The World Is Increasingly Nonbinary. Your Marketing Should Be, Too

Brandon Zelasko, VP of operations at SE2

"Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Brandon Zelasko, VP of operations at SE2.

The world has always been nonbinary – but now governments and brands are finally taking notice.

New York’s state assembly passed a bill in June allowing gender-neutral birth certificates (the 12th state to do so), and Pinterest became the latest social media platform to add a field for personal gender pronouns to user profiles. Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn all added similar features earlier this year.

This public embrace of gender-nonconforming individuals is a great step forward. However, the behavior and marketing practices of some brands demonstrate there’s more work to do in order to break down the “cis-tem.” [For the uninitiated, the term “cisgender” refers to a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person was identified as having at birth.]

About 56% of millennials and half of Generation Z believe the traditional gender binary is outdated. And yet most marketers still start conversations about targeting by asking whether a product is for men or for women – despite the fact that younger consumers increasingly value brands that don’t classify products by gender. Thinking binarily overlooks potential consumers who identify as neither male nor female, or somewhere else along the gender spectrum.

Most products are ungendered, yet marketers thrust gendered attributes onto products in a misguided effort to make them more marketable, perpetuating the fallacy of binary genders.

And if you’re still thinking about how additional gender pronouns can be used to target more gender identities, you’re missing the point. When you give up using gender as an advertising filter, you not only reach more people, but you focus more on the consumer's actual wants and needs.

We have a duty to create more inclusive campaigns. Here’s how you can start to get beyond the gender binary in your marketing.

1. Include gender-neutral and nonbinary audiences in your conversations about targeting.

Inclusive advertising starts in planning meetings.

Challenge copywriters to avoid gendered language and ask designers not to lean on gendered colors or design elements. If you’re marketing a fashion or personal care product – two verticals in which the “gendering” of products is most pervasive – talk with your user experience team, retailers and merchandisers. Task them with rethinking how they’re asking customers to experience your brand or product.

At my company, we’ve revised briefs to remove all language and questions that perpetuate binary thinking, and we actively advise clients to omit gender on website forms or filters for a client's websites unless it’s absolutely necessary.

There are some areas where we still rely on gender targeting, but when we do, we focus on using inclusive language and imagery. For instance, “pregnant people” versus “pregnant women” or “parents” versus “moms and dads.”

2. Help clients sharpen their brands to be more inclusive.

If you’re working with a brand that leans on gender stereotypes, it’s time to flip the script. Take subscription shaving company Harry’s, for instance. In 2019, the brand released a spot that was a refreshing departure from the hypermacho razor commercials of yesteryear.

The voice-over says, “You can shave to feel like you.” Not only does this show viewers that Harry’s is a brand for people like them, but it also turns shaving into an identity-affirming activity.

When it comes to approaching inclusivity, ask yourself:

  • Is what we gain from a “gendered” brand platform worth what we lose by excluding others?
  • Does the imagery we use perpetuate binary thinking?
  • Do our personas, briefs and research support expansive thinking about our potential audience?

3. Make sure internal policies align with the message you’re sending.

If your goal is to be more gender inclusive, it’s important to be a champion for equality in everything you do. If you don’t go “all-in” when it comes to inclusivity, your team members, clients and customers will notice.

Recently, a handful of brands came under fire for voicing their support for the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride Month despite a history of donating to anti-LGBTQIA+ politicians.

Consumers are putting brands and their social responsibility efforts under a microscope. That is why now is the time to revisit your internal policies related to recruitment, vendors, investments and corporate advocacy.

4. Start targeting more creatively.

By continuing to target binary genders, you’re ignoring an incredibly diverse nonbinary audience that’s continuing to increase in number. As this number grows and changes, so must the way we think about building personas that combine a variety of audience attributes into more intersectional targeting personas.

When you remove gender from your targeting, you have the flexibility to think more creatively about your audience. Who are they? How might they use your product or service? And, importantly, how can you appeal to more nuanced and intersectional audiences?

Instead of targeting gender, you can build targeting around audience use cases, life stages and product affinity in addition to more traditional demographics, such as education level, household income and past purchase behavior.

The gender binary isn’t going away, but it’s more important than ever to challenge assumptions of who your target audience really is and how you will reach them. By creating a more well-rounded picture of who uses your product and by working to understand their needs, you’ll inspire a broader, more devoted customer base.

Follow SE2 (@Chllngrs4Change) and AdExchanger (AdExchanger) on Twitter.

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