Becoming a More Inclusive Brand: Where to Begin
When inclusive language comes up in a localization context, it’s often in a discussion about gender. And as conversations around women’s rights, trans rights, and the limitations of the gender binary become more mainstream, global brands carry an increasing responsibility to ensure their multilingual content truly expresses the diversity of the human experience.
The complexity that comes with a topic as sensitive and as personal as gender, compounded by the fear and stigma attached to “getting it wrong”, can at times lead to confusion and inaction. What’s more, conversations around gender and language are constantly evolving. There is no definite answer or endpoint for brands to reach – to stay relevant, they must follow these conversations closely, and remain receptive to the issues and concerns voiced by their target audiences.
So, it’s no surprise that when it comes to mapping out a localization strategy for gender-inclusive language, many brands find themselves stuck in the mud. This article aims to provide a springboard for further discussion around this topic, plus some suggestions of where to start.
Beyond The Gender Binary
Before we journey on, it’s important to acknowledge the vastness of the umbrella term inclusive language. Of course, inclusive language is not just about gender. For messaging to be wholly inclusive, brands must consider the broader picture, taking into account other relevant aspects such as ability/disability, sexual orientation, age, religion, and neurodiversity. In this particular article, we will be shining a spotlight on the relationship between gender and inclusive language, whilst aiming to keep in mind the wider implications too.
Benchmarking Your Brand
To get to where you want to be, there’s value in first taking an honest look at where you are now. Start by carrying out an inclusivity audit of your existing marketing materials and communications, using the following questions as prompts.
- Who is your audience?
There are many approaches to inclusive language, and different demographics have different levels of familiarity and comfort with these various approaches. Understand how open your target audience is to this subject, and what the general attitudes are that surround it.
- What are your brand's communication goals?
Is your goal to avoid dated expressions? To appeal to specific underrepresented audiences? Or to position yourself as a leader of language change? You want your source content and its multilingual adaptations to reflect these goals, and to align with your brand values.
- How much can you customize your approach to each target market?
The conversation around inclusive language is different in every language and every market, and in many cases a 1:1 translation won’t be possible. Sometimes there are technical or budgetary limitations that can impact how far translations can stray from the source, which could shape the approach you are able to take at this time. If you’re unable to roll out your inclusive approach across the board, identify your most central pieces of marketing collateral and start with those.
What Matters to Your Target Market?
Once you have more of a handle on your brand’s communication goals, it’s time to take a closer look at your target markets.
Getting familiar with how your target audiences will respond to inclusive language is key to building your strategy. To do this, you’ll need to gather insights from market-based experts who can be your eyes and ears, acting as your guides and informers for each target market.
As we’ve already established, gender-inclusive language is a multi-faceted topic, so it’s worth laying out some guidelines and parameters for your research. Consider creating a snapshot report for each of your target markets by looking into the following key areas:
- Trending topics
What are the pressing concerns and issues voiced by your target audience(s) in relation to gender-inclusive language? And alongside this, are there other conversations happening around other aspects of inclusivity, such as race or age, that you should be sensitive to?
Market snapshot: Although the Japanese language is genderless from a grammatical point of view, when it comes to everyday word choices and speech patterns, there’s a clear divide between the casual spoken language used by men and women. So much so, there are specific terms used to define masculine language (男性語) and feminine language (女性語). In recent years, there has been a push against this, with queer Japanese communities using genderless alternatives to express themselves. Throughout the younger generations this approach is making waves, and some progress can be seen in certain settings. For example – university students across the country are discouraging faculty staff from using -chan and -kun (female and male name suffixes, respectively), and promoting the gender-neutral -san instead.
- Suggested localization approaches
What solutions and workarounds already exist in your target market that aim to integrate gender-inclusive language? How successful do communities feel these are? What approaches have been rejected in the past and why?
Market snapshot: In Italy, several alternative structures are making their way into everyday language to help neutralize gendered or typically masculine words. Some of these include the use of the symbol “schwa” (ə) as a neutral suffix in written language (e.g. "Buongiorno a tuttə"), the use of the asterisk (e.g. "Buongiorno a tutt*"), and the use of "@" (e.g. "Buongiorno a tutt@"). No official ruling has been made in relation to these terms, however, there’s no doubt that the call for a more gender-neutral approach is apparent in this market.
- Reputable sources or influential voices
Understand who, or what organizations, are thought leaders in the inclusive-language space. In some markets, you may find that gender-inclusive phrases that have not yet made it into academia are still widely accepted within society, so it’s important to be aware of multiple sources of truth.
Market snapshot: Brazilian activist, Pri Bertucci, founded the SSEX BBOX institute, which has been raising awareness, organizing events and campaigns, and providing consultation to promote social equity and diversity for the past ten years. The General Secretariat of the EU Council has also launched an Inclusive Communication Guide in Portuguese, which advises against the use of stereotypes and aims to promote greater equity in communication.
The Way Forward
Just as the topic of gender itself is a very personal and subjective one, a brand’s approach to implementing gender-inclusive language should too be treated with sensitivity and careful consideration.
Brands must walk the tightrope between finding a strategy that aligns with their company values and missions, whilst respecting the voices of their target audiences. For many markets, conversations around gender-inclusive language are still in their infancy, and so brands must tailor their approach for different markets, and respect the boundaries outlined by their consumers. And when a gender-inclusive approach alters the sentiment, impact, or meaning of the localized content, brands must make decisions as to which elements of their messaging they should prioritize in that particular context.
The ultimate aim is for brands to build their inclusive-language practices into the fabric of their brand identity, and the style and tone of voice guides that go with it. This way, conversations around gender-inclusive language become an integral part of the localization process, and costly re-working can be avoided. There’s no denying that this is no simple task. Brands must be prepared to embrace change – leaning on native linguists and SMEs to help them navigate these changes, and in turn, allowing themselves to grow and learn alongside their target audiences.
Special thanks go to members of the Inclusive Language Group at Mother Tongue, Shaun Kelly and Nathalia Rio Preto, for their support with research for this article.