LGBT as TG: For pride and prosperity

09 Jan,2013


Shielding themselves from social stigma, India’s gay people lived double lives – one for the world and one in which they were true to themselves – for the longest time. Today, thanks to aggressive activism, growing awareness and an increasing number of LGBT people coming out of the closet, a new world has opened up for them. They are now carving out their space as niche consumers, giving marketers a new target group.


Smart marketers are taking note of this newly empowered community. A report on said that gays and lesbians spend more than $600 billion every year across the world. They’re a business owner’s dream because they are:


» Affluent: The average annual income for a gay household is $61,000, 20.4% higher than a heterosexual household’s, said the website


» Educated: About 83% of gays and lesbians have either attended or graduated from college


» Loyal: Approximately 89% of gays and lesbians are brand-affiliated and are highly likely to seek out brands that advertise to them


Jaldi 5 with Ashraf Engineer: ‘LGBT community in India is making its presence felt in various ways’

By Johnson Napier


‘Out of the Closet and into the Marketplace: The Birth of India’s Pink Economy’ report released by MSL Group India, has thrown up some stark realities about a community that for long has been a subject of neglect by many. That marketers chose to stay away from them for long is something that this report terms as surprising but suggests that there are opportunities galore for brands if they want to tap into this community.


Ashraf Engineer, until recently Senior Associate Editor, The Hindustan Times – Mumbai and now Content Head, MSL India answers a few queries posed by MxMIndia on the report and the immense scope it presents to the marketers.


01. The Pink Economy report has brought to the fore many facets concerning the LGBT community. What are some of the noteworthy observations from the report that you would like to highlight upfront?

The biggest insight that we received is that even after the decriminalisation of consensual homosexuality I think the LGBT community is making its presence felt in various ways. Among that, one of those ways is economic manners where they are expressing their consumerist desires etc where we are seeing the first steps towards them becoming an important consumer group. I would be wary of stating that an economic boom or revolution is happening but the report takes the pains to say that is not the case. What the report makes very clear is that we are seeing the first signs of the pink economy emerging in India.


It’s interesting to see a few businesses already taking advantage of this trend like apparels and accessories, travel and also events. These three have already recognised the opportunity and are working towards catering to this community.


02. Why conduct a study/research towards a community towards whom the society is least concerned about?

Through this study, we’ve looked at what is happening in the market, spoken to experts and then have come up with insights that are transpiring within this community. You could rather term it as being a business insight report. As for the need, any business-related organisation like ours where it is our job to support various businesses and communication strategies – it is our job to spot a trend early. We believed that it is going to be an important segment in the days to come and therefore felt the need to do the report.


03. How have the marketers taken to the findings from this report? Do you see them more eager now to reach out to this section of the population?

The response so far has been very positive. They also seem to understand that there could be an opportunity in time to come. In fact we have received a good response from the Media too. But this segment is not as evolved as it is in the West where marketers in various sectors specifically draw up business strategies and launch products centered towards this community. In fact apart from apparels and travel, even the BFSI industry abroad has been coming out with customised solutions that are aimed towards this community.


04. Do you foresee obstacles regarding marketing or brands reaching out to this community, especially in a socially conscious market like India?

In India, brands who are open and brash about this community may be a bit withheld for the moment but I think somewhere down the line they will understand that they need to continue drawing up plans for this community. As a consumer segment, for this community to attain full potential will take some time.


How would you segregate this population basis their socio-economic classification? Does it throw up any interesting trend?

The fact is that we only have international data to fall back on but in India there is no such study that tells us what the SEC standing is or for the matter even what the population base of this community is. If one were to go by the international pattern observed, the LGBT community is said to have more discretionary income. They have large incomes as they do not tend to have children; that trend is only now picking up. So as a consumer segment they are really very powerful.


05. According to you, what are some of the learnings that Indian marketers can pick up from foreign counterparts when catering to this segment?

Marketers first need to understand that this group does exist as a consumer segment and that there is an immense opportunity there. We already know of apparels and travel as potential segments but even lifestyle products in general need to wake up to them. Going forward, just like you have several banks abroad that offer solutions tailored towards their needs I think the BFSI industry in India needs to consider doing something similar.



Know the market

The LGBT market is different because it is many layered and poorly researched. It is crucial, therefore, for companies to study the market and understand which cross-section to target. This will help in getting maximum return on investments.


Surveys conducted by various agencies indicate that gays and lesbians look at more magazines and newspapers and watch more TV than heterosexual consumers. They are also more driven by marketing campaigns to make purchases.


One of the biggest strengths of the community is its resilience and its tendency to bond closely. When they come together for events, festivals or concerts, the energy is unparalleled. For marketers, this is a tailormade platform.


Jerry Johnson, a marketing professional and TEDx speaker, said: “It is important for marketers to understand that the LGBT community is not just about sexual orientation. Our identities can also be identified with our interests. For any campaign to appeal to us, it should stay away from stereotypes and clichés. It would be best to keep it normal and inclusive. The Benetton ‘Unhate’ campaign was a great one as it had a simple message and yet had a strong impact. It conveyed that it is OK to be different. GAP too had a campaign that had two men wearing one shirt. These are big brands that are trying to be inclusive and we appreciate that.” Marketers have also identified that the LGBT community as an opportunity for gadget makers.


Marketers are reaching out to them through social media, smart phones and other new media. Gay web portals are a great marketplace and have a captive audience. “Social media is the biggest tool; we are very active online. There are several online groups, websites and social forums that attract huge traffic,” said Johnson. “The internet gives customers the luxury of privacy. The best way to reach us is through our mediums.


We become very loyal to corporations that advertise on our mediums and we also become their advocacy customers.”

Apple, for instance, has several apps that help the community connect with a wide network. Apple’s DowneLink provides a space “for Downe (LGBT) people and their friends to exchange ideas, build friendships, and utilise local and nationwide services”. The app offers features such as social networking, blogs, e-mails, bulletins, forums, video/audio chat and instant messaging. It also has ‘365gay News’, which provides a space for LGBT people to stay abreast of current news and happenings in the world.


The keys to success

» Understand the segment:

In Johnson’s estimate, there are 70 million gay people in India – many of them urban professionals with great purchasing power. “This is a huge segment and marketers are taking note of it. Mumbai, for instance, has three to four gay-related events every week. While they may not openly advertise them as so, community members spread the word and join the party,” he said.


» Make business sustainable:

In India, there are several challenges before pink businesses. The community is not very visible and, while there are many who are openly gay, there are millions still unwilling to come out in the open. For businesses, it is therefore best to cast the net wide than have explicit marketing campaigns. It isn’t wise to start an exclusive store as many still don’t like to be branded as gay and would shy away from visiting them.


» Social media engagement and mobile marketing:

Telecom and internet are two of the biggest opportunities in the LGBT space. Johnson explained that the gay people are eager to reach out and connect to others like them. “We spend a lot of time on the internet, on long-distance phone calls and BlackBerry Messenger groups. Domestic travel is another strong market. We love to travel and meet other members of the community,” he said. Since many gay couples have no children to support, their disposable income is high – something the automobile industry also recognises. Furnishings and home décor are important segments too.


» Be sensitive and inclusive:

Being flashy does not always grab eyeballs. It is the approach and attitude of marketers that can make or break a business when it comes to a niche market. “Gay-friendly businesses don’t need to spell that out. It is in the attitude. For instance, at hotels and restaurants, it is important that the staff are trained and sensitised. They need to treat customers with respect. Owners and managers realise that, at the end of the day, it is a business transaction and that they need to give customers the best possible service,” said Johnson. Jaideep Shergill, CEO, MSL India added: “The only tip I would give marketers is to treat them like other consumers. The more differently they are treated, the more the stigma is likely to remain.”


Success stories

While undoubtedly nascent, India’s pink economy has already tasted success. There is no market study, but entrepreneurs and observers have said that sectors such as tourism and apparel are catching on.


A journey of a thousand miles…

The pink rupee is finding its way into the bank accounts of travel companies catering to a gay clientele. Firms like Indjapink, Le Passage to India and Bangkok-based Purple Dragon are leading the race. The tours cover everything, from honeymoon packages and candle-lit dinners to wildlife safaris and spiritual retreats. Some tour companies have even conducted weddings with traditional rites for gay couples.


The packages are mid-range to luxury and most of the clientele comes from the US and Australia. Though most agencies cater to only men, there are indications that lesbians in North America are interested in the country too.


“India is high on the wishlist of many customers. The big attractions are history, culture, cuisine, shopping… We are happy about the Delhi High Court ruling and this might put some of our prospective India customers at ease,” Douglas Thompson, MD, Purple Dragon, told ‘The Indian Express’. Purple Dragon sends 200 to 250 customers to India every year.


Delhi-based Indjapink specialises in gay tourism. “We create tours for the gay community, offering them outstanding personalised service and make them experience India in a discrimination-free atmosphere,” founder Sanjay Malhotra said. He felt that the reading down of Section 377 had liberated the community from discrimination and abuse.


Malhotra told Reuters that his firm started off with 20 gay customers, but now has more than 100. “They feel they can breathe easy, live the life they want to. After the court order, we started getting more inquiries from gay men, both in India and abroad,” he added.


Arjun Sharma, who founded Le Passage to India in Delhi, said: “It’s a $3 billion industry worldwide. Gay tourists are wealthy and have expensive hobbies like arts and fashion.”


The Indian gay travel industry got a boost when the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association listed the country as a destination site for gay travellers, with 11 gay-friendly or exclusively gay travel agents as partner businesses. “The gay community had so many apprehensions travelling to India,” Malhotra told Reuters. “Now, they look at the option of travelling to India without acting heterosexual.”


India seems to be following the lead of Nepal, which became the first South Asian country to decriminalise homosexuality and legalise same-sex marriages three years ago and has since been actively courting the gay tourism market. American Thomas Roth, who runs an LGBT community market research firm in San Francisco, is among those hooked to India.


Thirty years ago, when he first visited the country, he would evade questions about his wife and children. “Like most gays in India at the time, I was basically invisible,” he told Reuters. Today, he said, “With Gay Pride events, film festivals and parties, gay visitors can have it all.” A survey conducted by Roth’s firm last year ranked India as the second most desired cultural or adventure destination, just behind Thailand.


When clothes set you free

‘The most powerful politics is the politics of economics,’ read the sign on the door of Azaad Bazaar, a clothes store that catered to the gay community in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra. Set up in 2009 in a garage, AzBaz – as it was popularly known – was the brainchild of Simran and Sabina (they both go by their first names only), strong voices in Mumbai’s gay rights movement. Their commitment to the cause was reflected in the way the store was designed – it doubled up as a coffee shop, where gay people hung out, sipped tea and chatted. It was as much a community house as a retail store.


“A lot of people came in with their parents, and they usually come up to us with an awkward ‘hello’ but often end up in conversations ranging from the polite (‘So, how is the store doing?’) to the personal, about how they felt when their child came out to them,” Sabina told the ‘DNA’ newspaper. The store – which has now moved to Goa – also hosted book readings, film screenings and community meetings. “When we were younger, the community was not so accessible,” Sabina added.


Sabina and Simran started AzBaz by retailing their own ‘Jailbird’ brand of T-shirts, which they marketed largely by word of mouth. It was a humble beginning, so imagine their surprise when several local shoppers started to walk in. “Once we explained the concept of the store to them, we got a variety of reactions that ranged from the evolved (‘You mean there is only one store like this in India?’) to the very excited (‘Oh, I have to tell my gay best friend about this!’),” Sabina told ‘DNA’. “This is not just about retail – it’s about understanding the concept of the store.”


“The gay community is a targeted consumer and it’s growing now,” Simran told ‘The Indian Express’ newspaper.


Excerpted with permission from ‘Out Of The Closet And Into The Marketplace – The birth of India’s ‘Pink Economy’ an MSLGroup India publication. If you wish to have a PDF copy of the report, write to with subject ‘Pink Economy Report’


Image: LGBT community at the Bengaluru Pride and Karnataka Queer Habba 2011. Image by Fotocorp


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