W Hotels, Jennifer Hudson stand together on gay marriage

With the Supreme Court getting close to making a decision on marriage equality, we've been paying close attention at W Hotels Worldwide. This is an issue that has mattered to us for a long time.

Jennifer Hudson
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Jennifer Hudson

Reflecting our commitment, we announced last October that we had joined forces on a new initiative with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality. Together, we launched a fundraising and awareness program called TURN IT UP FOR CHANGE.

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Grammy and Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson lent her support and voice to the campaign. W Hotels around the country have been hosting monthly TURN IT UP FOR CHANGE music events, in which a portion of proceeds will benefit HRC. So far, these events have raised more than $100,000, in combination with donations from brands.

Weighing the risks

It might seem risky for a global brand like ours to embrace a cause that has been controversial among the public. W Hotels has always been inclusive, but we knew there might be customers who did not view this issue exactly as we did. Still, we decided to proceed because we genuinely support marriage equality and have a long and credible history with the LGBT community.

It's always been important to us to create an environment where all of our guests feel welcome, and we're pleased to be joined by several other big hospitality brands, like Marriott and Hilton, that have become much more vocal about equality and recognizing the importance of inclusive laws.

For owners of small and midsize businesses who are thinking of embracing a political cause at their own firms—whether this one or something entirely different—understanding our thinking process may be helpful in figuring out if it makes sense for you to take a public position, too.

One of the primary motivators for our campaign was that W has organically been in the LGBT space since we launched in 1998. It has always had a strong following of gay consumers and associates. As a result, we saw there was a benefit in being vocal in the fight for marriage equality. We also wanted to target consumers who aren't gay. Showing our true colors in the way the brand embraces diversity reflects well on the brand.

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Still, launching the campaign was a significant decision, and our leadership team discussed it thoroughly. Although we are aligned as a company in supporting marriage equality, we carefully considered what it meant to embrace a political issue of any kind. We are known for being a design-led, trend-led, lifestyle brand, oriented around cocktail culture, fashion, design, jet-setting—essentially, fun stuff. W had not previously, as a brand, really taken a political stance to this extent. This was a change of direction.

Tapping the masses through music

When we designed the campaign, we wanted to make sure we would differentiate ourselves from our competitors so we had a big impact. Other hotel chains often advertise in publications that target a gay audience or use targeted digital media campaigns. In this case, we didn't want to market exclusively to the gay community. We wanted to be inclusive.

We decided to tap the power of music, which would bring in a much bigger audience, and planned events, such as Voguing balls at our hotels where Jennifer Hudson performed. Partnering with her made sense because it is a cause she is passionate about. She saw the campaign as a way to build stronger connections to her fan base, which includes many people who are gay, millennials—who often have an inclusive perspective—and supporters of human rights issues. It took about 10 months of planning to put the campaign together.

"We carefully considered what it meant to embrace a political issue of any kind. We are known for being a design-led, trend-led, lifestyle brand, oriented around cocktail culture, fashion, design, jet-setting—essentially, fun stuff. ... This was a change of direction." -Anthony Ingham, global brand leader, W Hotels Worldwide

For other businesses and companies that are debating whether to embrace a political cause, I suggest you first make sure it is authentic and credible. It has to stem from the belief system of the business. If it is not genuinely coming from the values of the business, people will see through it very quickly.

We are hoping for a positive result in the Supreme Court case. Regardless of what happens, we will continue to lend our support to this cause. It is one that truly matters to us and our associates.

By Anthony Ingham, global brand leader, W Hotels Worldwide