“What are your pronouns?”
Found everywhere from social media bios and university classrooms to medical intake forms, this now common question has generated confusion, celebration and outrage in equal parts.
The controversy this question courts has to do with the definition of gender as opposed to sex, and how ideas about gender have evolved from two options—she/her or he/him—to include gender-neutral options such as they/them, among others.
Proponents of the (grammatially correct!) they/them and other gender-neutral pronouns believe these additional options provide a more accurate way of referring to people who identify as queer, non-binary, or gender non-conforming, as well as a more sensitive default option when you’re unsure of another person’s gender and chosen pronouns.
Like everything, language evolves over time. And as the language we use to express gender identity publicly broadens to be more inclusive of people’s personal choices, brands should reflect these changes, too.
How inclusivity differs from diversity
You may be wondering, “Okay, but what do pronouns have to do with advertising campaigns?”
Or maybe it’s more along the lines of, “But we already showcase diversity in our campaigns—what do pronouns have to do with that?”
Inclusivity goes hand-in-hand with diversity. Both are incredibly important, and while many brands have worked very hard to become more diverse, both internally and externally, inclusivity is sometimes more elusive.
The difference is this: diversity reflects the characteristics that make everyone different from each other while inclusion treats everyone equally and respectfully, regardless of what you can or cannot see about them, such as their personal pronouns. Paying attention to a person’s chosen personal pronouns and respecting how they wish to be addressed is just one way to be inclusive of others.
The easiest way to ensure that your brand is both diverse and inclusive is to make it look like the world around you, showcasing a wide array of people and lifestyles.
It really is as easy—and as difficult—as that.
A great example comes from what might be an unexpected source: Hasbro’s Potato Head. Mr. Potato Head and Mrs. Potato Head were classic toys that many of us grew up with, but in 2021 Hasbro decided it was high-time to make some changes: the company dropped the gendered “Mr.” from the Potato Head brand name and launched gender-neutral family sets that include a variety of accessories kids can choose from when playing with the toys, allowing them to dress their Potato Head family up as they see fit. It’s a smart solution that is as clever as it is inclusive.
How to become an inclusive brand
Let’s say you’re a heritage babycare brand. It’s a safe bet that your target audience is mothers. Because of this, the look and feel of your brand is likely crafted to appeal to the traditional idea of mothers, which is to say, heterosexual women who exhibit traditionally feminine gender characteristics. Everything from ad creative to copy on your website, in campaigns, and on social media is likely anchored in what you believe will make a mother stop and pay attention.
It might sound like moving away from this decision is a complicated process, but it’s actually quite easy. The quickest way to make the change and become more inclusive is to shift your brand’s mindset from appealing to mothers to appealing to parents.
From there, consider who parents are these days. Their age range, their sexual orientations, their genders, and their ethnicities are absolutely core considerations and can help you begin to reflect the world today. For example, parents include heterosexual couples, working parents, single moms, same-sex couples, stay-at-home dads—the list goes on and on.
Another key component of inclusion is to highlight different lifestyles. Consider how these parents express themselves as individuals, what aesthetics appeal to them, what their interests are, and then incorporate these details into your campaigns.
For example, choosing to feature a mother who has a full sleeve of tattoos, a heterosexual couple who have adopted a child of a different ethnicity, or a single dad who uses a wheelchair is a great start. The next step is to adapt the copy you use to include mothers, fathers, families, and parents and to weave in a variety of pronouns that those people might use. These changes will help ensure your brand is not just diverse, but inclusive.
With one change in mindset, you’ve suddenly unlocked a treasure trove of opportunities and begun to appeal to not just traditionally feminine mothers, but parents of all stripes.
How agencies can help
A recent survey by R3 found that 40% of agencies across Southeast Asia said their client briefs never include diversity and inclusion specifications. Beyond this, 44% of the advertisements included in the report’s review had narratives driven by a male perspective and showed women in domestic, familial, or maternal roles.
This goes to show that there is still much room for improvement across the region and that agencies can help be a catalyst for change by speaking with clients about diversity and inclusion and making proactive recommendations that can help steer them in a more inclusive direction.
Change isn’t always easy, but inclusivity is worth it
When your brand embarks on inclusive campaigns, it is possible that you’ll ruffle some feathers along the way and may even encounter calls for cancellation. It can be hard to come under fire—and even harder to withstand it. But ultimately, reasserting your brand’s perspective and displaying inclusivity is never a bad move.
Singaporean jeweller Poh Heng Jewellery has been lauded for its inclusive campaigns, such as 2018’s 'A Journey of Trust', which included images of real couples including two gay couples, and 2021’s 'Created for Love', which featured three brides from different ethnic backgrounds and religions.
While it is important to consider market demographics when building a campaign, it’s more important to consider your brand, your target audience, and what you stand for as a company. Even if there is backlash to a new, inclusive direction, you’ll be appealing to a group of people who perhaps have never felt acknowledged by your brand before—and there is immense power in that.
Bethany Bloch is a senior editor at Mutant Communications.