Why coming out still matters when there’s brand value to be had
“It’s strange that still today there is an aspect of selflessness to public figures coming out as gay.”
That was the first tweet I saw about Anderson Cooper coming out. Albeit relevant, it lead to a trail of thoughts about that exact subject. Why does a celebrity coming out matter anymore? Why do we celebrate it? Many think it’s useless and often reference the point of view that gay people are no different than straight people, and that highlighting moments like this only further create a divide or call to attention that there is a difference. They’re not wrong, but I believe the value in a celebrity or public figure coming out as gay is greater than the potential negative/neutral impact it has on progressing forwards a post-gay culture.
The fact of the matter is that the gay brand (or as I will be referring to it, Brand Gay) needs help. Because popular culture and entertainment have lead the way in introducing Brand Gay to heterosexual America, the unfortunate side effect has been a perception of gay culture shaped by overly stereotyped TV shows and movies, and the media. Brand Gay has become a brand of parties, parades, rainbows, sex, fierceness, musicals, and fashion. There’s nothing wrong with these per se, but these are what shape the perception and understanding of the gay community among non-gays. Brand Gay has a high level of consistency with a very inauthentic brand image, which means that the understanding of who the people in this community is low, but that misunderstanding is high. This argument is nothing new. It’s an ongoing subject of debate in the gay community. It’s a major part of the struggle for equal rights – significantly influencing perceptions that lead to support or criticism of the gay community. Brand Gay needs to broaden its appeal by more accurately representing the gay community. Celebrities coming out help to do just that.
Anderson Cooper is a perfect example of why coming out still matters. Here you have a celebrity journalist who has been a consistent face, name, and voice to millions of Americans for years. He’s well respected and admired, and to many he would be described as someone who “doesn’t seem gay”. He’s masculine, articulate, stern, and brazen. He juxtaposes his images as a hard-hitting journalist and a tough yet caring talk show host personality in a way that softens his image without effeminizing it. Anderson’s brand is not built on his sexuality. He in no way leverages that association to build his celebrity or to differentiate in his category. That strategy makes him more of an asset to Brand Gay unlike some celebrities who exploit their homosexuality (whether it’s true or fabricated) to make headlines – using it as a tactic that does nothing to drive value to the association of being gay, or in some cases devalues it. That brand image is what is now allowing Anderson Cooper to go from “Gay?” to “Gay.” instead of “Gay!”
Outside of public view, Anderson Cooper is also a social influencer among those who have a significant impact on American politics, business, and media. That influence makes him a type of capital that can strengthen Brand Gay, and his approach to building a brand irrespective of his sexuality enables him to actually increase credibility with these audiences. He’s not the type who will show up at the next White House party in a sequins tuxedo waiving a rainbow flag. If this were a professional sport, he’d be a highly valued trade. If this were a business acquisition, Brand Gay would see its stock shoot up in trading.
So much of what is seen of the gay community is unrelatable to non-gays. There’s little value being exchange, and what’s left builds little emotional connection or shared understanding that drives positive value back to Brand Gay. A curiosity that has peaked for me now is what value will Anderson Cooper get from coming out? I don’t picture him becoming a poster boy for Brand Gay the way other celebrities has after their coming out. It wouldn’t make sense for his brand. He doesn’t flaunt being gay, but he doesn’t hide it either. What will his first magazine cover be? His first interview? Will he publically promote any LGBT initiatives or organizations? Will he advocate more vocally behind the scenes in the areas he has influence? Who knows. Maybe he’ll do none of those things. He certainly wouldn’t have come out for no reason. He knew there would be attention drawn to him. Regardless of what he does with this opportunity, the positive impact it will have on Brand Gay is unavoidable.
David Trahan is a self-described “aspiring leader” who admittedly dedicates a fanatical amount of time staying up on current events. He has an eclectic background working for category-leading businesses in brand management, marketing, investment banking, and social good. David has also contributed his thought leadership to Personal Branding Blog, Media Post, AdAge, and Interbrand IQ. You can follow him on Twitter at @brooklyknight and @Independential depending on what you’d like to talk about.