The Pronoun Project




March 4, 2018

By Andy Bossley (IBM)



I am a white, cisgender male who identifies as gay. While that comes with its challenges, it pales in comparison to what others in my community have faced. For anyone who does not identify with traditional gender norms, it often takes courage just to wake up and brave the outside world as a true representation of ourselves. But this courage also leads us on a path of discovery towards becoming individuals who resist too easy black and white demarcations. The fact is, the true representation of our person can be nuanced, varied, transitory, conflicting, confusing, and wonderful all at the same time.

As a marketer, I often think about how to find a message that resonates with this worldview. The “holy grail” of connecting with people in my profession means reaching the right person at the right time with the right message, every time. We spend time defining audiences, breaking them down into categories along dimensions related to demographics, affinities, behaviors, needs and sentiment, business structure, industry, and so on.

But how do you master the shifting sands of an audience when society and people are progressing, and when something as seemingly fundamental as gender is challenged? The answer might not be as radical as you think.

Be authentic or be doomed

As you attempt to reach an audience on a broader spectrum of gender identity, do not go about it lightly. Too often brands “miss the mark” in a way that diminishes the lived experiences of the actual people involved. Your brand must be careful not to appropriate the movement for business or capitalistic reasons. Authenticity in your approach is essential and you should be prepared to go all-in by going beyond simple representation. At face value, even simple representation is often thought of as progress and is in its own way, but it can confine identities to the clichés that bind them and be blind to the fact that "representation" can be reductionist. For example, the effeminate man is often shown as a diva or as only best friends with heterosexual women, but that representation is too narrow. Real life isn’t nearly as simple.

Even more critically, what you don’t want to do is co-opt the very real experiences of the people living it just to “seem in touch.” We all saw how Pepsi had a big brand miss with their advertising featuring Kendall Jenner and the Black Lives Matter protesters. This advertising was done by their internal creative content team, Creators League Studio, but it flew in the face of people close to Black Lives Matter. Ultimately, the campaign hurt Pepsi’s standing as a brand. For many trans and non-binary people, their existence sometimes consists of being physically assaulted or worse. Be hyperaware of the journey you are trying to take with your audience and undergo it with as much of an understanding of their experiences as possible.

Win the moment with signals

Defining an audience can sometimes rely too much on simple demographic information. To reach people in a more authentic way, take a step beyond demographics to use the real and recent online behavior of your target audience to better understand their intent at a specific moment. A person searching for Mexican food at 4pm from a desktop may be intending to cook dinner that evening and be susceptible to ads showing recipes. Jump in there Bon Appétit magazine. While a person searching for the same term at 10pm from their cell phone in the downtown area may be intending to snag a late-night meal with friends. Yelp, this is your chance.

These intent-based behavior signals are not new, but most of the time the direct and immediate intent of your target audience far outweighs any other predetermined audience definitions. In other words, there are times you don’t need to worry about who your audience is. Sure, we ought to get rid of marketing ploys like “manly foods” such as packaged meat products and “lady foods” like diet soda. If someone loves Manwich or steak, and they're searching for it, then serve it up. Don’t fuss over your messaging by assuming who they are or how they identify. I would argue that it’s completely irrelevant to delivering on the “holy grail.”

Resonate with a lifestyle and test, test, test

According to The Innovation Group, 56% of US Gen Zers know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. Millennials have made it clear: Consumer behavior is now a function of personality. Whether it’s ambition, athleticism, or honesty, attributes drive purchases, not gender. Smart brands will focus on universal character traits and passions. (Iconoculture, May 2016)

Brands should start to recognize that these universal lifestyle traits transcend race, religion, gender, sexuality, and many other so-called “identifiers.” Crafting a marketing strategy born of something universally true will set your brand up to automatically be more inclusive and representative of non-binary people. Your brand's products, marketing campaigns, and brand engagements don’t have to be gender neutral to be effective at communicating to a non-binary audience. Your products, marketing campaigns, and brand engagements should actually appeal to people on a spectrum of gender identity. And yes, cisgender people fall on that spectrum.

So, where do you start?

It can be scary to try something new, but think of what can be gained versus what’s at stake. Build the conversation into the very fabric of your organization by using your organizational structure as a way of institutionalizing gender fluidity into your marketing thought process.

1. Start by allowing your employees to self-identify the pronouns they prefer to use and have your HR documentation represent their choice, initiate internal groups, communities and forums for everyone to have a conversation, and where applicable, allow fields to have free-form identifiers. IBM has created the 8-bar logo in rainbow, as well as special Avatars and Slack Groups for the entire LGBTQ+ community.

2. Start with a more authentic discovery of your audience and use that to inform their user journey. Build your segmentation without gender. It's hindering your marketing's ability to resonate with a broader audience, and potentially with your true audience. As part of an OOH placement, Thinx, the only period-proof underwear, introduced ads featuring a trans man, showing that cisgender women weren't its only customers. And always, test and learn. Test using universal lifestyle traits and passions. Test using intent-based audience signals. And don't be afraid to lead without gender.

Reaching and speaking to your audience in an authentic, personal way fosters trust and respect. Studies show that increasing customer retention by even five percent can lead to a 25 to 95 percent increase in company profits. Developing an authentic conversation with your audience will build brand loyalty and beliefs centered on trust and respect, and trusted and respected brands win.



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