stereotypes held as truth in marketing circles about the GLBT automotive buyer. Of the 10 vehicles that were the most popular on the inaugural list, only 1 was from a luxury brand. While convertibles were strongly represented, so were more mundane vehicles like the Toyota Camry and Yaris. This data seemed to support and dispel certain stereotypes about the GLBT community.
Each quarter since the first Top 10 list, Gaywheels.com has published their Most Researched data. The list tends to be self-perpetuating but new brands enter the ranks and the models surprise even the most educated researchers. The most recent list included six hatchbacks, four of which started under $16,000 - not exactly the high-end luxury cars that the stereotypes portray.
The History of Targeted Automotive Advertising
With all the data pointing to early adopter, brand loyal consumers, you'd assume that there would be fierce competition to advertise to and capture this audience. Unfortunately, it seems that until recently prejudice and lack of education have overruled business acumen in the decision to actively market to the GLBT consumer.
With that said, some automotive brands mirrored the early-adopter behavior of this demographic and started marketing the GLBT community as far back as 1994.
GM's Saab division was the first automotive company to advertise in the GLBT media but it was Subaru's efforts starting two years later that established that brand as the gay-friendly automotive brand. Subaru has been the most consistent auto company to market to the GLBT community and made the bold move to include GLBT imagery and messaging as part of the marketing strategy. It is no surprise then that Subaru has the highest brand recall for this segment.
Other brands followed Saab and Subaru's lead. VW, Jeep, Saturn, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Cadillac have all placed general market ads in gay media but it was Ford's Jaguar, Volvo and Land Rover that were the first American-owned brands to place gay-specific ads that included GLBT messaging and imagery in both print and online.
Unfortunately, what is good for the goose isn't necessarily appetizing for the gander. The ads from Volvo, Lincoln and Jaguar were the catalyst for one of the most publicized and poorly handled PR blowups in recent history. While the GLBT media and consumers applauded the advertising - even awarding the Volvo campaign for its inclusion and messaging - a certain right-wing group took offense to the advertising. The "American Family Association" (AFA) called for a boycott of Ford Motor Company citing their support for the "homosexual agenda". Soon after, Ford announced that it would no longer advertise in gay media.
The AFA quickly took credit for Ford's cancellation of their advertising in GLBT media and Ford was oddly silent, neither confirming nor denying the AFA claim. Ford's response to the AFA, or lack thereof, set off a cyclone of contempt in both the mainstream and GLBT media. Ford finally made a statement and denied that their decision had anything to do with the AFA and claimed it was solely a financial decision.
From a PR perspective, Ford waited too long to make any statements and most likely lost some loyal GLBT consumers as a result. Some might also argue that the ads that caught the attention of the AFA in the first place were too politicized. Ford was donating money to the GLBT political action group Human Rights Campaign (HRC) for every Volvo, Jaguar or Land Rover that was sold as a result of the ad campaign.
From a GLBT consumer's perspective, it was a great campaign. They were taking an extra step to support the community by donating to a widely known advocacy group. From purely marketing perspective, it was risky move that clearly hit the nerve of the AFA. All they saw was that Ford supported HRC and HRC = gay marriage. Like it or not, gay marriage is a very controversial topic with deep-seeded opposition with heavy religious overtones.
The controversy eventually blew over and when the AFA recently took credit for Ford's sales decline, it barely garnered mention. Unfortunately, the impact that this had on the psyche of automotive marketers is still in effect today. While brands are advertising in GLBT media, including Ford's Volvo, the messaging is not GLBT-specific. The same ads placed in The Advocate or Gaywheels.com show up in TIME or WSJ.com as well.
Importance and Impact of GLBT Imagery and Messaging
If you ask a gay consumer or someone involved in GLBT media if targeted ads are important, you will most likely receive an affirmative response. Surveys of GLBT consumers clearly show that the respondents prefer to "see themselves" in the advertising messages in media targeted to them. There is little empirical evidence to support this when it comes to automotive advertising but the one data point available is compelling.
In July - September of 2007 Gaywheels.com had two Saab ads running on the site. Both were the same size (300x250) and both featured the Saab 9-3. The first ad was targeted to U.S. customers only and featured a general market message that called out pricing and lease deals. The second ad was targeted to Canadian customers only and featured a GLBT-targeted message using the tagline of "Because not all roads are straight". The Canadian ad had a click-through rate 6x higher for the same time period than the general market ad targeted to the U.S. customer.
While the example above is not perfect, you have to consider geographic difference and the delta in audience size, it seems to support the published survey data that indicates a targeted message is more effective at reaching the GLBT consumer.
Gay Auto Outreach Today
As the competition for consumers gets more intense and technology makes niche marketing more effective, smart companies are increasing their exposure in GLBT media. The automotive companies are far from leading this charge but are definitely in the game when it comes to reaching out the gay demographic. While no U.S.-targeted advertising currently incorporates GLBT-specific messaging and imagery, the auto companies are being more consistent in their ad buys and have branched out to include sponsorships, grassroots promotions and ancillary support of the GLBT community.
General Motors has been the leader in this segment in the recent past. In addition to advertising in magazines like GENRE and THE ADVOCATE, their Saab, Saturn and Cadillac brands have engaged the gay consumer in other ways.
Cadillac is the official sponsor of vignettes on LOGO, the largest GLBT channel on cable. Saturn has worked with Gaywheels.com in sponsoring Gay Pride events in the Southeast and all three brands were recently featured in a speed-dating event at Motor City Pride in Detroit. GM has also held targeted events for GLBT media and has been very consistent in their message of inclusion and support.
Their approach is admirable in that it has long-term goals and it is continually seeking new methods of messaging the GLBT consumer. Other than past efforts by Subaru, no other major auto company is approaching this market in the same way.
Working from the Inside Out
Most coverage of the automotive companies' marketing to the gay consumer focuses on the marketing itself - the ad, the sponsorship, the event. While they are very important, very few have looked at the importance of creating brand advocates from within the organizations themselves.
HRC has something called the Corporate Equality Index (CEI) with ranks companies on their corporate polices. While a site like Gaywheels.com simply uses the availability of same-sex domestic partner benefits to classify a company as gay-friendly, HRC's CEI uses a more complex formula to rank those companies on a scale of 0-100. Six major auto makers have achieved a perfect score of 100 - Toyota, GM, Ford, VW, Subaru and Chrysler. Two of those have done even more to ensure their employees have an equitable place to work.
Both Toyota and GM have strong internal employee resource groups that are supported by management. These organizations provide an internal "voice" for all the GLBT employees within the organization and act as a valuable resource for management to ensure that their external and internal messaging are in-sync.
These groups also advise HR and Marketing on the importance of recruiting and marketing their respective companies to potential employees and customers. Both Toyota and GM have been active supporters of the Out & Equal conference and of NGLJA.
Ford and Chrysler have internal groups but have not been as active in the past few years.
The future of GLBT automotive advertising is difficult to predict but it is sure to mirror mainstream trends in the move to online and video. As gay media outlets become more pervasive and support for targeting this demographic increase from within the auto companies, more brands will join the early adopters and include GLBT media in their buys. The smart brands will realize that they need not fear GLBT-specific messaging and imagery and that the payoff is far more lucrative than any imagined backlash.
Automotive companies with strong diversity initiatives for gay & lesbian employees include:
|Company||CEI Rating*||Fortune 500 Rating|
|Toyota Motor Sales, USA||100|
|Volkswagen of America||100|
|Avis Budget Group||60||405|
|Nissan North America||50|
|Cooper Tire & Rubber||33||701|
|Navistar Intl Corp||30|
CEI Rating: HRC Corporate Equality Index is a tool to measure how equitably companies are treating their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees, consumers and investors.
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