Designated Driver: The Extensive Market Research That Ford Used to Target Its Jaguar Brand to Gay Buyers Has Raised the Standard for Companies Wooing the Gay Dollar. (Business)

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When Subaru became the first automaker to market its cars specifically to gay and lesbian consumers in the mid 1990s, it relied mostly on gut instinct and anecdotal evidence that gays would respond with their wallets. "Anecdotally, we found that there were women heads of households that purchased our cars, and in looking further into it we found that in most cases they identified as lesbian," says Tim Bennett, Subaru's director of marketing.

In fact, until recently most companies seeking to capture gay dollars with their products could not figure out how to do extensive research into what was seen as a very specialized and elusive market.

Now, thanks to increased support at higher corporate levels for such marketing and to the anonymity of the Internet, companies are beginning to back up their hunches about the gay dollar with critical research, getting clear data on just what makes gay consumers tick. Such research was at the heart of Ford Motor Co.'s recently launched campaign to market its Jaguar brand to gay drivers. While other cars have advertised in the gay media--including Ford brands Volvo and Land Rover--Jaguar is now the first since Subaru to run an ad campaign specifically designed and created to target to gay consumers.

The project began in the first quarter of 2002, when the formerly stodgy Detroit automaker-now with pro-gay policies and domestic-partner benefits firmly in place--decided to start coming out of the closet. Ford vice president of global marketing Jan Valentic hooked up with Witeck-Combs Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that helps companies develop strategies to reach gay consumers. "Together we developed probably one of, if not the most expensive corporate research project for any industry on GLBT consumers," Valentic says.

Ford officials won't quantify "expensive" and are admittedly cagey on all projects that give the company a competitive advantage, so they're staying tight-lipped about all the numbers related to this project. But Valentic says Ford learned quite a bit from the survey, conducted online by research firm Harris Interactive, which polled 1,000 gay and lesbian consumers and 1,000 nongay consumers to compare car preferences across all seven Ford brands. "In most cases they were the same," says Wesley Combs, president of Witeck-Combs, adding that gay drivers and heterosexual drivers, not surprisingly, have many of the same needs when it comes to cars. "But there are certain features that resonated differently." Like Ford execs, Combs is closemouthed about specifics and declines to elaborate on what those differences might be.

Whatever the details, when Ford shared the results with all its brands, Jaguar jumped at the chance to be first to develop a gay-specific campaign. It was a natural choice, given that Jaguar had already identified the gay market as a good match. In fact, armed with the little research they had at the time--together with the oft-quoted and widely disputed belief that gay consumers constitute $450 billion worth of buying power--Jaguar officials had started to sponsor gay events such as the 2001 GLAAD Media Awards.

But the existing data had been much too limited to help the company design ads that would appeal to this audience. One problem it had in collecting information was that some gay consumers did not want to be identified by their sexual orientation on traditional research questionnaires, says George Ayres, vice president of marketing for Jaguar North America. "So it was a gut feeling, anecdotal, talking to dealers--there seemed to be a market for us," explains Ayres, who says the brand needed the research help from its parent company to get a truly targeted campaign off the ground. "Ford and Witeck-Combs did research that we otherwise probably wouldn't have been able to afford."

Harris Interactive's Internet research--which offered gay consumers an opportunity to answer questions anonymously--not only asked about car preferences but grilled respondents about the kinds of ads they prefer, whether they want ads targeted to gay buyers, and whether those ads should include gay and lesbian people. …