Driven in particular by the Black Lives Matter movement, many brands are paying more attention to truly understanding the self-defined ethnicity and racial identity of their audience. 

Our GWI USA data shows the potentially multi-layered nature of identity. It reveals, for example, that among Americans who identify as Hispanic, about 1 in 10 also identify as Black/African-American, while about 1 in 20 also identify as Asian American. 

This overlap between race and ethnicity highlights the unique cultural connections that exist – and the inaccuracies that arise when these groups are segmented too bluntly. 

Grasping the intersectionality of your audiences

Following LGBT+ History month in the UK, I want to focus on an area that concerns me personally, and has arguably received less focus: understanding sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Yes, great strides have been made in terms of LGBTQ+ representation and prominence. We’re seeing growing diversity in ad campaigns along with a sense that brands are striving to represent a range of relationships and living situations.

This is positive and commendable – but are some brands running the risk of lumping an incredibly diverse group together and running on assumptions? 

Put more simply, is it right to treat the LGBTQ+ community as a homogeneous group? Does that not mask the rich diversity of this audience and effectively treat it as an “Other” group that contains any non-heterosexual individual? 

To answer this, we can look both at the definition itself, together with attitudinal and psychographic data.

The struggle to define a uniquely diverse audience 

The “LGBTQ+” label has become one of the most widely in recent years but there are multiple variations and extensions of it. One of the fuller versions is LGBTQIA, but even here there can be different definitions for different letters. Q can be “Queer” or “Questioning”. A can be “Asexual” or “Ally”. Its definitions and meanings are continuously evolving and can be interpreted differently by different people.

One reason for this is that it’s designed to be inclusive and, in particular, the presence of the “+” sign allows for individuals who don’t feel sufficiently represented by the existing letters to still feel a sense of belonging.

The flexibility and fluidity of the term is necessary and welcome. But when it comes to data analysis and campaign planning, should marketers be looking at this group as one entity? Is it right to assume that a community that includes a depth of situations spanning gender identity, sexual orientation and beyond would all act and think the same? 

For me, the answer is very clearly no.

I can think of few other groups where there is such immense diversity.

Where else we would find both men and women, as well as people who identify as neither; where we have people who are attracted to the same sex, to the opposite sex, to both sexes, or to neither; where we have people who feel their birth identity was right for them, as well as those who do not? And there are surely few other demographics-based audiences which could include people of any age, and in such a variety of life-stages/living circumstances.

The underlying challenge here is that by examining this group as whole – with all the richness and intersectionality of identity that lies therein – we risk treating anything that is not heterosexual as an “Other”. And it potentially quietens the very voices that marketers are trying to hear. 

Could a gay man have different attitudes, needs and circumstances to an asexual woman? Highly possible. Might a gay woman feel different levels of resonance to a marketing message compared to a transgender woman? At least at times, very likely. Could the rich intersectionality present among these audiences be lost if there’s just an “LGBTQ+” break added to the end of any analysis? Most definitely.

How audience data is changing to fit

Let’s look at data from GWI USA. We offer eight different answers across our sexual orientation question, and nine within our gender identity question. We hope it allows respondents to self-define themselves exactly as they would want to (or not at all: hence a “prefer not to say” option in both questions).

Certainly, there are areas where members of the LGBTQ+ community do stand apart. 

All groups are considerably less likely than heterosexual men and women to say that they believe in traditions, for example. Conversely, LGBTQ+ individuals are significantly more likely to feel that traditional gender-based roles are out-dated, or to over-index for wanting to feel accepted by others.

Given that these themes typically have some form of connection to personal identity, a degree of consensus within the LGBTQ+ community might be expected. But even here, the strength of the sentiment can vary conspicuously – and that’s a key learning in itself. LGBTQ+ individuals might be more likely than others to agree with such statements, but the levels of sentiment show a substantial range. Just 3 in 10 gay Americans say they believe in traditions, for example, but this dips to 2 in 10 among pansexual Americans and falls as low as 1 in 20 among asexual Americans. 

If we take this one step further, we can see how hunches or assumptions begin to get challenged. For example, while it’s true that members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely than heterosexual men and women to describe their political views as liberal, it’s still 10% of gay women and men classify their views as conservative (half of whom say their views are very conservative). 

Equally, while groups within the LGBT+ community are considerably more likely than heterosexual men and women to think that terms such as “open-minded” and “tolerant” describe them, it still leaves significant segments within these groups who do not identify closely with these labels. 4 in 10 gender-fluid or non-binary individuals do not think of themselves as being particularly open-minded; 6 in 10 people who identify as asexual do not consider themselves as particularly tolerant. 

Tracking diversity within the LGBTQ+ audiences

Within the LGBTQ+ community – as in any other audience – a range of factors can drive different beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors: parental status, age, religion, urban vs rural location, and so on. 

As an example, the numbers within the LGBT+ community who say they are parents range considerably: from 10% and 15% among gender fluid individuals and gay Americans respectively; up to 25% among those who are unsure or curious; and climbing still higher to 40% among bisexual Americans. But even within this, other factors then exert a very strong influence.

While just 15% of bisexual Americans in Gen Z have a child, that jumps to 40% among bisexuals who are millennials, and then more than 60% within the Gen X and boomer audiences. 

It’s easy to see how just profiling “LGBTQ+ Americans” – or even going one step further and looking at “Bisexual Americans” – would potentially mask the richness of situations within these audiences. And for some, their identity as a parent could be just as, if not more, important to them than their orientation or gender.

In many cases, we need to recognize that gender identity or sexual orientation are important parts of what make up someone’s identity, not necessarily the predominant or overwhelming factors. Treating the LGBTQ+ audience as a homogeneous group already starts to mask this, but that’s accentuated still more if we fail to overlay other factors (demographic or otherwise).

For marketers, the message here is clear: where the data allows you to go deeper and to segment within the LGBTQ+ community, it’s an essential step in the process. Not only do we need to understand each group within it, but within these groups we also need to recognize the other parts of their lives that influence their attitudes and behaviors. 

Assuming that all individuals within it are like-minded or in similar situations might not give you the robust or nuanced insights you’re looking for – no matter how worthy the intention. 

Representing diversity first means understanding it better.

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Written by

Jason is Chief Research Officer at GWI. He's the main man who leads our global team of analysts, delivering world-renowned research. He's an in-demand data junkie who you might see popping up on your telly screens every so often to show you what's actually happening in the lives of consumers.

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