Brands Still Haven’t Figured Out How To Talk To LGBTQ Consumers

Anyone can roll out a rainbow logo each June. But new data suggests LGBTQ consumers are an undervalued $5.4-trillion market hungry for better ads and brand activism.

Brands Still Haven’t Figured Out How To Talk To LGBTQ Consumers
[Photo: Charlotte Butcher/Unsplash]

I hate withdrawing money from ATMs in June. Virtually every bank branch in Manhattan slathers itself in rainbow flags and some sort of abstruse tagline about being “open to all.” It’s always struck me as a cheaply exploitative move, and it turns out I’m not alone.


In a recent survey of marketers and consumers by INTO, Grindr’s digital magazine, and market-research firm Brand Innovators, only 15.6% of the more than 4,100 LGBTQ respondents said they feel “very positively” toward companies that roll out Pride-themed ad campaigns and then leave it at that for the rest of the year. By contrast, over 40% said they feel very positively toward advertisers who work LGBTQ themes into their branding “regularly or continually.”

That’s not to say more is always better, though. The commercialization of queer culture is nothing new, after all, and it isn’t especially “brave” for brands to spout inclusive messaging (even with the Trump administration’s civil-rights assaults on LGBTQ people). But while the line between opportunism and meaningful visibility has always been uncomfortably thin, INTO’s new data suggests there’s a better way to walk it.

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The Growing Potential Of Queer Branding

The poll asked 1,500 INTO readers and 2,600 Grindr users about their attitudes toward LGBTQ-focused advertising, while Brand Innovators surveyed 278 marketing execs across multiple consumer industries on their brand strategies. Most of the marketing professionals (53%) said they spend 0% to 4% annually on LGBTQ consumers; 29%, the next-highest percentage, spend between 5% and 9% on that demographic; while just 3% devote 20% or more of their annual ad spend to queer customers.

That may not be enough. It’s difficult to assess LGBTQ consumers’ spending power, but in 2016, analysts at LGBT Capital estimated it at $965 billion in the U.S. and up to $5.4 trillion globally. Not only did 7.3% of U.S. millennials identify as LGBTQ as of 2016, according to Gallup (GLAAD puts that figure much higher, at 20%), but younger people–especially gen-Zers–are less committed to traditional gender norms and more embracing of queer culture overall.

As Fast Company has reported, savvy brands are finding opportunities by tapping into LGBTQ iconography–and not just among young queer consumers, but among young consumers, period. Disney, for example, recently hired four drag queens who competed on VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race for a social influencer campaign for A Wrinkle in Time. And while Suitsupply lost some 10,000 Instagram followers after launching an overtly gay menswear campaign last month, it’s a likely bet that the brand shored up its standing among 18–29-year-olds, a demographic with overwhelmingly favorable attitudes toward homosexuality.


Actions Beat Words

Still, advertising only pays off up to a point. When the researchers asked LGBTQ consumers how they feel about queer-focused ads in both mainstream media and dedicated LGBTQ outlets, there wasn’t runaway enthusiasm for either. By contrast, over 70% of respondents said that “a brand’s reputation as being LGBTQ friendly (or not)” directly influenced their purchasing decisions.

“Folks are still not sure what it would be like to have yourself fully represented in media,” INTO editor-in-chief Zach Stafford tells Fast Company. “Multicultural advertising has been tokenizing, and people are still ‘meh’ about any efforts [as a result].” From brands’ standpoint, he says, “There’s some gamble there with representation; they’re worried about bad representation.” A single tone-deaf commercial can incite the wrath of legions of social media users.

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What’s a better approach? For starters, says Stafford, ditch the Pride-month-only strategy, which “could make it worse. People are so tuned in they’ll start noticing that trend: ‘You only are about me this month, but I’m buying from you every day of the year–why don’t I matter to you then?’” Second, he says, “You need to figure out a way to bring consumers into your brand and work on projects with you.” Invite the community you’re trying to reach into the process of developing a campaign or brand strategy; better yet, hire and promote people from those communities for full-time leadership roles.

But more effective than messaging is meaningful action, separate from any effort to move product. “Companies are having to think of themselves as representations of people–living and breathing folks who have real power in the social and political spheres,” says Stafford. Indeed, businesses that use their clout to defend civil rights are reaping the reputational benefits.


“When you see a company pull out of the NCAA championship games in North Carolina,” he adds, referring to the public backlash to a discriminatory law targeting LGBTQ people in 2016, “that was way more powerful than putting an ad out in the local paper.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the the total sample size of LGBTQ consumers polled is 4,100, not 3,200 as initially stated.


About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.