Over the Rainbow

“If you see a business with the rainbow sticker on their door, you should ask them if they have a policy on harassment and same-sex benefits and if they have queer employees,” challenges Thomas Dolan.


“If you see a business with the rainbow sticker on their door, you should ask them if they have a policy on harassment and same-sex benefits and if they have queer employees,” challenges Thomas Dolan.

It’s a sunny day in the heart of Vancouver’s gay village on Davie Street. Everyone is out in their shorts, shades and running shoes. Men stroll hand in hand with their partners. One strays from the flock to check the prices in a tanning salon. A woman, bronzed from head to toe, locks up her bike and makes a beeline for a vegetarian café. Patrons leaf through gay publications as they wait for their orders to be filled. A gust of wind creates a mini-cyclone of newspaper and napkins; the bronze lady weighs down the errant papers with the edge of her plate before returning to her crossword. Thomas Dolan is drinking a carrot, apple and ginger juice at a sidewalk table that almost succumbs to the breeze. Rainbow-coloured pride banners flutter above. Attached to the banners are advertisements for a bank. “I think the use of the rainbow flag is BS,” says Dolan, whose company, TKD Management Consulting, advises companies on marketing to the gay community. With his spiky hair, chiselled good looks and tanned physique, Dolan embodies the youthful energy and enthusiasm of a high-school gym teacher. “We’ve allowed it to become so commodified,” he goes on. “Businesses use it to attract you and me without any depth behind it. The pride flag was originally designed in the late ’70s as a celebration of our diversity.”

Related story: Editor’s Podcast Series – Click the link to hear a discussion between the editor and writer on what it took to pull this story together.

He points out several nearby businesses that have the obligatory pride flag on their door, presumably to signify they are gay friendly. “If you see a business with that sticker on their door, you should ask them if they have a policy on harassment and same-sex benefits and if they have queer employees,” he challenges. Dolan is paid to bring insight into the needs of this unique community to corporate board tables. “I do audits of organizations where I examine their HR policy and the language on all forms so they are inclusive and don’t just make references to husbands and wives, for example.” Tapping the increasingly lucrative gay and lesbian market with any success is not just about slapping a rainbow sticker on the door and putting a float in the annual gay parade, he warns. Companies have to go deeper, especially in Vancouver, home to one of the world’s most vibrant and savvy same-sex communities. Businesses are increasingly tailoring their marketing campaigns to the queer community, with varying degrees of success. Some focus their same-sex marketing strategy on one event, such as the annual pride march, but others, notably Vancity Capital Corp., have launched comprehensive marketing strategies aimed directly at the same-sex market all year round. In 2002 the high-profile credit union officially “came out” in support of the gay and lesbian community through a campaign of advertisements in daily newspapers. It went on to make its internal policies more gay friendly, hosted special events and created an employee advisory council. Although Vancity had such policies as early as 1988, this latest, more ambitious phase of development began with a telephone conversation between Thomas Dolan and Dave Mowatt, then CEO of Vancity. “He was trying to find out how to raise money for the Dr. Peter Centre, and he knew I had a bunch of experience with fundraising,” Dolan recalls. “After speaking with [Mowatt] for 17 minutes, he asked, ‘Do you think we could increase our market share in the gay and lesbian community?’ I said yes, and then he went quiet. My mother taught me that if you don’t ask you don’t get, so I asked him, ‘Do you need any help?’ and he said yes.” Dolan reports that Vancity was the first business to tell him, “I don’t get it, but everything you’ve told us has turned to gold.” Dolan’s advice to companies? Follow a two-pronged approach that involves employing queer marketing strategies as well as supporting the queer community. The steps may include partnerships with queer organizations, advertising in queer publications, developing a queer brand into the business, establishing a queer advisory council and implementing a queer customer service training program. Dolan cites American Airlines Inc. as a good example of queer branding within a large corporation. “American Airlines was brilliant in creating a brand that resonated with the U.S. LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer] community by simply being present at all pride celebrations; they showed up where the communities gathered,” he says. “They established trust and supported something near and dear to the communities’ hearts. And when the religious right came after them, they simply answered that they were in the business of supporting all communities that celebrated who they were.” One of the most crucial aspects of marketing to the queer community, stresses Dolan, is ensuring the strategy is run by queer people. “Many organizations have their strategies run by straight people,” he says. “If you aren’t willing to hire a queer person then you are not serious. It’d be like having a South Asian strategy run by a white guy.” Before marketing to the queer commu­nity, Dolan recommends, an organization should spend 18 months getting to know the community. “Build trust with the LGBTQ community first; sell second,” he says. Another way of putting it: companies must mirror the “coming out” process of gay people. “I used to be a closeted gay man. I found a lot of courage to live the life I live today,” says Dolan. “I think Vancity aims to have the whole community think they, too, are courageous.” He stresses that the needs of the queer community are not so different from those of the mainstream. “Like most consumers, we want the best prices, the best locations and good customer service,” he says. And visibility is high on the list of priorities for the queer community. Queers, he says, want to see themselves in the media and promotional material. Some companies, for example, insert stock photos in their advertisements to the queer community to save money. He says this is a bad move. “Whether it be through intuition, gaydar or whatever, queer people can sense who is gay and they don’t buy stock photos,” he says. “Including real gay people in advertisements and media adds a tremendous amount of legitimacy that goes a long way within the community. We want to see ourselves.” (Dolan reports that Vancity listened to this advice.) Dolan explains that queer people are discerning consumers who can see through a weak campaign. Dolan makes sure that the businesses he works with are aware that some people within the queer community are rather tenacious. “If a business slaps on the queer label, someone within the community, such as queer activist and lawyer Barbara Findlay, could discover there is absolutely no depth to their claim of being queer friendly. They could then go to the press with this information and it would affect the business’s legitimacy within the community.” Vancity’s campaign did not go unnoticed in the queer community. When Findlay found out about it, she switched her accounts over, even though Vancity was far from her office. “One of the things that is true about the gay and lesbian market is they are extremely loyal to queer-positive businesses either owned by lesbian and gay people or that bill themselves and treat gay and lesbian people in a positive way,” she says. Vancity’s move paid off, but it was risky. “There was a great furor over it,” says Findlay, “including the local Catholic bishop who moved the Catholic bank accounts from Vancity. Nevertheless Vancity has continued to show leadership in that way.” Other financial institutions have since followed suit. Dominic Mercuri, senior VP and chief marketing officer of TD Canada Trust, explains their strategy: “A couple of years ago, we looked and thought that we hadn’t been doing anything specific and proactive to target the gay and lesbian community.” Since then TD has been sponsoring such events as the pride parade in Toronto and the Davie event in Vancouver. Others gain an ongoing presence in these communities by advertising in publications such as Xtra and Fab and buying radio spots on the Proud FM network in Toronto. TD is a major sponsor of the Gay and Lesbian Business Association of British Columbia (GLBA), which aims to provide support and networking opportunities to businesses and community organizations committed to diversity. GLBA co-chair Lisa Voldeng says some large corporations, such as TD, have been enthusiastic, supportive members of their organization. More than 30 TD employees volunteered at the GLBA’s Red Dress Ball, a fundraiser for its foundation that supports scholarships for disenfranchised youth. “That’s amazing when you take into consideration the lack of volunteers we’ve seen within our own community,” says Voldeng. “The fact that we had over 30 people excited to give their own time at an event like that is quite stunning.”

“Many organizations have their strategies run by straight people. If you aren’t willing to hire a queer person then you are not serious. It’d be like having a South Asian strategy run by a white guy” — Thomas Dolan

Advertising campaigns coupled with images in popular culture and wider social trends have increased the visibility of gay people in Canadian society. “The arc of acceptance of gay and lesbian people has been extremely short,” says Findlay. Gay and lesbian people were not recognized as having rights under the Charter by the Supreme Court of Canada until 1993, and by 2003 all discriminatory legislation including marriage in the majority of provinces had been overturned. Findlay says public acceptance did not lag too far behind the laws. “We went from being pariahs living outside the laws to being kind of cool.” For the last four years, David Shortt has run Fix8 Creative Media Inc., a local Web and graphic design company. He’s a gay man with extensive business and personal connections within the queer community, although he does not specifically target it. With a bright Ikea-clad office, sleek iBook and rowing-club membership, Shortt epitomizes the young Vancouver professional. He’s worked with nearly every queer organization and business in Vancouver as well as businesses in the mainstream. His work with queer organizations has unquestionably landed him clients. “Quite a few of our clients are queer,” he says. “It’s a huge variety of businesses – everything from photography for gay marriage to someone who owns a carbon-offset company that has nothing to do with being queer – that are not necessarily queer businesses but know that we are queer friendly so they come to us.” For the last four years, Shortt has produced promotional materials for Out on Screen, Vancouver’s queer film festival. Initially his promotions were primarily geared toward a queer audience, but he’s changed his approach in recent years. “In the past, I don’t think you could get people from the straight community to come to the queer film festival, but now I think it’s a lot more realistic,” he says. “One of the changes in marketing is that it has to be more universal and has to reach a straight audience. In the four years the shift I’ve seen is that they want advertising that’s a bit more universal; it doesn’t just target the queer community, but also the straight community. Which, in a way, is the queerness of straight people.” Mainstream ads targeting the gay community signal greater acceptance and inclusion for some, says Barbara Findlay. She recently saw a commercial for Wal-Mart in which a couple of gay boys were camping it out in the aisles. “A more conservative organization than Wal-Mart you’d be hard-pressed to find,” she says. “I think that those advertising strategies are two-pronged. They are aimed at the queer community on the one hand; they are also aimed at the straight communities. Because there is so much advertising now, anything that will make your ad stand out, be different or be noticed by people among all the other ads is a good thing.” When Findlay first came out as a lesbian, she believed she and the woman she was in love with were the only two people on earth who were gay. “From my perspective as someone who came from that period, it’s actually kind of comforting to see gay people in Wal-Mart because it means that the first of all the gay kids in Fort St. John, Nanaimo or wherever see themselves on TV as a kind of an ordinary thing.” Related story: Editor’s Podcast Series — Click the link to hear a discussion between the editor and writer on what it took to pull this story together.