As global LGBTQ acceptance grows, more mass-market brands are speaking to potential customers with gender-diverse marketing. But adoption is slow in the U.S. as Americans grapple with accepting social change. Although more Americans than the global average (59%) say the nation is becoming more tolerant, they’re are also the most likely to say that society has gone too far in allowing people to dress and live as one sex, even though they were born another (36%), according to a 2017 Ipsos study of 27 countries.
It was a big step for big brands to engage same-sex couples as Ikea did in 1994. Since then, brands from Honey Maid to Tiffany began a new wave a few years ago. Other brands like Target in 2015 removed gender classifications to their products. Today some shoppers identify on a spectrum between the binary male and female genders. Others don’t recognize gender at all. For those who are new to these concepts, the University of Wisconsin created this informative guide and transgender vlogger Riley J. Dennis explains genders in great detail.
Younger North Americans are leading the shift in gender-neutrality. Marketers should take note both in terms of targeting products to youth audiences today and in terms of the trend these consumers will carry forward as they become mature shoppers tomorrow. In June 2017, a D.C. resident became the first person in the country to get a gender-neutral driver’s license. Parents in Canada and later the U.S. have successfully registered their babies without gender assignments. The move inspired the term “theybies.” Last year, Canada made it a crime to use the wrong gender pronoun under its Human Rights Code.
Not surprisingly, some universities have been at the forefront. The University of Kansas Libraries took that a step further. In fall 2016, it launched a campaign with staff buttons featuring preferred gender pronouns and a “You Belong Here” tagline. The feedback was generally positive.
“The time was right to engage in this conversation and convey to users that libraries are places where such dialogue and difficult conversations can take place,” says Christine McWard, director of communications & advancement for the University of Kansas Libraries.
The fashion industry has long experimented with gender-bending and retailers like Zara and H&M have featured gender-less collections. Earlier this month, Estee Lauder’s MAC Cosmetics launched the MAC Nicopanda makeup collection at retail giant Macy’s. “I made this collection for everybody; of course, girls, who look amazing, and boys and everyone in between,” says unisex fashion designer Nicola Formichetti, in a video posted on YouTube.
Americans more likely to misuse gender pronouns
Up to now, mass brands have largely tip-toed around using language that recognizes the gender spectrum. In general, consumers aren’t entirely informed, or perhaps don’t entirely embrace the concept. Compared to people in other English-speaking countries in the Ipsos study, Americans are most likely to refer to a transgender person incorrectly using their assigned birth gender. They also are twice as likely to misuse the correct pronoun than their cultural peers in the U.K., Australia and Canada.
“You can posit that incorrect pronoun usage is ignorance or you can posit that it’s willful,” says Julia Clark, an Ipsos SVP. She says that because Americans are the most likely to say that being transgender is “a sin” the issue clearly takes on a religious flavor. “It suggests that it comes from a position of intolerance rather than ignorance,” she says.
Coke breaks the pronoun barrier
Coca-Cola broke the language barrier with an Super Bowl 2018 ad campaign called “The Wonder of Us.” It used a variety of gender pronouns and, significantly, “them” to declare that there’s a beverage for everyone. Despite the ad’s gauzy inclusiveness, the mention of “them” roared “I see you” to non-binary people.
“We purposely did not highlight any single vignette or person in the commercial, as we want to encourage our fans and consumers to interpret and internalize each scene and make it their own,” says a company spokesperson.
ALSO. GUYS DID YOU NOTICE AT HALFTIME IN THE SUPERBOWL @CocaCola USE GENDER NEUTRAL PRONOUNS IN THEIR AD?!
AAAA! Good job 👏
There’s a coke for her, him, and them
— ☁ (@Corgyote) February 6, 2018
Condé Nast also took a direct approach with its “Them” magazine launched in October 2017 to celebrate the LGBTQ community. Brand partners Burberry, Google, Lyft and GLAAD supported the debut. This makes them well-positioned to gain and build loyalty with the next generation of potential customers.
Tweens care less about gender
Younger tweens are aware of and accepting a range of genders. Most tweens say they are fluid as a gender, according to a 2016 Ipsos study of U.S. Tweens ages 10-13. The majority also said they care more about who a person is as a person than whether they are a boy or girl.
“Many marketers in the U.S. are late to reflect this dynamic in their communications,” says Janet Oak, an Ipsos SVP. “It’s the more progressive companies that are willing to embrace and reflect what’s real because they understand that while it can be polarizing, in the long run, it will make consumers even more loyal to them.”