Monday, December 31, 2012

The pink rupee

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece on the potential of the "LGBT market" for an insight report on the "pink economy" that was published by MSL Group India and produced by their head of content (and my friend and former colleague from my days at Mid-Day), +Ashraf Engineer. The report was recently launched.

The full report can be read here but below is a draft of the piece I wrote. Would appreciate your comments:

It is not our case that LGBT people will buy a product or service solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI). However, there are some potential benefits from promoting your brand as a queer-friendly one. It is important to consider these while also setting realistic expectations from this emerging niche market.

It is safe to assume that LGBT people are no different from society at large in terms of their dispersion on metrics such as age, education, economic background, income, religion and so on. What sets them apart is not just SOGI, but also their spending (and saving) behaviour. That, and to some extent, their ‘look West’ policy for attitudes (towards society and the individual’s place in it; relationships; human rights, etc.) and popular culture (for example, TV shows). (Instead of labelling it ‘Westernisation’, it may be more apt to term it the evolution of a global identity, a process which is clearly not limited to the LGBT community. However, that is a different debate.) An crude comparison for our purposes may be the perceived Western outlook of the Parsi community.              

Money, money, money: One of the chief reasons to be upbeat is, of course, money. It is not that this ‘community’ comprises individuals with higher-than-average incomes, but more disposable income. And they are good spenders. Especially on clothes, gadgets, travel, grooming, alcohol, entertainment and so on (in random order).  

Growing numbers: No, homosexuality is not infectious. What is spreading though is confidence. More people than ever are ‘out’ and choosing to lead a gay lifestyle -- they prefer to remain single rather than cave into societal pressures to get married; stay independent of their parents and siblings, or possibly migrate to a metro; and be more bold in their career and other economic choices. This confidence comes from a mix of factors such as decriminalisation of homosexuality, globalisation, the spread of the Internet and social media and a younger demographic profile of the community. This sense of confidence and the spread of social media is starting to coalesce LGBT people into a group that often thinks and acts alike. Note the popularity of Blackberry phones (because of BBM), at least among the more avid networking and sexually active set. This sense of confidence and community can only increase with legal and social reform that we feel is inevitable.

Leaders, not followers: Not every LGBT person is a style diva. However, the LGBT community creates trends rather than following them. Quite a few LGBT people are early adopters, be it technology, fashion or music. More importantly, they are excellent at networking and influencing. This should make them a good audience to test new products and services for one.  

Brand loyalty: Perceptions highly matter in the LGBT community. If your brand is seen as ‘LGBT friendly’ (e.g., supportive of equal opportunity at the workplace, Gay Pride), then you are on the gaydar. How much love you receive depends on the friendliness ranking. But if you are perceived negatively, be ready to face some music. The community can lobby, and how. Examples of this abound in the developed world but closer home TV9 had to face heat for a particularly homophobic story by its Hyderabad bureau and even had to cough up a fine of one lakh rupees to the National Broadcasters’ Association besides running an apology for three days. Another example, the makers of ‘Dostana’, a film that was praised, but mostly panned, for its gay quotient, have already started clarifying via the media that the sequel will be more positive. And they are busy trying to push the stars of their new releases as ‘gay icons’, a term much abused in Indian journalism, incidentally. The stronger sense of allegiance probably comes from the stigma and marginalisation faced by the LGBT community. So generally speaking, if you are starting a queer-run business, then you should receive at least an initial wave of support to help you take off.

Having said all this, look before you leap. Profit is a legitimate pursuit if the means and the intent are legit too. It is better to to have no pretenses of being LGBT friendly, nor venture into this market half-heatedly, if one does not have the appetite to defend one's conviction. There is yet value judgement around issues of SOGI, there will always be. It is difficult to imagine a time when there will an Utopian embracing of human diversity by hundred per cent of the world's population. Even countries which have made progress in bringing laws that demand equal treatment for every citizen see cases of homophobia, often violent. Human beings judge each other, and brands, according to their personal understanding of what is moral. Some of that good and bad halo will be attached to your brand as well. Gutsy brands wouldn't care though not just because boldness expands the market (and money has no colour) but because they believe they are doing the right thing.

The question of the size of the LGBT market is the most contentious one. How many LGBT people are there, even the Supreme Court, which is hearing appeals against decriminalizing of homosexuality, wondered recently (as if that should be a deciding factor, with all due respect to the honorable judges). The hair-splitting over statistics is tied deeply to the question of identity. Sexual behavior and identity is not set in stone though; sexual orientation at least is a continuum. Some days you might be towards one end of the scale and on other days towards the opposite end (the two ends being exclusive attraction to the same sex and exclusive attraction to the opposite sex, with a range of bisexuality in between). If there are no neat boxes to put people in, how do you count them? Then, some people dislike the various terms that are current, some dislike being labelled per se, and many, many more are scared to identify with any label because of the stigma and discrimination. Any surprise then that there is no reliable estimate of the LGBT population? What has emerged so far, though, is that the percentage of exclusively gay men and women who are sexually active could be 2-10%. However, the percentage of sexually active bisexuals is believed to be much higher at 35-45%. Also, while estimating the market size, one needs to include the wider set that is not sexually active. How much these numbers translate into money terms is anyone's guess but OutNow Consulting, which is not based in India, recently estimated it at US$200 billion annually, based on 6% of the country's GDP, assuming that percentage of the population are LGBT adults.

This percentage probably represents the potential, an opportunity that can be exploited in the best conditions, not the current conditions. If there was already as huge a market as OutNow estimates, then queer-run businesses that are targeting this market mainly should have been able to ride out the poor conditions of rising rentals and inflation, and high interest rates that afflict the economy in general. A US$200 billion market will be up for grabs but with greater legal reform and change in society's attitudes, further penetration of the Internet, and, of course, the first movers in the market.