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Power of the pink dollar: Does it pay to be gay-friendly?

Noel Hulsman

Oreo knows how to make a splash. On Monday, the company posted a picture on Facebook of its iconic cookie filled with the colours of the rainbow.  The cookie, which was created just for the ad and not for the shelves, signals Oreo's support for gay pride festivities now underway across North America.

By Thursday morning, the post had received more than 260,000 'likes' and nearly 50,000 comments, to say nothing of the incalculable amount of media exposure garnered around the world.

Will some of those comments and a share of the coverage be negative? Undoubtedly. Will some seek to boycott Oreo and go so far as to organize protests against Kraft Foods, Oreo's parent company? No question.  Would Oreo do it again, if it knew what it knows now?

You can bet your life. A quarter-of-a-million 'likes' in three days for an initiative that would have cost next to nothing to produce? Someone in marketing at Oreo is looking at a massive bonus at the end of this year.

Welcome to the world of pink marketing. Once considered a high-risk, low-reward field, worthy of a limited spend, at best, today the gay and lesbian community is now recognized as an essential audience segment.

In Canada alone, it's nearly a $100-billion market according to recent reports. While the LGBT community is believed to represent less than 6 per cent of the population, they more than make up for it in spending power, possessing 22 per cent more discretionary dollars than the average Canadian.

That it's worth buying some ads or sponsoring a booth at a Pride parade is nothing new, nor frankly particularly impressive. Toronto's annual Pride week attracts more than 1.2 million participants and spectators, with nearly a quarter of those hailing from destinations outside the Greater Toronto Area, according to Pride Toronto.

It's estimated attendees spend roughly $43.2 million -- $40.5 of which is spent by non-locals -- during the week-long celebration, generating $21.1 million in taxes collected by the province, according to Pride Toronto's latest economic impact study.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford may be too obtuse to recognize the power of those numbers, but few marketers need much convincing. Beer, travel, clothing and cosmetic companies have long been big supporters of Pride events in Toronto and across the country.

What is new is very large companies like Kraft not only making a very overt statement but doing it on a mainstream channel like Facebook in an environment such as the United States where the issue still remains sadly divisive. Also new is a bank CEO like Toronto-Dominion's Ed Clark speaking out in support of gay rights on YouTube. "What you are, is wonderful" Clark says in the clip.

Explaining the bank's decision to come out so clearly in support of the community, TD's vice-president of community relations Scott Mullin told the Globe and Mail, "We see it as not just a nice thing to do, but a critical thing to do for us as a company for positioning ourselves for the future — both in being an employer of choice but also the bank of choice for an increasingly diverse population."

Similar steps have recently been taken by the Royal Bank, which encouraged staff to wear pink on April 11 in support of Day of Pink, an international campaign against homophobia and bullying.

Nokia, Visa, Deloitte, Google, Facebook and Telus have also taken similar measures, signaling to both employees and customers that they prize diversity.

Indeed, the list of companies that have moved their support from niche marketing to mainstream overtures is such that only truly eye-catching or unexpected efforts stand out.

U.S. retailer JC Penney managed that by celebrating Mother's Day this year with ads featuring lesbian couples with their kids. In response, so-called pro family advocacy group One Million Moms threatened a boycott of the company, complaining that it was promoting sin, insisting that God would not tolerate it a same-sex family definition.

Showing which side of this debate seemed a better bet, J.C. Penney followed up a month later with an ad for father's day, featuring two gay men. It read "What makes Dad so cool? He's the swim coach, tent maker, best friend, bike fixer and hug giver — all rolled into one. Or two."