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For Inclusive Content, Think ‘We,’ Not ‘He’ and ‘She’

It’s a basic principle in marketing – create content that lets your audience know that your brand sees and hears them.

Content that’s inclusive of transgender, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming consumers will give you a better chance of capturing their attention, deepening their engagement, and earning their loyalty. You’ll also gain respect from their supporters.

Ruth Carter – author, lawyer, and principal/“evil genius” at Carter Law Firm spoke on the inclusion of nonbinary consumers in content conversations at Content Marketing World in 2021. The insights, examples, and ideas in this article come from that talk and the follow-up interview in this video (we’ve since updated some of the research findings):

A small but influential community

A 2022 Pew Research Center study found that 1.6% of U.S. adults are transgender or nonbinary – which Pew defines as meaning their gender differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Given the nature of gender diversity and the linguistic, cultural, and societal norms associated with the topic, this is likely an underestimation.

Though studies indicate their numbers may be on the rise – particularly as younger generations reach adulthood – they are a small minority of the estimated 334 million people in the U.S. But while they may only represent a small percent of the population, the nonbinary-inclusive audience also encompasses a large community of allies who support them and stand up for their rights.

A Public Religion Research Institute study found that 80% of Americans support a law that says someone can’t discriminate against a person because of their gender, sexual orientation, or both. “Your company or your client may not care about [this tiny little group], but I bet they care about [80%] of the audience they are trying to cater to. That’s what you’re risking by inadvertently or blatantly being discriminatory,” Ruth says.

80% of Americans support a law that says someone can’t discriminate based on gender, sexual orientation, or both.

Consider the experience of Confections, a Texas-based bakery, and its Facebook post wishing their LGBTQ friends a happy Pride Month with a display of rainbow heart cookies.

The post resulted in a wave of unfollows and a last-minute cancellation of a large cookie order, which the owner detailed in a follow-up post: “I never thought a post that literally said more love, less hate would result in this kind of backlash to a very small business that is struggling to stay afloat and spread a little cheer through baked goods.”

The local community of LGBTQ+ supporters took it as a call to action –and answered it in droves. A day later, Confections shared a new post to give thanks for all the love and support and announce they sold out their cookie inventory:

5 steps to evolve your content beyond binary boundaries

Trans and nonbinary people want to see their full, authentic selves represented in a brand’s experiences. While gender identity is a complex, personal, and evolving topic, making your content feel more welcoming and accepting of the nonbinary experience isn’t nearly as complicated.

In their presentation, Ruth suggests simple changes brands can make to acknowledge their audiences’ unique experiences and ensure equal consideration.

1. Explore your brand experience through a nonbinary lens

If your content focuses on the male-female gender experience (Ruth describes this as “that 1950s stereotype of what a man is and what a woman is”), you exclude the perspectives of people who don’t fit those constructs.

To communicate more inclusively, put yourself in the shoes of somebody who doesn’t identify as male or female and walk through their customer journey. “Think about how they might experience [a brand] differently than a cisgendered audience and see if there are opportunities to shift to a [different] perspective,” Ruth says.

For example, clothing brand Levi’s announcement of its “genderless” Unlabeled Collection shifts the conversation by defining gender as, “being really confident in who you are and feeling free to identify yourself by name, not by a label of male or female.”

2. Update your style bible, registration forms, and greetings

When you reference an individual in the third person, do you only use he/him, she/her pronouns? “What this phrasing communicates to me is that I don’t exist. I don’t deserve to be part of this community,” says Ruth, who recommends replacing these exclusionary terms with they/them pronouns.

Tip: Incorporate the use of they/them pronouns in your style guide and ensure your content team is aware of the change.

Gender bias often lurks in how speakers address audiences in group settings, such as an event or live streaming video. Ruth says instead of starting with “Ladies and gentlemen,” go with a greeting like, “Welcome, everyone.” Brands can take this to the next level by creating a custom, gender-neutral term for their audience, like the Green Bay Packers do by using the term “Cheeseheads” to refer to its fans.

Similarly, the use of traditional honorifics like Mr., Mrs., or Ms. excludes trans and nonbinary people. If you use drop-down menus or checkboxes on your registration forms to collect gender demographics, make sure you include MX (pronounced “mix”) as a gender-neutral honorific option.

New Zealand telecommunications company Spark addresses this issue by changing how businesses collect gender data. Its Beyond Binary Code campaign introduced a single piece of code that enables standard website forms to be updated to a more gender-inclusive alternative. They co-created it with OutLine Aotearoa (a mental health organization) and nonbinary communities.

3. Make it easy to access and update personal data

Speaking of data collection, Ruth points out that trans and nonbinary consumers may have used their birth-assigned name and gender when they created their original account with your business. Empower those who have later updated their name to affirm their authentic identity in your records. Be clear about any documentation required for validation purposes – i.e., if there are legal, financial, or other regulatory requirements involved.

Mastercard took a different approach to address the binary data dilemma: In 2020, the brand launched its True Name feature, which enables financial institutions to issue credit cards that display the customer’s first name – without requiring legal name change documentation. According to the company’s news release, their director of consumer marketing Anthony DeRojas conceived the initiative as a meaningful way to commemorate World Pride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. “We wanted to go beyond being just a logo in a sea of other Pride sponsors,” says DeRojas. “We wanted to do something that was impactful for the community.”

It may seem like a small gesture, but it makes a big difference to customers like Asher: “Seeing a name you connect with feels like acceptance… being seen and acknowledged as the person you are… It will change lives.” As a bonus, the spot’s tagline Start Something Priceless fits in with the brand’s signature #Priceless hashtag.

Remember, creating content that reflects consumers’ authentic selves sends a powerful message. But to earn the full trust of this audience, that message needs to be consistently executed and affirmed through your brand’s words and deeds. Make sure the updated information they provide gets integrated into all the marketing automation or CRM systems your business uses to communicate with them so consumers aren’t misgendered in future messaging or direct conversations.

4. Consider whether gender is contextually relevant to the story

Ruth advises marketers to refer to interview subjects and other sources by their preferred pronouns. (If you aren’t sure, ask them.) However, it’s not always necessary – or appropriate – to incorporate their gender identity in your storytelling. “I was on NPR, talking about how Arizona now issues nonbinary driver’s licenses. It made sense that my gender would be identified. But if it was me talking about trademark law, my gender would be pretty irrelevant,” Ruth says.

You also can incorporate gender inclusivity by featuring a wider range of personal experiences in your content or amplifying inclusivity on your media channels. It’s an approach that Pantene used in this emotionally powerful video celebrating LGBTQ+ pride in all its forms.

5. Listen to their conversations

Your audience often tells you what they need and want to see – you just need to pay attention.

Transgender and nonbinary people often change their birth name to one that better suits who they are. Starbucks was inspired by social media conversations from transgender people who wondered whether they had selected the right name. It responded with #WhatsYourName, which offers a way to try out their chosen name and see how it feels:

Just how much does it mean for this community to see a brand acknowledge this major life milestone? Ruth says it gave them goosebumps, and research psychologist and influential YouTuber Jammidodger treated his 900,000-plus audience to a heartfelt review of all the happy feels it gave him:

A small step for your brand can be a giant leap for inclusion

To communicate more inclusively and forge stronger customer connections, eliminate gender bias from your brand’s conversations. For nonbinary people who have often felt ignored or invisible to brands, even making small adjustments to the language, syntax, and substance of your content conversations can be affirming and validating.

As Ruth points out, your business doesn’t have to become an authority on the complicated subject of gender – it just takes an authentic desire to be part of the conversation.

Jodi Harris

Jodi Harris

Jodi Harris is director of content strategy at CMI. She describes her role as a combination of strategic alchemist, process architect, and creative explorer. Prior to this role, Jodi spent over a decade developing and managing content initiatives for brand clients in the entertainment, CPG, health care, technology, and biotech industries, as well as for agencies and media brands. Follow her on Twitter at @Joderama.