What are companies looking to sell to lesbians?

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In the world of sales and marketing, the LGBT community is a tangible, calculable consumer base to be wooed and won. U.S. companies have specifically courted the queer market since at least the 1950s, when alcohol companies made subtle references to male homosexuality in print ads. A few decades later, tobacco companies pursued the LGBT market in national advertising campaigns and worked with the LGBT media at the same time that, in 1991, the Wall Street Journal declared the queer community “a dream market.”

Subaru started reaching out to the lesbian community specifically in 1993 after it discovered that lesbians were among Subaru’s largest consumer group (apparently some stereotypes are true), and since then, the race to capture LGBT consumers has heated up, particularly in the wake of 2015’s US marriage equality ruling. From Pride Parade floats to pro-gay tag lines, rainbow packaging to corporate sponsorship, many companies are expanding their marketing to appeal to queer consumers, to the extent that in some fields, companies not competing for that consumer base are now seen as falling behind. 

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And it’s a big consumer base: the US LGBT market is estimated to be 9 million people with nearly $800 billion in annual buying power, which places it just behind the African American and Hispanic markets. It’s been assessed that the LGBT market’s outsized spending stems from queer individuals having more disposable income than heterosexuals. But that is a persistently mistaken stereotype, given that per Experian Marketing Services’ 2013 whitepaper on LGBT demographics and spending habits, lesbians have less per capita and household discretionary spending than straight women, while gay men have less household discretionary spending than straight men and only marginally more per capita discretionary spending). Additionally, based on surveys, queer individuals are also believed to be highly brand loyal to companies that overtly or subtly express support for the queer community. 

An entire industry of LGBT marketing and PR consultants has sprung up to help major firms tap into the LGBT market, using these statistics as their hook. Studies have been conducted of queer consumption patterns and preferences, all with the goal of furthering sales of everything from airplane tickets to cars to snack food. There appear to be three primary types of products marketed to the LGBT community: first, products that aren’t LGBT-specific but that are marketed to the queer community writ large as being “gay-friendly,” second, LGBT-focused services, and third, boutique or niche products that are for specific gay or lesbian consumers.

An example of the first category is airline tickets: Alaska Airlines in 2007 launched a gay travel section on its website (although of note, you have to specifically Google the page, because there is no link off the front page and it is not inherently obvious that Alaska has such a section). Alaska’s product—airline tickets—appeals to all demographic of consumers regardless of sexual orientation, but the company almost certainly hoped to capture more of the LGBT market share from its competitors by taking a pro-gay posture before them. Today, the page lists dates of domestic Pride Parades and offers a 10% discount on tickets to them booked through the site, and details Alaska’s contributions to the It Gets Better Campaign. (Other US airlines subsequently followed suit in creating pages on their contributions to the LGBT community, but their pages generally are less visually appealing and offer no discounts. American Airline’s page appears to be unmaintained, given that three of the four pages don’t work, and United Airlines’ page is mostly about the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.) 

“Gay-friendly” marketing can easily be low cost and low effort; often, it is little more than adding a rainbow on a company website during Pride Month or driving a company car in a Pride Parade. This type of marketing tends to be “queer generic” in the sense that it most often treats LGBT consumers as monolithic. (Though not always. For example, Old Navy has run ads with both lesbian and gay couples, and MINI Cooper’s Abby Wambach ad probably appeals more to lesbians than gay men.). Generalization of “the LGBT market” does not matter for many products (a rainbow flag outside a restaurant or rainbow Doritos obviously appeal to both lesbians and gays), but it also does not address the differences between gay and lesbian consumption patterns. 

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LGBT-focused service providers can either market a service or act as a facilitator of other services and products. They include things like purpleroofs.com (which bills itself as a site that helps users find small, “family-owned” and gay-friendly accommodations, and also lists hundreds of gay-owned and gay-friendly travel agents and tour operators around the world) and LGBT wedding planners. These service providers can either be for the whole queer community or certain segments, and they conduct most of the same services found in the heterosexual community. The LGBT travel industry is often seen as a particularly prime growth market because according to a 2000 Travel University report, 10% of international tourists were gay and lesbian accounting for more than 70 million arrivals worldwide—more than double what might be expected given their population size.

Finally, there are few products that appeal almost exclusively to just lesbians (although that’s just relative compared to heterosexual, as some of these lesbian products demonstrate). With self-deprecating humor, we must admit that lesbians don’t exclusively own Uhaul trucks, flannel shirts or the Indigo Girls, although we can lay exclusive claim to Olivia Cruises, Melissa Ferrick and female wedding tuxedos. It would seem at first blush that companies targeting queer women as their only customers—either for goods or services—face an economic disadvantage compared to companies targeting everyone (1-6% of the population as the best case potential market base as opposed to 100% of the population with a more generic product), but niche markets exist everywhere with even smaller customer bases (such as hang gliders, I imagine), so this is significantly less of a disincentive than it would seem. 

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They challenge for companies trying to sell lesbian-centric products and services is the same as for any company: first, obviously, is marketing. How can a company reach its intended lesbian consumers in an age in which consumers are overwhelmed by the vastness of the Internet and all the possibilities that exist therein? The second is splitting the market. One seller of androgynous or butch clothes for women might have captured the market (in essence, a monopoly by default) and with sufficient publicity seen strong returns. With multiple sellers in the market, however, profits become split, and all the companies’ returns are lower, making it harder for sellers to remain afloat.

So what are companies trying to sell queer women? Anything and everything. What do they need to be successful? The same thing any company needs: a large enough consumer base. For companies like Alaska Airlines, more queer consumers only adds to an already large consumer base. It’s icing on the cake. For companies like Let’s Be Brief that cater only to queer female customers, however, raising the company’s profile sufficiently in the queer community will mean the difference between success and failure.

Lesbians can’t buy what they don’t know exists. Sadly, many companies that provide products to the lesbian community quickly fail because they don’t get enough business. So if you know of a good product, post it so others can buy it and keep the business afloat!

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