What can your company learn from the rainbow Oreo?

When the maker of Oreo cookies posted a rainbow-colored version of the snack on its Facebook page last week, the company’s message — “Proudly support love!” — was meant as a sign of solidarity with its gay customers.

But the advertisement is the kind of tightrope public relations that recently landed Nabisco, and its owner Kraft Foods, in the middle of discussion over social values.

The food company is not alone. From major department stores and travel Web sites to small, local merchants, a growing number of businesses are producing gay-themed ads and flying rainbow flags in an effort to capture the market segment.

It’s a tactic that can come with a big payoff — gays tend to have more disposable income on average — but can also bring a negative backlash. Capital Business interviewed Andrew Isen, founder of a District-based consultancy called WinMark Concepts that helps companies connect with gay audiences. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation:


A screengrab from Oreo's Twitter page. On June 25, the company posted a photo of a rainbow-colored cookie accompanied by the work "Pride." (Twitter)

What do you make of the response to Oreo’s rainbow cookie advertisement?

I think the ad is terrific. [It’s] visually appealing and speaks directly to the LGBT consumer. And, with 177,000 Facebook likes in 24 hours, I think Nabisco accomplished what they set out to do. Moreover, the goal was not to sell Oreos, per se, but to sell Nabisco’s diversity and inclusion, which they have done effectively.

Do you think specific advertisements are necessary to capture gay consumers?

It depends on the industry. If you are selling something to a couple, say auto insurance, you bet. The exponential positive effect of running an ad of two men in a couple buys loyalty and solidarity with the gay consumer.

What is the biggest misconception companies have about targeting the gay community?

Tough question. If I had to think of just one thing, it would be that the gay community is not homogeneous. People often say they wish to target the gay market. What is that? Is there a straight market? No. There are multiple segments, subsegments and microsegments that must be identified, reached and spoken to in their individual lexicon.

If a company wants to consider gay-themed advertising, what’s the first step they should take?

First, look at your existing creative. Can it be ‘tweaked gay’ without damaging the integrity of the campaign? Interestingly, most can be, but companies are unaware. If not, strongly identify the demographic and psychographic of the gay consumer segment you want to target and develop creative that speaks to them directly.

Have you worked on an advertisement that wasn’t as successful as expected? What went wrong?

Proudly no. But, advertising that can be seen as pandering, and that’s a fine line, can backfire. As I say to all clients, you can’t just slap a rainbow on an ad and think that makes it gay. In and of itself, it doesn’t.

Hospitality and retail seem to have embraced gay-themed advertising. Does this work better in some industries over others?

Just a few years ago, I might have said that gay-themed advertising was best limited to certain industries. Not anymore. In fact, companies’ seeking to grow out of their traditional consumer base are seeking the gay segment over many other identifiable niches. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a John Deere tractor with a rainbow license plate in a manufacturing publication in the near future.

We’ve seen some corporations experience backlash and boycott threats. What are the potential pitfalls for companies to keep in mind?

The days of backlashes and boycotts are over. Sure, a group here or there will make noise, but it lasts through half a news cycle. In the end, the long-term financial gain resulting from a company’s targeting the gay segment financially outweighs any short-term loss. Look at J.C. Penney today with Ellen DeGeneres as its spokeswoman.

Do you advise companies when they endure negative feedback? If so, how do you recommend they react?

We sure do. As I said before, the impact is minimal. The most important thing is to get management squarely behind their business decision and not apologize to any group, or backtrack. Be resolute. It pays off.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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