Major brands come out for equality

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

What could overshadow the monumental news that Dunkin’ Donuts was celebrating Oreo’s 100th birthday by sprinkling cookie crumbles on its creamy Coolattas and stuffed doughnuts?

What could be bigger than Baskin-Robbins celebrating with Oreo ’N Chocolate, a chocolate ice cream and Oreo cookie pieces swirled with a crispy fudge crackle ribbon?

Well, a rainbow-striped Oreo cookie that looks to be about 2 inches tall, of course.

Kraft’s iconic cookie got a Pride-themed makeover for mass consumption on Facebook, where nearly 300,000 people “liked” the photograph and nearly 60,000 shared a comment in late June. The image prompted odes to Oreos and bellows for a boycott.

“That rainbow cookie probably created a crisis for One Million Moms,” said gay rights activist Kathy Tomlinson of Miami, referring to the right-wing Family Research Council affiliate that uses online tools to promote boycotts of companies with pro- gay profiles.

But there was only a crisis of calories for Tomlinson, who in early July purchased her first package of Double Stuf Oreos in a decade.

“Good stuff,” she said. Gay consumer Joseph Carmody of Madison, Wis., also purchased his first package of Oreos in some years, which he confessed in a fan letter posted to the cookie’s Facebook page: “Corporate America has either gone gaga for gays or there’s a conspiracy to make us all fat. Love ya, cookie cookie.”

Bob Witeck of Witeck Communications, a public relations and marketing firm based in Washington, D.C., says the attention-grabbing, crème-striped cookie may lead LGBT consumers to look more closely at Kraft’s record.

“Rainbow Oreos look swell, and grab our attention during Pride,” he said. “But it is never so simple, and that’s not the prescription to sustain loyalty. I suspect more LGBT people would express support for Kraft products if they knew that Kraft not only sponsored the 2006 Gay Games held in Chicago, but also fought back when anti-gay groups brought a shareholder petition against Kraft. Kraft management – and 99 percent of its shareholder supporters – rejected the anti-gay measure and responded, ‘Diversity makes us a stronger company and connects us with the diversity that exists among the consumers who buy our products.’ ”

Brand loyalty among LGBT consumers is legendary. And so is the community’s buying power, which for 2012 is estimated at $790 billion, according to Witeck Communications.

So companies such as Kraft – which rates a perfect 100 on the Corporate Equality Index compiled by the Human Rights Campaign and boasted “we are open and inclusive” months before Photoshopping the Pride cookie – can expect to see some consumer gains following its social goods.

The same goes for:

• J.C. Penney, which earlier this year hired Ellen DeGeneres as its spokesperson;

• Nike and Starbucks, which in February endorsed marriage equality in Washington;

• Microsoft, which also endorsed marriage equality and whose CEO and co-founder each recently contributed $100,000 to defending gay marriage;

• General Mills, which in June endorsed marriage equality in Minnesota;

• Target, which this summer debuted a line of Pride-themed T-shirts to raise money for an LGBT nonprofit.

“LGBT adults say that they respond strongly to brands and to companies that treat LGBT people fairly and equally, and also give back to the nonprofit causes important to LGBT families,” Witeck said.

Research shows that:

• 87 percent of LGBT adults will consider buying a brand from a company that provides equal benefits for LGBT employees.

• 23 percent of LGBT adults have switched products or services in the past year to a company more supportive of the LGBT community.

• 71 percent of LGBT adults remain loyal to a brand seen as supportive of LGBT issues, even if it costs more or is less convenient to buy.

• 47 percent of LGBT adults are more likely to purchase a company’s prod- ucts or services when an advertisement has been tailored to an LGBT audience.

Such outreach catches Tomlinson’s attention, and Carmody’s.

“I’m well aware of who is reaching out to the gay community and how,” said Carmody. “That goes for the big brands but also the local businesses.”

Said Tomlinson, “I know who our friends are, and I’m really loyal to them.”

Right-wing boycotts – a tool that Witeck says are rarely successful or notable – ironically can help drive LGBT consumers to a brand or product.

Of the 20 brands getting the most buzz from LGBT consumers on YouGov’s BrandIndex, an online measure of public perception and products, at least eight were targeted this year with right-wing boycotts.

One new addition to YouGov’s LGBT buzz list is Starbucks, and its new popularity may have something to do with a community emboldened against the boycott being waged by the National Organization for Marriage, which also is leading the effort to repeal Washington’s gay marriage law.

NOM collected 45,446 signatures in its five-month- old “Dump Starbucks” campaign, as well as about 18,157 pledges to “Dump General Mills” because, a NOM statement asserts, “We cannot allow Corporate America to throw its weight behind the gay marriage movement!”

If those numbers seem high, consider that in one week 70,000 people signed an HRC petition thanking General Mills for supporting marriage equality and a Washington state drive to thank Starbucks – which posted 15-percent growth in revenue the last quarter – resulted in the collection of more than 650,000 supporters.

Also, the “Dump Star- bucks” campaign has not diminished the company’s commitment to equality. In mid-June, months after NOM’s U.S. campaign began, Starbucks’ Australian division endorsed marriage equality after competitor Gloria Jeans donated $30,000 to the anti-gay Australian Christian Lobby.