Dr. York Chow, the newly appointed chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission, has promised to make legislation that protects gay rights a top priority during his three-year term.
According to feedback from ad industry heads, Hong Kong is a long way behind other developed markets such as the US and Europe in terms of community support for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people.
The Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) called Hong Kong 'Asia’s World City’, but are agencies and brands doing anything to embrace and protect LGBT rights? Does the industry tend to neglect pink dollar consumers as it does silver dollar consumers? On the other hand, is overt marketing toward the LGBT community appropriate, or in itself a stereotypical practice?
Those who did reply said they believe the city lags behind the rest of the developed world in recognising gay rights, but differed on whether brands should target LGBT consumers.
"I don't see 'pink' consumers as being different," said Allan Zeman, chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Holdings and Ocean Park. "To me everyone is equal, we are all born the same way. However, they are great consumers, have great taste levels and are very creative."
Brands and agencies broadly agree that welcoming LGBT staff is a no-brainer. Peter Mack, executive director of marketing for Landor Associates in Greater China, said that, as a San Francisco-headquartered company, his company has been supportive of gay rights, expression and participation for decades. “Our offices, regardless of geographic location, have always been supportive and protective of our employees' rights to their own personal expression of self," he said.
A spokesperson for Microsoft Asia likewise pointed to the software company's history of supporting workplace diversity. It was one of the first companies in the world to offer employee benefits to same-sex domestic partners and to include sexual orientation in its corporate non-discrimination policy. In 1993, an employee resource group—Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Employees at Microsoft (GLEAM)—was organised, and now has more than 700 members.
Sue McCusker, CEO of Publicis Hong Kong and former chairwoman of the Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies of Hong Kong (HK4As), said that while community support for LGBT rights may be lacking, “it will change, but it will take time”.
McCusker said she is not aware of any brands that are marketing overtly to gay consumers, except perhaps some tongue-in-cheek examples from G.O.D. (left).
Meanwhile, one former agency head rejected the whole concept of marketing based on sexual orientation. Royce Yuen, whose past roles include chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong and who is now managing director of Lifestyle Federation and teaching in the MBA programme at Hong Kong University and Fudan University in Shanghai, commented that “there is no such thing as neglecting or not neglecting the pink-dollar consumers".
Yuen reckoned that all campaigns should act responsibly by targeting the right customers or prospects and communicating the most relevant message to them, which will lead to expected consumer behaviour that is in line with the business objective of the agency's client. “I don't think the pink-dollar consumers will think or say that the ads they see on TV or in newspapers are not talking to them,” Yuen said.
Jan Cho, business director of TBWA Hong Kong, said some advertising in Hong Kong does target the segment, but not in a bold and explicit way.
"Some products are marketed in a way that could be targeting both female customers and gay men," Cho said. "Those adverts for men's fitness and weight loss schemes are good examples. Of course, if you go a bit more underground, there are bars, restaurants, clubs and saunas that are explicitly for gays, but they are usually only promoted through BTL or digital in gay-specific portals."
Christine Pong, founder and partner at Hong Kong independent agency Twohundred and former creative chief of DDB Hong Kong, said she would be delighted to get a brief targeting pink-dollar consumers. "After all these years of ambiguous and greedy target profiles, which basically aim to cover everyone, it would be very refreshing to truly 'target' a single target,” she said.
Pong believes the local gay population is very cosy, friendly and protective of each other. It is also very loyal, so a brand that addressed those consumers in a dignified, intelligent and truly respectful fashion could win lasting support, she said.
Mack said he is a great believer in niche marketing—that the best and most successful marketing and branding have a clear demographic or psychographic focus. He added, however, that the LBGT community, like any large group, is in itself diverse, and it would be foolish to assume that all members of that group think, buy, consume and experience the world in a single way. "There will be some products and services where it might make sense to craft 'pink' marketing, and other products and services where some other commonality will make more sense," he said.
He pointed out that in some ways, jumping with both feet into 'pink' marketing is as much an error of judgement as dismissing or denying gay rights in the first place. The right to one's sexual preference is extremely important, but it does not create a homogenous marketing target.
In fact, one sign that equality of sexual preference had truly been established would be the relative absence of gay-targeted marketing, with marketers treating gays as they would any other way to segment a population, as complex and multi-faceted personalities, Mack added.
What's the attraction?
McCusker noted that this segment was always going to be attractive to any marketer, as people in the segment tend to have higher disposable incomes. "I think the question in Hong Kong would be: is it attractive enough, versus a mainstream strategy that reaches 'bachelorettes' and DINKs ['double income no kids' consumers]?"
Hong Kong already has several segments with high disposable income, and it will probably come down to whether a marketer defines if it is right image-wise for their brand to support LGBT, versus having a social conscience, she said.
Cho added that at the risk of stereotyping, it is generally true that gay people are more lifestyle-conscious and more willing to spend on products and services that help them build the lifestyle and look they want. Skincare, fashion, fitness and spa tanning, are the biggest categories that gay people spend on, he said, and there are many more that will open up once gay marriage has become legal.
He pointed to New York City as a good example: since gay marriage was legalised there, related businesses have been booming—including gay-oriented banquet services, wedding venues, event photography/videography, insurance and legal services. "Those are multi-billion-dollar businesses suppressed under the heterosexual-centric society for decades and now unleashed in one shot as though the lava burst out from a sleeping volcano," he said.
Pong believes addressing gay consumers might provide a chance to create and produce beautiful ads that are loaded with emotions, feelings or a good sense of humour. "I suppose it's easier to convince clients that the gay population appreciates beauty and subtlety, and are more sensitive and smarter than the average mass public," she said.
Cho said agencies and brands can always benefit from a bigger variety of staff who provide insight into specific segments of the market. "As for standing up to support the gay community, I'd see it as a CSR initiative," Cho added. "Its success is rather difficult to be measured in terms of direct revenue opportunity, but for sure it will help build the likability of the brand among the specific target groups."
"As a cosmopolitan, pluralistic and open society, Hong Kong welcomes all visitors, without distinction of any kind, such as gender, sexual orientation, nationality, race and religion," A HKTB spokesperson said.
The HKTB has long been promoting major third-party events with tourism appeal, and has also promoted LGBT events, such as 'Pink Season' that took place last October on its website, the spokesperson said.
When asked what concrete measures he would take in fulfilling his promises, Chow (right) replied via email that: “The EOC will gauge views from stakeholders on the subject of LGBT before deciding on the plan of action.”
Zeman added that he would really respect Chow if he could properly equalise all rights, so that there is no stigma against gay people. "Hong Kong needs to to grow up and act like it really is Asia's world city," Zeman said.