Why beer brands side with gay community, not St. Patrick's parades

Guinness, Heineken, and Boston Beer Co. (maker of Sam Adams) all pulled their sponsorship from St. Patrick's Day parades due to anti-LGBT parade policies. Generational shifts and the group's growing purchasing power are pushing corporations to be more inclusive. 

Michael Dwyer/AP
People watch the annual St. Patrick's Day parade from a roof in the South Boston neighborhood of Boston, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Heineken, Sam Adams, and Guinness withdrew sponsorship of parades in New York and Boston over the weekend.

What’s better than getting your brand in front of the eyes of the millions of people that descend upon the south side of Boston and midtown Manhattan in New York City, two of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country?

Doing right by the LGBT community, according to several beer companies.

Iconic Irish beer brand Guinness made waves after it pulled its sponsorship from New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade on Sunday, because the parade excludes LGBT groups. This move came just days after Boston Beer Co., the parent company of Sam Adams, announced it would pull its sponsorship from the Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade. Heineken pulled its sponsorship for New York parade for the same reason. Experts say generational shifts and the growing purchasing power of the LGBT communities and their allies has become too big a factor to ignore.

“Corporations are much more engaged in LGBT life,” says Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, a marketing group focused on the LGBT demographic. “They are some of the biggest change agents in LGBT [communities], because they realize that gay people can be their biggest champions or biggest critics.”

This year, LGBT rights issues have played prominently in headlines, from the knockdown of the federal Defense of Marriage Act to the legalization of gay marriage in a slew of states to the backlash over Russia’s antigay policies in Sochi. This, in turn, has put the spotlight on companies' LGBT rights policies more than ever before.

Much of this is due to a younger demographic where LGBT issues, like gay marriage, are overwhelmingly a nonissue. Nearly three-quarters of Millennials support gay marriage, according to a 2013 Gallup poll.

"[LGBT economic power] isn’t the overarching driver – it is generational,” says Mr. Witeck. “What corporations see are the large numbers of younger consumers who are very passionate about human rights and nondiscrimination. Sending a message that anyone is not welcome is wrong.”

That being said, the LGBT community is growing when it comes to purchasing power. Witeck’s firm estimates the LGBT buying power in 2013 was $830 billion, and that isn’t including LGBT allies who may also make purchasing decisions along these lines.

“LGBT buying power is diverse in ethnicity and socioeconomic status, and we are an incredibly loyal constituency,” says Justin Nelson, National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) co-founder and president. “At NGLCC, we have more than 140 corporate partners that recognize not only the influence of the LGBT dollar, but the economics of inclusivity.”

Within the alcoholic beverage world, being gay-friendly isn’t necessarily something new, says Mr. Witeck. For example, Absolut Vodka has been marketing to the LGBT community for over 30 years, and Anheuser-Busch provoked controversy in antigay circles with its 1996 ad in gay media with the tagline “Labels belong on beer, not people.” The backlash from antigay groups didn’t translate into lost sales.

“The blowback that Budweiser or that any companies had over the years didn’t dent sales,” he says. “People made decisions based on a lot of things but not that Budweiser was a ‘gay beer.’”

The beer companies' parade decisions did create some backlash, however.

Cornerstone Pub in South Boston says it is boycotting Sam Adams beer due to its decision, because pulling the sponsorship takes money away from veterans, which the parade benefits.

“Sam Adams doesn’t support South Boston,” Tommy Flaherty Jr., co-owner of the Cornerstone Pub, told the Boston Herald. “They don’t want to support veterans like my father and uncle, so they can go sell their beer elsewhere,” though he adds his family, and establishment, has no problem with gay people.

The controversy didn't seem to affect the New York and Boston St. Patrick's Day parades, which both drew immense crowds.

There are mixed feelings about marketing alcohol to the LGBT community. Studies suggest the LGBT community has higher rates of substance abuse issues than other demographics. Some say heavy marketing efforts by beer and liquor brands have played a role.

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