HIstory and business

Brand savvy

Richard Burnett
 Richard Burnett

WorldPride 2014 in Toronto shining example of LGBT tourism, brand loyalty and the almighty pink dollar

Loyalty is perhaps the greatest of all commodities because once you’ve earned it, you can pretty much do anything you want, for a while anyway.
Nada Ristich and Louis-Michel Taillefer of BMO Finacial Group attend the WorldPride 2014 Gala and Awards (Photo by Richard Burnett)In the gay world – especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when gay men were dropping like flies at the height of the AIDS holocaust – we were so used to being ignored, pushed aside and treated like second-class citizens, until one bright day when some smart CEO realized LGBT people spend money too, and lots of it.
“Queer people have gained a greater and more widely visible presence within the advertising world, with ad agencies courting the ‘pink dollar,’” states Mediasmarts, Canada’s centre for digital and media literacy. “This is not surprising, considering that the LGBT community is a multi-billion dollar target audience, estimated to be worth around $835 billion.”
That’s also why I still buy Naya bottled water.
As I remember it, back when Montreal’s original Gay Pride festival Divers/Cité got their start in 1993, not one company had the guts to come on board as a corporate sponsor. Nobody wanted to touch the queers with a 10-foot pole. Worse, those were the days when, believe it or not, even LGBT community “leaders” took bets on how few people Divers/Cité would draw.
So it was a pretty big miracle when Naya signed on as Divers/Cité’s first-ever corporate sponsor. To this day I still only buy Naya bottled water, even when I have the choice of a cheaper-priced brand. Because the day Naya signed on with Divers/Cité was the day that brand earned my loyalty for life.
Naya was smart to court the LGBT community early on because we’re a tougher sell today. Now everybody wants our money. But just 20 short years ago we were still in the Jurassic era. For instance, back in 1995, when I was one of the organizers of Divers/Cité, festival co-founder Puelo Deir (with Suzanne Girard, who stills runs Divers/Cité to this day) and I wore our best suits and ties to meet with a Tourisme Montréal employee who shall remain nameless. We were looking for any kind of support to help the fledgling Divers/Cité.
When we gave the bottle-blond Tourisme Montréal rep a bunch of Divers/Cité T-shirts that had cost the non-profit, all-volunteer Divers/Cité some hard-earned cash, he actually held one up before us and said, “What the hell is Divers/Cité?”
I have long said if ever one could make a case for gaybashing, this motherfucker was it.
Tourisme Montréal finally came to their senses and not only jumped on the gay bandwagon, but eventually developed a gay-marketing blueprint since copied by every city from New York to Tel Aviv.
In the end, one can say Gay Montreal was actually built on LGBT brand loyalty: Tourisme Montréal sold the idea of Gay Montreal, which was built on the foundation created by Divers/Cité and Black and Blue, who survived early on because of corporate sponsors like Naya.
Over in Toronto, that city’s tourism authority has been crafting the Queen City’s emergence as Canada’s leading LGBT tourism destination for many years now, especially since 2012 in the build-up to Toronto hosting WorldPride 2014. At a spectacular rooftop champagne BBQ meet-and-greet with some 30 LGBT travel journalists from around the world, Toronto Tourism communications VP Andrew Weir said with considerable understatement, “Previous WorldPrides never quite got there, but future WorldPrides will be built on the solid foundation we established here in Toronto.”
That was most evident at the WorldPride 2014 Gala and Awards where global leaders in the LGBT movement – folks like my buddy Gilbert Baker who created the Rainbow flag in 1978 – were honoured in a special benefit for Pride Toronto and Camp Fyrefly, Canada’s national leadership retreat for queer youths.
K.d. lang and Lea DeLaria performed and guests included Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and stand-up comic Maggie Cassella.. In other words, the joint was power-dyke central, and the cheapest seats in the room were $1,000 per person. I happily sat at a table for 10 paid for by BMO (Bank of Montreal) in what essentially amounted to a generous corporate donation – another fine way to help build a brand.
“I love gay men because they love me!” says Nada Ristich, Director of Corporate Donations for the BMO Financial Group, who made an entrance worthy of Joan Collins. “That’s because I’ve always had gay friend since I was a teenager, and that’s going back a long time!”
Nada continues, “The LGBT community is very important to the bank – that is reflected in our LGBT affinity group and providing a safe work environment. Personally I love to support the gay communityy because I lost so many friends during the early says of the AIDS epidemic, and we were among the first corporations to step forward to support causes established around HVI/AIDS. It was the right thing to do and we needed to do it.”
This summer in Montreal, BMO stepped further still, sponsoring two major gay plays, CatNip the Musical which ran all summer long at Club Apollon (the former Theatre Felix-Leclerc), and Saint Jude du Village, the French adaptation of Puelo Deir’s smash hit play Holy Tranity at Salle Claude-Léveillée at Place des Arts. Saint Jude is about a teenage stripper taken under the wing of transgender queen and strip-club owner Ms. Gracie during Montreal’s glitzy sex-drugs-and-AIDS ravaged 1980s. The fact that BMO did not shy away from the hardcore subject matter says a lot about how serious the bank is about earning LGBT brand loyalty.
Mediasmarts, Canada’s centre for digital and media literacy, sums it up nicely: “The marketing trend of seeking out queer money is seen by many as a double-edged sword: on one hand, it’s an opportunity for gays and lesbians to legitimize themselves through their purchasing power and to bring about equal rights by demonstrating how valuable they can be to mainstream companies; on the other, it opens up issues such as ghettoization, further marginalization of non-middle class queer people, and the overshadowing of civil rights issues by questions of financial strength.”
But as we saw in Montreal in the late 1990s, corporate sponsorship helped build brands, from Naya to Divers/Cité to Montreal as a leading international gay-tourism destination. Just before he left office, the man who established Tourisme Montréal’s gay-marketing blueprint in 1996, Charles LaPointe, told me, “Toronto is behind Montreal for gay tourism, but with WorldPride in 2014 they will definitely pass Montreal.” 
Does Lapointe believe gay tourism can help change the world one destination at a time? 
Lapointe sighs. “Well, I don’t think it will change anything in countries like Russia. But it can in countries that support gay civil rights. Since I first came to Montreal, it has been wonderful to see the city, Quebec and Canada grow up and embrace gay life.”
And for me it all began with a glass of Naya bottled water.
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Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at  bugsburnett.blogspot.com.