Mardi Gras provides a wealth of prospects

The gay festival Mardi Gras provides an ideal opportunity to target affluent consumers. Companies should be queueing up to support it, says Julia Day

The London Mardi Gras, an open-air party, parade and two-week arts festival in July 2000, sounds like a sponsor’s dream.

Eighty thousand people will attend the party, which Radio 1 and BBC2 will broadcast live. Six months of above- and below-the-line advertising will promote the event and global media coverage is guaranteed.

Mardi Gras will provide a sponsorship opportunity for brand owners to target an affluent and brand loyal sector of consumers – worth £8m a year in the UK – according to the festival organisers London Mardi Gras (LMG).

But brand owners and media agencies may not be ready to embrace gays and lesbians as a separate consumer market – let alone conspicuously support a gay event.

Some gay groups in the UK media industry believe Mardi Gras could create the same kind of national “buzz” as big sporting events, such as the Rugby World Cup.

Others say the commercialisation of the event obscures the political issues that Gay Pride traditionally highlighted. Sloganeering at the Mardi Gras will be confined to the non-sponsored parade.

Such worries have led information service and helpline London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard to reconsider its involvement in the Mardi Gras and activist group OutRage! is believed to share similar concerns.

LMG wants to make the event a viable brand, a flagship occasion for companies to target gays and lesbians directly. Festival director Jason Pollock says: “The gay market is lucrative and trendy. Brand owners realise this is a market they need to capture and Mardi Gras offers a high profile opportunity for consistent support.”

Pollock and his sponsorship team have designed above- and below-the-line advertising and promotional packages for five primary sponsors paying £75,000 each, ten main sponsors paying £15,000 and specific site sponsors.

An airline and cosmetics, clothing, electronic goods, pharmaceutical and food companies will be offered exclusive deals. Breweries will make use of 11 site bars.

LMG was set up by a consortium of gay and lesbian businesses in March 1999. This followed the demise of Gay Pride whose organisers, Pride Events, went into liquidation owing £160,000. Gay Pride was free – Mardi Gras attendees pay ten pounds a ticket.

LMG is committed to realising its ambitions and needs to find £1m to stage the event.

Big brands have pumped money into gay events around the world. Pepsi sponsored Amsterdam’s Mardi Gras and in New York, where brands have sophisticated strategies to target overt gays and lesbians, department store Macey’s lent its support. But brands seem more reticent in the UK.

Becks, distributed by Scottish Courage, came under fire for pulling sponsorship of Channel Four’s drama slot when gay drama Queer As Folk was aired. The company maintains budget constraints forced the move rather than worries about alienating “straight” consumers.

Scottish Courage’s spokesman says: “We don’t treat any community differently. We judge any sponsorship opportunity on cost, benefits and brand fit. Becks is heavily committed to arts sponsorship, but Scottish Courage has many more brands. The gay community is an important part of our business, but equally we do not sexually divide our sponsorship.”

Sponsors of the 1999 Mardi Gras included Holsten Pils, Red Bull and Finlandia.

Craig Haller, assistant brand manager for Holsten Pils – also distributed by Scottish Courage, says the brand’s involvement was: “Very successful. Lots of people sampled the drink and we built a relationship with our customers, a large sector of the market.”

Many companies do not see a need to target gays and lesbians as a sector, and if they do “dip their toe in the water” it is all too often with a token, one-off approach rather than a concerted brand-building exercise, says Kim Watson, marketing director of Millivres Publishing, which counts Gay Times and Diva among its titles.

Watson says relationships are improving: “Some of our advertisers, such as HMV, are not taking the obvious niche product route but are going for generic campaigns, which treat gay and lesbian readers as a bona fide consumer section.”

Watson says UK brands are complacent about reaching minority groups as part of mass media campaigns, such as advertising in The Guardian. She says half of Gay Times readers also read The Sun.

CDP Media client Gallaher has run ads in the gay press, but deputy managing director Peter Thomson says: “We have never said ‘let’s target gays, black people or yachtsmen’. It could be of some value, but is far down the list of priorities. You hope to reach these communities through target media, such as The Times.”

Carat client services director Neil Jones says clients are more willing to be associated with a gay event, although “for some big blue chip companies it is still an issue.”

He adds: “Gays and lesbians have a high disposable income, no children and present many opportunities for advertisers.”

Quantitative research at Mardi Gras 1999 by ID Research revealed 85 per cent of the gay community were more likely to buy from a gay-friendly company.

LMG will be hoping that brands and agencies will revise their conservative policy.

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