The mythical power of the pink dollar has ironically always been as hard to quantify as it is to escape the nowadays almost ubiquitous attempts by the commercial world in Hong Kong to take advantage of it. Sky-high black bodies wearing Calvin Klein underwear gaze down from Central’s high-rise buildings or from the massive billboards that help while away the time for those stuck in the Cross Harbour Tunnel jam. The approach is now so common that when metrosexuality in magazine and TV ads slides over into homoeroticism scarcely anyone notices.
Yet until now, the minority of retailers who have aimed at the pink dollar have maintained a wall of silence about what is clearly one of the major features of their campaigns. So much so, that when Erman Akinoi, a young American documentary film maker with GS Productions, came up from KL at the end of 2008 to make a film about the commercial search for the pink dollar in Asia, he was stonewalled and eventually had to give up the project. The shyness, presumably, is for fear of what a firm’s other customers will think if brought face to face with marketing reality. The lack of openness, though, has till now prevented advertising agencies from being able openly to focus their clients’ campaigns on the lucrative segment of the market. It makes, in short, no commercial sense.
Kara Yang is the Executive Planning Director for Southern China for the worldwide advertising giant Leo Burnett (creator, amongst many other things, of that archetypal homoerotic symbol, the Marlboro Man). Their Hong Kong client list is like a Who’s Who of the business world. Kara has long seen the opportunity here staring her in the face and last year she decided to do something about it. The result was an online survey conducted between 22 October and 1 November 2010, which revealed the first ever statistics about the commercial power of the gay community. I went to see her at Leo Burnett’s Cityplaza offices, accompanied by Jasmine So of the PR firm PR People Consultancy that handled the publication of the results for Leo Burnett.
I asked Kara why she had been interested in the subject at all. “I’ve got loads of gay friends”, she replied (I discovered when I met her that Kara is a highly glamorous, classically attractive and very smart Hong Kong Chinese woman who is a power in her business, so I was not surprised by this at all!).
“I know how they spend their money and in my job I know that no marketer is openly targetting them. Leo Burnett brands itself as a ‘HumanKind Agency’, a company that looks at people from every perspective, including the emotional, and yet this was one area that we hadn’t got covered. The gay community was a segment of the market that no one was looking at. I wanted to put it in the spotlight.”
The closeted nature of the business world meant that there was never going to be any upfront money for this, so Kara went out to the LGBT community’s own resources to do it for free. Aside from getting word of mouth out through her own large list of contacts, Kara partnered with the Chinese-speaking part of the gay community through the online LGBT radio station, Gayradio.hk, and with the English-speaking side through Fruits in Suits. With these two organisations getting the word around, Kara got 396 respondents in the short time the survey was online. The results this gave her were backed up by eight in-depth interviews with eight volunteers.
So, maybe not a huge total of respondents, and critics of the survey might point to the fact that much of the gay community that is not in touch with Gayradio.hk or Fruits in Suits was not reached. Hong Kong’s fragmented gay ‘community’ is such only in theory, though, and there is no way anyone has yet devised of reaching out to more than a small part of it; would that there were. Yet the numbers were enough, from Kara’s professional perspective, to give her meaningful results that she could use to persuade clients to take an active interest in the gay segment of the market.
The demographics of her survey respondents show that they were not at all only the privileged few. 35% of them earned HK$15,000 (US$1,925) per month or less and 55% of them earned less than HK$28,000 (US$3,600). The professions from which they were drawn included all walks of life, not just the usual suspects: finance of course (this is Hong Kong after all!), the civil service, medical, transport and communications, the law, manufacturing, education, community service, wholesale, retail, tourism and others. The majority of the respondents were Hong Kong residents, not expats, and the survey was completed in both Chinese and English languages.
The survey looked at three areas: how gay men spend their money; how they feel about being gay in Hong Kong society; and how brands can best communicate with them. What it revealed was in part expected, in part new.
Unsurprisingly, the survey found that gay men have greater-than-average disposable incomes – as one of the interviewees commented to Kara: “My married friends have to care for their kids, I only have to worry about myself” – and the figures indicated that it was only in certain areas that this extra income showed up.
In some segments of spending on ‘dispensary goods’, gay men do indeed spend more: 20% of respondents’ dispensary spending was on ‘dining out’, against the figure of 12.8% the marketing industry currently accepts for Hong Kong’s consumers as a whole. Similarly, gay men spend 12% of their dispensary income shopping, against 9% for the community as a whole. Leo Burnett’s take on this: “Their high spending power is evident, but they are still ignored as valuable customers.”
“Proud, comfortable, or very free” living as a gay man in Hong Kong: 46% of respondents
The second part of the survey looked at gay men’s attitudes, and here the results may surprise; they have attracted criticism from some in the community. Kara characterised the results as showing that gay men were: “private towards their orientation; positive in their outlook to life”
Of her respondents, she found 46% prepared to say they felt “proud, comfortable, or very free” living as a gay man in Hong Kong. This is a result that perhaps stems from the reach of the survey, which was, by nature of its means, more to men who are social and out, rather than isolated and closeted. Some 28% of respondents claimed to be “publicly open about their orientation”, a level much higher, from experience, than for the whole gay population. But in the survey, the darker side does show through. 10% of respondents felt embarrassed by their lives, 9% felt them a burden, and 64% had suffered some form of discrimination.
62% of gay men “not open about their sexual orientation in the workplace”
As a place to be gay, though, Hong Kong scored well; a full 71% of respondents were happy or satisfied with living here. Yet 62% were “not open about their sexual orientation in the workplace” (again, a figure lower than one would expect for the whole gay population) and the message came across strongly in the survey that “professional and personal life should be kept separate.” There is still a huge fear of loss of work or of disadvantage to careers from being open in Hong Kong’s commercial world. There is a similar fear, of course, of being out to the family.
Interestingly, Kara found that this was often because gay men feel responsible for their family members and don’t wish to make their lives difficult. Family members, many reported, were ignorant rather than prejudiced.
How gay men relate to brands and campaigns targeted at a gay demographic Kara deliberately concentrated the third part of the survey on what gay men think about how they relate to brands, the whole point of the survey being, of course, to attract brands to respond to them as customers. 73% of respondents believed it important that a brand understood the gay community and did not discriminate against it and 84% said they’d try a product or service if it deliberately targeted the gay community. Financial services, leisure travel and real estate were the three areas where respondents most felt that this was not the case at the moment. Products are almost universally marketed at the heterosexual family group; insurance, for instance, sells products constructed to meet the lifetime needs of families with children. Real estate agents often show a lack of understanding of gay relationships.
Hotels still show surprise at the occupation of a double bed by two men.
One finding showed that the community possesses considerable power already, though it doesn’t know it. The power of word of mouth due to the growth of social media is well-recognised in the marketing world, and social media is one area that the gay community has long made its own. The survey found that 95% would tell their friends and boycott a brand if they had a negative experience of it. The power that this gives an online community was shown recently by a debacle that involved AOL. Failure to deal properly with an individual who was attempting to cancel a service led to a viral video on YouTube that got 350,000 views and was picked by the NBC Today show. It resulted in the loss of 800,000 customers and a fine of US$1.25 million by US authorities. AOL eventually withdrew the service from the market.
From the survey results, Kara drew six key ‘takeaways’ to sell to her clients:
1. Recognise gay men as a segment of your client base.
2. Highlight the abilities of gay men and the positive sides to gay culture in your marketing.
3. Don’t overdo the gay element, though; not all gay men wear tutus!
4. Your brand image must appeal to gay men by celebrating diversity.
5. You need to offer a personal service that accepts individual diversity.
6. Use and beware of the power of word of mouth; engage personally online.
Kara has plans to spread the net wider in future. This survey was designed to look only at the spending power wielded by men. Women are the obvious next stop. So, very much a first step, perhaps, but nevertheless a unique one that the LGBT community can make use of, and which we will see come to life, almost certainly, on the advertising hoardings and TV screens across Hong Kong.