Bob Witeck and Wes Combs are the authors of Business Inside Out: Capturing Millions of Brand Loyal Gay Consumers. Their DC-based firm, Witeck-Combs Communications, Inc., works with uber cool, gay-friendly clients and their names are synonymous with thought leadership on LGBT demographics and marketplace trend spotting. I asked them to respond with thoughts about the myth of gay affluence, the behavior of queer consumers and to a few personal questions to drive the conversation home.
1. In your new book you offer companies a guide to targeting the queer market. Why do LGBT consumers have such a high potential for brand loyalty?
Our research has consistently shown that LGBT consumers are very brand loyal to companies that treat their LGBT employees fairly and also target their advertising intelligently to LGBT consumers. LGBT people realize that their $641 billion buying power is being sought by Corporate America and they are rewarding those companies that stand out of these reasons.
LGBT consumers are not unlike other marginalized segments of society. Remember, it is still perfectly legal for lesbians and gays to lose their job just for being lesbian or gay in all but 17 states. For decades, LGBT people have been overlooked or ignored by corporate America. They understand that they have complete control and freedom to shop where they please – the ultimate freedom.
Just a brief anecdote too. For six years, we’ve surveyed gay and non-gay adults with our research partner, Harris Interactive. We’ve conducted thousands and thousands of interviews about all kinds of attitudes and consumer behaviors to find out the differences and similarities. You’ll be intrigued to know that more Americans are perfectly willing to disclose their sexual orientation than how much money they make. How much money we each have may be the most intimate question of all.
2. What is your most significant memory about money?
Wes: For me, it was having to work for my “allowance” as a kid because my parents could not afford to give me one. As a result, I was able to purchase my own car when I was 16. It was not the fancy, brand new car my friends were driving but I knew that I paid for it myself and that made me feel proud.
Bob: In my family, I was one of seven children, and we had no allowance. However, our parents gave us modest spending money to enjoy. What I remember is in the 1950’s how cheap it was to go to a movie for 35 cents, to go to the swimming pool for a dime, and to buy a candy bar for 5 cents. We didn’t have a lot of dimes and nickels but we also didn’t feel “nickeled and dimed” since our pocket change went a long way. Even returning soda bottles earned a nickel for each one.
3. What is your worst habit around finances?
Wes: My worst habit about finances is procrastination. I am like many Americans – I never feel like I know enough about financial planning so I put it off and delay making certain decisions. Thankfully, I rely on smart counsel from a qualified financial planner!
Bob: My worst habit is sometimes being indifferent about it. I make a point about maintaining no credit card balances, and trying to buy as I go. But most of my waking hours are thinking about lots of other things. I don’t feel at all privileged or flush, but perhaps distracted.
4. There’s the cliche of consumerism (particularly with young gay men) that you can buy self-esteem. Does money equal happiness?
Wes: Money certainly makes life easier in most cases. Unfortunately, I know too many people who try to replace happiness in their lives with materials goods and do not succeed. As trite as this sounds, it is very true: you have to be happy inside before you can be happy outside. Just buying things is like putting lipstick on a pig – if you are still not a happy soul then you will not be able to buy enough materials things to bridge the gap.You might get close…but not close the gap.
Bob: Huh? Happiness? I’d trade money and stuff for lots of intangibles. Like Wes, I prefer it easier rather than harder, but having stuff is not interesting to me. I make a point with my husband all the time when I see something I don’t want to come into our house and call it a “dustable.” I don’t want more dustables. But if I had more dough, I’d spend it on books and travel, and on my partner and family.
5. As business partners, do you see eye-to-eye on money?
Wes: For the most part we do. I come from a family of worriers so I spend more time dwelling on the finances of the business. But we both have the same goal in mind: to have a financially successful business.
Bob: Wes is superior to me in a dozen ways, including this. I trust him implicitly and also know that he’s led me to do the right things. We absolutely have the same goals.
6. Over the past years, I’ve read quite a bit about the myth of gay affluence. Do you think that gay people have more disposable income to spend than the average straight person?
It is definitely a myth and perhaps the most misunderstood fact about gays and lesbians. We are not wealthier. We make about the same amount of money as our non-gay counterparts. Because only about 20 percent of gay and lesbian households have children in them, we tend to have more discretionary income. What others spend on child care related costs we often spend on ourselves (or save.) In many cases we are also dual income households, which coupled with no children gives us more money to spend than the average consumer.
7. Which is more important: how much money you make or how you spend it?
Wes: For me, it is how I spend it. I am all about enjoying life for the moment. I love to travel and want to be able to do it as long as I can. I would much rather not have a fancy car or even have a smaller home so that I would be able to afford to travel.
Bob: Absolutely right. It’s how you spend it. On travel, on a good book, on spending time with others. That’s about right.
8. So much of the LGBT community is skewed toward gays and lesbians. Is there such a thing as a bi-sexual or transgender consumer? If so, give examples of companies targeting this segment.
Like the disability community, perhaps, there are many sub-groups with the bigger umbrella of the so-called gay community. Gays and lesbians appear to have definite distinctions and similarities. As marketers, we want to know how these sub segments are the same or difference from each other and from other consumers (especially heterosexuals).
With respect to bisexuals, we see that there tend to be at least two groups within this sub segment – those that behave more like gay and lesbian consumers and those that may identify more closely with heterosexual consumers. Our research has found that people who identify as bisexual, have a partner of the same gender, and attend LGBT events or read LGBT publications, are more likely to have the same consumer behaviors as gays and lesbians, (i.e. are very brand loyal to companies that target LGBT consumers.) For those bisexuals who do not have a partner of the same gender and do not attend LGBT events or read LGBT publications, they tend to seem more like heterosexual consumers. Go figure.
For this reason, many of our clients agree with us that bisexuals who meet specific sampling criteria ought to be included in research about the segment. The key reason: if they do not attend LGBT events and do not read LGBT media, then they are not likely going to be reached by LGBT tailored outreach.
With respect to transgender individuals, we do gather data and insights about them but the sample size remains too small to be able to say anything definitively about them as a distinct segment. We believe they matter quite a bit, and would like to know more.
9. If you could buy one thing right now what would it be?
Wes: A private jet. I travel quite a bit and I hate standing in line at the airport and the many delays you experience flying commercially. A guy can dream, right?
Bob: I can’t really think of a single thing my heart really desires, or that I cannot buy. Perhaps an upgraded I-Pod with more memory? Otherwise, I’m all set, thanks.
10. What are some of the emerging “financial” trends you see within the LGBT market?
With the increased visibility of same sex couples, we will see more financial institutions and insurance companies respond by tailoring and marketing their products and services to the needs of these couples and their family needs. Given that federal and state laws put us in a legal limbo, we need more protections and confidence that we have our house in order.
Today, a significant majority of outreach to the public is focused on the heterosexual couple and if there is any tailoring, it is done towards ethnic or gender groups. Research shows that LGBT consumers want to deal with an openly LGBT financial planner or one that understands their unique needs.
In addition, the number of retirement and adult living communities targeting LGBT residents are expanding. The baby boomer generation is out in much greater numbers that the previous generation and they want to spend the next decades of their lives in places that welcome them and that feel safe. These new retirement communities targeting LGBT people are helping fill that void.
More about Wes Combs
Wesley Combs is president and co-founder of Witeck-Combs Communications, Inc., the nation’s premier public relations and marketing firm specializing in developing strategies for companies looking to reach the GLBT consumer market. The firm’s clients include American Airlines, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and LOGO.
Combs has more than fifteen years experience in strategic planning, market research and training, and communications in the private and non-profit sectors. Prior to founding Witeck-Combs, he worked for over seven years as a marketing executive with IBM. Combs and his business partner Bob Witeck are the authors of “Business Inside Out: Tapping Millions of Brand-Loyal Gay Consumers” (Kaplan Publishing, September 2006).
He currently serves as a member of the Human Rights Campaign’s Business Council.
In April 2003, American Demographics magazine identified Wes and his business partner Bob Witeck as two of 25 experts over the last 25 years who have made the most significant contributions to the fields of demographics, market research, media and trend spotting for their path breaking work on the gay and lesbian market.
More about Bob Witeck
Robert Witeck is Chief Executive Officer of Washington, DC-based Witeck-Combs Communications, Inc. with three decades of professional communications experience in the private sector and in public service.
Before opening firm with Wes Combs in 1993, Bob Witeck was senior vice president for Hill & Knowlton Public Affairs. On Capitol Hill for over a decade, Witeck also served as communications director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and as a Senate press secretary and legislative assistant.
He has served five appointed terms on the board of directors for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, and currently is on the board of the Commercial Closet Association. He also is a member of the Honorary Board of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. He formerly served on the board of directors for the NEA Foundation and on the first national board for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and for the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.