When Chevrolet prominently featured gay and lesbian couples in a family-focused commercial titled "The New Us," marketing experts saw it as a breakthrough.
And they think other automakers will come to see it the same way.
Justin Bell, CEO of Arc & Arrow Creative Group, an agency focused on connecting brands with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender market, calls the spot for the Traverse crossover, aired during NBC's Olympics broadcasts, "monumental," and says it was "no tiny move for Chevrolet" to include three families headed by gay couples among the 12 who were spotlighted.
Bell says he expects to see other brands "stepping up to the plate to market via a story of inclusion."
It's a tantalizing prospect for an agency such as Bell's. While automakers have long advertised in a targeted way to the LGBT market, they have typically avoided the kinds of bold marketing moves that could alienate segments of their customer base or muddle their brand image. Those concerns have kept LGBT messaging and imagery largely confined to media viewed only by the gay community.
But high-profile moves such as Chevy's, along with growing public acceptance of gay rights, could embolden other automakers to bring their LGBT messaging into the mainstream as part of establishing a more inclusive brand identity.
Scott Seitz, owner of SPI Marketing, an LGBT marketing and promotions agency, points to a March Washington Post/ABC News poll that found 59 percent support for same-sex marriage, up 10 percentage points from 2009. As that support grows, he says, more marketers, automakers included, are recognizing the LGBT consumer demographic as a means to get "their message through the clutter to the buyer."
LGBT consumers, he says, are "watching to see brands walk the walk."
LGBT consumers' automotive preferences differ little from those of the broader population. Here are the 5 top-selling brands and nameplates in 2013 among LGBT consumers.
BRAND SHARE TOP NAMEPLATES
1. Ford 13.60% 1 Ford F Series
2. Toyota 12.70% 2 Honda Accord
3. Chevrolet 11.80% 3 Chevy Silverado
4. Honda 10.20% 4 Toyota Camry
5. Nissan 7.80% 5 Honda Civic
Source: IHS Automotive, based on analysis of 3 million self-reported LGBT consumers in the U.S. who registered more than 52,000 new vehicles last year
The Chevy Traverse commercial -- coming from a mainstream brand and played for a diverse audience during a high-profile event -- was a valuable test case.
A BrandIndex study that evaluated positive and negative responses to the brand after the Olympics commercials found that the net positive sentiment toward Chevy increased one point, to a score of 19.2, among the general viewership. Among the LGBT population, it more than doubled.
Even so, Chevy received a barrage of critical messages on Facebook from viewers decrying what they saw as the brand's support for gay marriage as a political cause, and vowing to boycott Chevy products. Chevrolet declined to comment for this article.
In terms of automotive preferences, LGBT consumers differ little from the broader population. According to IHS Automotive data -- based on a survey of 3 million self-reported LGBT consumers buying 50,000 new vehicles in 2013 -- the top-selling vehicle among LGBT consumers last year was Ford's F-series pickup, followed by the Honda Accord and Chevrolet Silverado. The brands with the largest share among gay buyers were also the heart of the mainstream auto market: Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet.
As for advertisers, the mix has been different. Subaru was considered the leader in advertising to LGBT consumers, as the first automaker to openly advertise in LGBT publications with a campaign dedicated to gay media. But its 10-year campaign ended in 2009, and Subaru spokesman Mike McHale says the company no longer has an active LGBT marketing strategy.
Scion has been marketing to gays since the brand was launched in 2003, as part of an effort to connect with its target market of young people. "The youth population is very embracive of various lifestyles and orientations, and that's our core audience, so if it's important to them, it's important to us to reach them," says Nancy Inouye, Scion's national marketing communications manager.
Most active in LGBT marketing now are premium and luxury marques that see outreach to gays as an opportunity to shake up a predictable sales pattern.
Lexus, which began reaching out to LGBT consumers in 2008, has an expansive cross-platform approach in gay media involving TV, print, digital and experiential marketing and has sponsored several LGBT events. It recently developed a miniseries, "Lexus Presents: Out in GayCities," featuring LGBT drivers making trips across the United States, which is being aired on a well-known LGBT microsite.
"LGBT consumers have become brand ambassadors for Lexus," says Brian Bolain, corporate manager of Lexus marketing communications and product marketing. He says that while the luxury market is often seen as exclusive, "when it comes to our customers, the word 'inclusive' is perhaps more appropriate."
Bolain says that efforts have focused on advertising in LGBT media, which has proved effective and resulted in much positive feedback from LGBT consumers and their families. But he says he wouldn't rule out expanding to broader-based outlets, given the right return on investment.
Buick says connecting with the LGBT community is consistent with its brand message of authentic living. With 43 percent of Buick buyers coming from non-GM brands, it's also an effort to broaden its appeal, especially among younger and affluent consumers, and to attract a group that is an early adopter of technology.
Buick is in its fifth year of being the presenting sponsor of Out magazine's Out 100 event, a salute to the 100 most influential LGBT Americans.
Although Buick hasn't done any gay outreach in mainstream media, Sandra Moore, director of Buick marketing, says the brand has been open about its support for the community, holding "Out with Buick" events at auto shows with journalists.
Fiat made a big splash in LGBT marketing last year when its Fiat brand teamed up with the Bravo cable channel in the first ever "Watch What Happens: Live" wedding extravaganza, in which couples competed over the course of four months for the chance to exchange vows live on the set of the talk show, and win a Fiat 500L as a wedding present. Two of the five finalist couples were LGBT couples.
Bravo is one of the top 10 cable entertainment networks among LGBT viewers, according to Experian Marketing Services' Simmons LGBT survey in fall 2013.
Juan Torres, head of multicultural advertising and marketing for Chrysler Group, which includes the Fiat brand, says that in the United States, the LGBT community has $790 billion in buying power, citing a 2012 study from Witeck Communications and MarketResearch.com. He expects Chrysler to do more outreach to LGBT customers through programs that make connections between Chrysler products and those customers' tastes and interests.
"From a social and cultural viewpoint, we are a diverse company with talent that is representative of every community and corner of the world," says Torres, who adds that the company has had no pushback. "Therefore it's imperative that our marketing efforts are reflective of our own DNA."
Joe Landry, executive vice president of the publishing division at Here Media, which publishes Out and The Advocate, another
LGBT magazine, says he expects more car company business from mainstream brands as fear of a backlash recedes. He argues that advertising in gay media is more effective "since you're hitting your target directly without any waste."
Seitz says that car companies are able to contact LGBT consumers directly with personalized targeted messages through smartphones and other mobile applications. Bell says some targeted ads, for example, allow a customer searching for gay vacations on Google to see a Honda ad targeted to him as a traveler.
Targeting "is how these brands are protecting themselves from conservative viewers and enabling [themselves] to go after the LGBT market," Bell says. "It's behind the curtain vs. out in front."
But Seitz says more auto companies are weighing whether to "go bigger," figuring they have more to gain by being visible supporters of gay rights. Making a bolder statement as Chevy did, he says, ultimately brings bigger payoffs, because it will attract not only the LGBT population, but their allies.
Bell agrees. "LGBT consumers want to know how they fit into the brand's story, which is why stories of inclusion work."
Even when car companies target gays narrowly, the messaging can spread to other channels through social media, says Stephen Macias, senior vice president and head of the LGBT practice at MWW, a marketing and public relations firm.
He cites a celebrated 2012 Chevrolet ad that ran in Detroit-area gay media in conjunction with a local gay-pride event, and was honored by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. The ad depicts a plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt "coming out" to its gasoline-powered "parents."
The headline: "Mom, dad, I'm electric."
"Data consistently shows that LGBT consumers react more favorably when an ad is tailored to the LGBT community," Macias says. "This ad was no exception and was exceptional in its creative work as well." He says his firm's tracking showed no backlash.
Steve Wilhite says marketers have much to gain by being clear about their brand values, and tolerating whatever backlash follows. He was senior marketing executive at Volks-wagen when it ran the "Sunday Afternoon" commercial in 1997 featuring two young men riding around in a Golf, to the tune of the quirky song "Da Da Da."
The spot wasn't intended to appeal to LGBT consumers, but it was ultimately perceived that way when it aired on an episode of the sitcom "Ellen" in which the main character, played by Ellen DeGeneres, announced that she was gay. While some sponsors who were advised of the plotline withdrew their commercials, VW didn't.
The commercial brought a mixed reaction: positive responses from the gay and lesbian communities, and threats of a boycott from Christian fundamentalists.
Wilhite says he told critics that he appreciated their perspective, but suggested if they felt that way, they should buy someone else's product. Having only 3 percent of the market at that time gave him license to be more bold, he says, but VW "has always been a very inclusive car company." He urges other auto companies to follow suit.
"The most powerful brands are those that make their values clear and transparent and are willing to walk away from business from those people who find those values unacceptable," Wilhite says.
That's easier said than done, says David Gudelunas, who handles research for SPI Marketing. He says automakers have other key constituencies to consider: stockholders, as well as dealers in conservative parts of the country, who may keep them from "jumping in deeper."
Ted Marzilli, CEO of YouGov's BrandIndex, says even if a CEO or board member supports gay rights, he or she must take into account how running advertising that explicitly or implicitly is aligned with that viewpoint will affect the company.
"The majority of CEOs and board members would probably advise steering away from sensitive or politically charged issues," since, by not announcing a position, all constituencies can think you stand with them, Marzilli says.
Charlie Hughes, former CEO of Land Rover North America and former CEO of Mazda North American Operations, says the emphasis on marketing to the LGBT community is misguided.
He says the focus should be on highlighting the car's attributes, and that should sell to any demographic.
Still, Marzilli sees the advance of gay rights as something that marketers must recognize. As public support of gay rights grows, he says, more businesses will support that position through advertising.
He points to the recent decision by Sam Adams, Guinness and Heineken to pull their sponsorship of St. Pat-rick's Day parades that wouldn't allow some marchers to display pro-LGBT signs as evidence of brands reallocating their marketing dollars to reflect changing attitudes.
Chrysler's Torres agrees. As attitudes and social mores continue to shift, he says, marketing efforts will mirror that, becoming more inclusive. Torres says there will be "small and steady steps that break down barriers."