Business Finance » Corporate

MillerCoors: From Gay Boycott to Gay Brand

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jul 23, 2013

When Miller merged with Coors merged back in 2008, EDGE ran a story titled "Beer and loathing?" that expressed the consternation many were expressing at the time. After all, here was a shotgun (Wall Street style) of the most gay-friendly brewer in the country with one that inspired boycotts in gay bars.

Well, the verdict has been in for some time, and, as often happens in a marriage, one side prevailed. MillerCoors emerged as the gold standard of a brewer that takes gay rights (and, not incidentally, gay marketing) very seriously indeed.

The second-largest brewer in the United States (after Anheuser-Busch, itself no laggard in the gay department) controls nearly one-third of beer sales in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. But MillerCoors is a lot more than beer. Like most modern conglomerates, its "brand extension" reaches beyond those light beers that dominate the bottom line and the bellies of most of its gay customers like Coors Light, Miller Lite and Miller64.

For those too young to remember, Miller Lite established the light (or "lite," to use the Madison Avenue spelling) beer category way back in 1975, with those landmark "Tastes great/less filling" argumentative ads. When you're quaffing several tony imported brands, you may not know that they are MillerCoors imports, including Peroni Nastro Azzurro, Pilsner Urquell and Grolsch, as well as "craft brews" from Jacob Leinenkugel, Blue Moon and the Blitz-Weinhard.

A Model Corporate Citizen

MillerCoors is a model corporate citizen, with a solid 100 from the Human Rights Campaign. It provides the same benefits to partners of employees as it does to legally recognized ones (i.e., married). It does everything possible to integrate trans employees into its work force and helps them in "transitioning" with medical, leave-taking and other benefits.

The company prides itself on promoting workplace diversity. The company’s CEO himself heads "Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee" that actually pays attention to a "Diversity Advisory Council." Every year, an "Employee Engagement Survey" measures how well the company is doing and lets the higher-ups know what it can do better.

As head of "LGBT Diversity Programming," Doug Sanborn has been instrumental in overseeing how the company approaches gay issues within the company and in the larger world. The company does more than pay lip service to diversity issues. It is one of the leading contributor to an array of LGBT and AIDS causes and organizations.

For example, in 2010 in Chicago, where the company is based and has its headquarters, a "Great Cents Campaign" -- the brainstorm of the local Chicagoland sales team -- MillerCoors donated 15 cents for every unit sold during the city’s Pride celebrations from June through October. Local retailers were able to choose their favorite charities to receive the largesse.

"Our goal wasn’t simply to write a check," Sanborn told Windy City News. "We wanted to partner with our retailers and empower consumers." Among groups receiving donations from the campaign were the Howard Brown Health Center, Chicago House and the Broadway Youth Center.

Know It By Its Enemies

For many years before that, the company had extensive LGBT outreach programs, however. The company is especially well known for supporting LGBT sports teams and leagues, so much so that Outsports called it a "hero."

In 2011 alone, MillerCoors donated more than $382,000 to various LGBT nonprofits. The company is a major sponsor of Pride events around the country. In case you’re still skeptical, the company has steadfastly remained one of (if not the) major backer of San Francisco’s Folsom Street Festival, despite the threat of boycotts and an annual outcry from anti-gay organizations like Americans for Truth About Homosexuality.

A typical response is an article headlined "Miller/Coors [sic] Beer Again Supports Sadomasochistic Gay Street Orgy: Boycott Urged" on the rightwing "news" site LifeSiteNews. If that doesn’t make you want to grab a beer, nothing will!

Perhaps the most outstanding corporate support, however, has come in MillerCoors longstanding support for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Way back in 2008, MillerCoors matched 100 percent of the first $10,000 donations in a Shepard Foundation campaign. The next year, the company received the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s "Essential Piece Award."

Doing Well By Doing Good

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the gay world is still a very bar-centric one. Back in the day, gay bars were the only places where gay men and lesbians could meet safely. Or not: It’s no coincidence that the Big Bang of the modern gay rights movement took place during a 1969 police raid on a Greenwich Village bar called Stonewall.

That tradition certainly continues today. MillerCoors was a pioneer in marketing to our community with gay-centric ads that showed same-sex groups enjoying its product. In more recent years, the ads have gone further, showing real same-sex affection. If that doesn’t sound exactly revolutionary, consider how many companies do the same. Some day, yes, such ads will be commonplace. But as of now, it is still all-too rare for a major Fortune 500 company.

The company has a nationwide sales and marketing force specific to our community. These reps work with local distributors, sales forces and bar owners while helping create new opportunities to support sales teams, Pride events and local organizations.

Boycott Memories Fade

It wasn’t always so.

In 1977, Coors was accused of firing employees because of their sexual orientation. What especially galled gay consumers was the funding of anti-gay groups by a foundation set up by the Coors family.

That was then. By 1993, Coors had encouraged a "Lesbian and Gay Employee Resource" (LAGER, get it?). Two years later, Coors went much further, to become one of the few major publicly traded companies to extend employee benefits to same-sex partners.

The company’s chairman at the time, Pete Coors, was criticized for having become so gay friendly during his 2004 Republican primary campaign to become a U.S. senator from Colorado. He bucked his party when he vigorously defended the policy.

What better indication of how much MillerCoors rankles than a 2012 "boycott" by a bar in Idaho. The company’s response? "MillerCoors has a strong track record of supporting the diversity of our employees as well as the communities in which we work and live," a spokesperson told the media. "Due to the diversity and breadth of our consumers and because we believe in supporting the many communities we serve, we support myriad organizations across the country we are proud to support."

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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