Racing after gay consumers


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    Two men talk while sitting in a Saturn Sky at Detroit's Motor City Pride festival, where General Motors sponsored a gay speed-dating event.

    - Kyle Norris

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    A sign advertising General Motors' speed-dating event at Detroit's Motor City Pride festival.

    - Kyle Norris

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    Organizers of the General Motors gay speed-dating event at Detroit's Motor City Pride festival.

    - Kyle Norris

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    Crowds at General Motors' gay speed-dating event at Detroit's Motor City Pride festival.

    - Kyle Norris

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    Suggested conversation starters in a car at the General Motors' gay speed-dating event at Detroit's Motor City Pride festival.

    - Kyle Norris

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    Two women talk while sitting in a Saturn Sky at Detroit's Motor City Pride festival, where General Motors sponsored a gay speed-dating event.

    - Kyle Norris

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Alright, so maybe General Motors is behind the curve when it comes to building cars people actually want to buy. But it's on the cutting edge when it comes to selling to one specific demographic. Kyle Norris reports from Detroit.


KYLE NORRIS: On the one hand, gay people are a marketer's dream. That's what Joe LaMuraglia says. He's publisher of GayWheels.com.

Joe LaMuraglia: You've got a very high disposable income, a very strong buying power. You have a loyalty factor that most people would kill for.

That buying power is expected to exceed $835 billion within the next three years. And car manufacturers are paying attention. But they're doing so in interesting ways.

Announcer: Let's start your 4-minute speed date. The speed-dating has started. Four minutes. Make it happen. Have fun.

Here at Detroit's Motor City Pride festival, GM is sponsoring a gay speed-dating event. Couples sit inside parked GM cars and make small talk. And let me say, these cars are sweet. They include a Saturn Vue, a Saab 9-3 convertible, and a Cadillac Escalade.

The speed-daters said they definitely noticed that GM sponsored this event. OK, some were a little more focused on their love matches. But speed-dater Keisha Knight says the whole car thing was cool.

Keisha KNIGHT: Actually, the cars are like ultra sexy. I want to take this one home. I don't know if they'll let me drive off with it, but if they will, I'll take it.

And that's exactly what GM wants to hear. Adam Bernard is the chairman of GM Plus, the company's resource group for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender employees. He says GM did its homework.

Adam Bernard: One thing we found in our research is that gay consumers are more likely to buy from a company whose employee practices are positive and supportive of workplace equality. And so that's one of the reasons before we went marketing to the consumer we made sure all our internal policies were in place. 'Cause then it's kind of hypocritical. If you don't treat gay employees fairly, then to ask for gay consumers to buy your cars is just rude!

So GM and other car manufacturers offers its employees things like domestic-partner benefits. Bernard thinks sponsorship of the speed-dating event shows GM values gay people as equals. But still, it's a complicated relationship.

Joe LaMuraglia says manufacturers understand the positives from a business perspective.

LaMuraglia: But then there's the emotional side of things where people go, "Oh, whoa! What's gay? I'm not gay!" If we advertise in a gay market does that make us a gay brand? Will that alienate the other people that buy our products?

And that fear of backlash is based in reality. In 2006, Ford placed ads in a gay magazine and got hit with a very public boycott from a Christian organization called The American Family Association.

So today manufacturers are reaching out to gay consumers in more subtle ways. Toyota is doing it from the inside out, with a gay-employee resource group. And Ford is promoting one of the designers of its new Ford Flex to the gay media.

Through these subtle campaigns, car companies ultimately hope to prove their gay street-cred and connect with a group of consumers ready and willing to spend a whole lot of cash.

In Detroit, I'm Kyle Norris for Marketplace.

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