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What Burger King’s Proud Whopper tells us about marketing to LGBT consumers

Burger King launched its Proud Whopper at a location in San Francisco for this week only. (Courtesy of Burger King)

Revelers who stopped in for a sandwich at the Burger King along San Francisco’s Pride Parade this week were able to order a limited edition Proud Whopper, the chain’s iconic burger wrapped in rainbow-colored paper that unfolds to reveal the message, “We are all the same inside.”

The marketing campaign is only the latest effort by some of the nation’s largest consumer brands, including Coca-Cola, Banana Republic, Allstate Insurance, Marriott and Chevrolet, to court lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender customers through advertising that acknowledges the LGBT community or shows support for issues such as same-sex marriage.

“We are always looking to engage our guests on a local level and be part of regionally relevant events,” Kelly Gomez, Burger King’s director of west coast field marketing, said in a news release. “With one of our restaurants on the Pride Parade route, it was a natural fit to be involved and celebrate by giving something back to the community.”

But the Burger King campaign has become more than just a regional event. News of the Proud Whopper spread quickly on social networks, including Twitter and Facebook, and the story was picked up by both mainstream and LGBT media outlets.

“They made a decision to connect to the gay community in a way that no other company in their category or industry has done. Being the first to do something in a category or industry is always the best because everyone else will follow suit,” said Andrew Isen, president of WinMark Concepts, a Washington, D.C.-based marketing firm.

“While the program was unique to San Francisco and it was a very limited program, the social media aspect of it will go viral and it will go nationwide as a cause célèbre in the LGBT community,” Isen added.

But some market research shows LGBT consumers respond best when companies represent them in national ads distributed through mainstream channels. Burger King’s week-long stunt in a city known for its large LGBT population and progressive politics may not be viewed as particularly risky or groundbreaking.

“In the past, most brands have been outreaching to the LGBT community through the LGBT media and it was almost a safe way of doing it because the only people seeing it were LGBT people,” said David Paisley, senior research director at Community Marketing and Insights, a market research firm focused exclusively on the LGBT community.

“What we’ve really learned over the last couple of years is the best way to reach the LGBT community and impress the LGBT community is through mainstream media outreach,” Paisley added. “What the LGBT people have been saying is don’t segregate us so much. We expect to see us in your mainstream advertising, not all the time, but once in a while.”

The advertisement that Coca-Cola aired during the 2014 Super Bowl offers a prime example. The commercial featured “America the Beautiful” being sung in multiple languages as images of men, women and children of different races, ethnicities and religions flashed across the screen. Among those in the commercial were a pair of gay fathers at a roller rink with their daughter.

Though the advertisement is less overt than a rainbow-wrapped Whopper, Coca-Cola’s decision to include LGBT people on the largest and most expensive advertising platform in American television was viewed as a bolder move. And bold moves build brand recognition.

“When we do [research], we will find that those brands that made some kind of commercial, outreach or social media strategy to everyone are the ones that stay top of mind,” Paisley said.

A 2013 study conducted by Community Marketing and Insights asked participants to list brands they purchase because of the companies’ support for LGBT people and causes. Those that topped the list have regularly come out in support of LGBT issues, such as Starbucks or Amazon, or have chosen and stood behind LGBT spokespeople, such as JCPenney.

“What companies are learning is once they have garnered the affinity of the LGBT consumer, they have captured that consumer for life,” said Isen at WinMark Concepts .