03/18/2015 03:06 pm ET Updated May 18, 2015

Dolce and Gabbana's LGBT Problem

Controversial comments from Dolce and Gabbana's founders about same-sex adoption are spurring calls for boycotts. It's noteworthy for the LGBT community to criticize major executives from within its ranks, a rare instance when the targets of protest are also gay. But lost in the public uproar is the fact that this fight is emblematic of a bigger problem for the LGBT community. The business world's continued failure to embrace honest and real communication with gay audiences.

Marketers always court the newest, trendiest segment. They search for an edge for their brand, anything that will fleetingly differentiate their soda, car or shoe from competitors. They're laser-focused on the trendiest segment today: the LGBT community. Propelled by the movement to legalize gay marriage, companies are crowding onto the LGBT bandwagon. Major global brands have gone from ignoring the LGBT community to bending over backwards to hire ad agencies, form advisory boards and find partners to understand the shopping habits, media consumption and other details needed to sell products and services with a distinctly gay theme.

Although token marketing to gays is all the rage, the execution is surprisingly old school. From rainbow-branded products to gay-branded agency partners, companies are not looking at the LGBT community the way they do other minority groups.

A big part of the problem is that, unlike other segments, research on the LGBT community is sorely lacking. That's due in part to issues of a self-identification. But the bigger problem is that Fortune 500 companies, with the resources to examine segmentation, rely on anecdotal insight from a few individuals more commonly than they invest in quantifiable research. The African-American and Hispanic audiences have been carefully broken down by demographics and psychographics to the point that marketers understand the dozens of subdivisions within each broad segment.

The Asian segment, due to the global financial impact of China and Asia overall, are slowly moving in that direction. Because societal stigma and legal protections for the LGBT community are decades behind, the same type of research is nearly unheard of. But that hasn't stopped dozens of big brands and their ad agencies from opening special LGBT divisions, giving lofty titles to employees and touting their magnanimous support for the community.

Institutional changes regarding diversity swept the public sector in the early 1990s. Since advertising usually reflects public trends, the industry approach to minority inclusion led to something called "diversity marketing." Its intent was not to solve general unrest, but to offer a path to meaningful relationships between big businesses and underrepresented demographics. Unfortunately, what once was hoped to be a bridge and increase minority inclusion has reverted to a factory line of content that favors fluff and fads over substance.

In the early days of diversity marketing, brands created token campaigns by simply taking an individual from either the specific community or an internal "representative" and molding them into a "subject matter expert." This inside-out approach was flimsy, but it worked for a time and was a welcomed first step. In recent years, broader segments were narrowed to more specific micro-audiences, including buppies (black urban professionals), dinks (dual income, no kids), metrosexuals and many others. Token diversity hires and committees gave way to relationships based on the shared values of the audience and the company. It's now a multi-billion dollar industry with marketing and advertising agencies fighting for budgets.

Times have changed and the demographic du jour in marketing is based on sexual orientation rather than race. But just because someone belongs, culturally, doesn't mean they have expertise. The idea behind diversity marketing, or any type of marketing, is to bring together individuals with various lifestyles, backgrounds and viewpoints within the segment. Today, companies no longer do their African-American or Hispanic or Asian marketing in a vacuum; they create campaigns that integrate racial demographic insights into the strategic planning. But LGBT marketing remains firmly in the old school world, with holistic decisions made based on the insights of one or a few lone voices that are singled out as representative of the whole. Companies and ad agencies sell their multicultural marketing expertise by parading their rainbow coalition of employees. They revert to embracing stereotypes and clichés that are acceptable to the non-LGBT decision-makers.

Diversity marketing became a staple for brands to create clear and differentiated strategies for targeting consumers of African-American, Hispanic and Asian ethnicity. Big brands may have dollar figures in mind, but their research and segmentation has helped us all learn a bit more about the diversity within these groups. The obstacles and opportunities in connecting to diverse audiences do not change just because the minority in question is that of gender, race or sexual orientation. It's time companies adopt a modern marketing approach to LGBT audiences.