Economics of change
Bob Witeck sees gay economic clout as a way of inspiring social and political change.
Photo by Tom Cogill.
When Bob Witeck (Economics, Philosophy ’74) came to U.Va. as a member of the first coeducational entering class, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual (GLBT) community was virtually invisible.
“I was fearful of coming out, along with many others,” Witeck recalls. “It was a university culture like many in America that tended to make most gays and lesbians [feel like] individual islands.”
Though the University’s cultural climate has grown to better accept the GLBT community in the decades since Witeck’s years as a student, such progress did not come about without its fair share of work. Witeck’s passion for social activism, fostered by the social climate during his years at the University, led to the establishment of Witeck-Combs Communications, a marketing communications and public relations consultancy that specializes in issues facing GLBT consumers and citizens.
Co-founded in 1993 with Witeck’s business partner and friend, Wesley Combs, the consulting firm was supported by Witeck’s passion for public policy and economics. After a career as a communications director on Capitol Hill, Witeck decided it was time to bring together his life experiences and work as an openly gay professional devoted to cause-related business strategies.
“I was never fascinated so much with business but instead with the intellectual ideas of economics and politics,” he says.
Witeck-Combs Communications matches the often slower pace of political and social change for minority groups with the faster-paced progress of the marketplace. While it may take decades for better legislation to come about for such groups, he notes that the business community responds in swifter ways.
“[Economic] behaviors have a deep and lasting influence over society and can be a force for positive good and acceptance,” Witeck says. “I wanted to consult with companies and organizations that needed knowledge and metrics to make these kinds of changes.”
His firm has consulted with American Airlines on HIV/AIDS and GLBT awareness education for employees, promoted National Coming Out Day with the Human Rights Campaign, developed an award-winning marketing campaign for Volvo geared toward gay consumers and helped represent the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation’s work to the world.
The firm’s most recent milestone is “Business Inside Out: Capturing Millions of Brand-Loyal Gay Consumers,” a book co-authored by Witeck and Combs that explores the evolution and power of the gay consumer movement. According to their research, gay buying power is estimated to be $690 billion in 2007.
“Much of our focus has been on the language of business, including market research, which executives understand,” says Witeck. “Businesses don’t simply want to be told it is ‘good business’ to market to gay households. They want to know who we are, where we live, how much we spend, whether we invest, travel or are raising kids.”
The book offers numerous suggestions for businesses hoping to attract or improve their reputation with gay consumers. They include dispelling the myth of the typical gay consumer as an affluent white male, fully understanding the diversity of the GLBT population and sensitively preparing for discomfort or backlash.
His hope is that both “Business Inside Out” and the mission of Witeck-Combs Communications will help advance the political and social equality that a deeper understanding of economics makes so readily available.
“Gays and lesbians always have been part of the entire mix,” he says. “We should not be a special or separate set.”