A pronoun is a word that can function by itself as a noun phrase and that refers either to the participants in the discourse (e.g., I, you ) or to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the discourse (e.g., she, it, this).
The use of pronouns is becoming more and more important, not in terms of how often they’re used—but how they’re used. Pronouns are closely related to gender and can be necessary signals of acceptance and affirmation of identity.
For many intersex, transgender, nonbinary, gender fluid, and gender non-conforming persons, “he” or “she” is not the most comfortable pronoun. There are many pronouns used across the spectrum of gender, but for marketers, it’s imperative to understand how to use the most elastic of pronouns: they/them.
Why use they/them?
They is both singular and plural. And while autocorrect might still ask if we’d like to change “is” to “are” when using they, language has one purpose: to effectively communicate with another person or an audience.
As marketers, most of us are guilty of assuming gender and assigning a pronoun. However, assuming a gender can be harmful—and that goes against what we’re supposed to be doing: putting customers first, building relationships, and connecting with audiences. Using they/them pronouns, which don’t automatically assign or assume a gender, in our digital marketing where appropriate is a great way to communicate inclusivity and awareness to our audiences.
We believe that in order to understand the not-so-complexities of pronouns, you need to understand gender and gender binary.
What is gender and gender binary?
According to Psychology Today, “gender refers to characteristics that relate to the categories male, female, or some combination thereof. The words “gender” and “sex” are sometimes confused, but a person’s sex refers to biological characteristics determined at conception or in utero; a person’s gender is understood by many researchers to be influenced by a range of societal and environmental factors as well as biological factors.” The term gender is also used more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female.
Gender binary is the classification of gender into two distinct, opposite forms of masculine and feminine, whether by a social system or cultural belief.
As marketers, we’re used to abiding by the gender binary rules set in place long ago, but gender binary rules are not representative of all of your customers. Enter “they” as the default singular pronoun you should be using in your marketing—which is not a new idea. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the first evidence of the use of the singular “they” in a medieval romance called William and the Werewolf, from way back in 1375.
Using pronouns in marketing content 101
Many marketers, copywriters, and content creators abide by some sort of grammar bible, so it helps to check what they have to say on the subject. Lo and behold, many of our trusted grammar guides back the use of a singular they. As of 2019, Associated Press (AP Stylebook), Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Style Manual, and APA Style Manual all accept the usage of the singular they. Merriam Webster additionally added Mx. to its list of titles. That means grammatically you come correct when you deploy the singular they. You can dig a little deeper and read up on they/them pronouns here.
Creating inclusive content
Say you’re creating a paid social ad campaign for a beauty brand and you go with copy like this: “The gift that keeps your girl glowing. Make her feel as beautiful as she is with this colorful, translucent makeup palette that’s perfect for girl’s night out or summertime date nights.” What’s wrong with this caption? Well, for starters, it’s not our best work. More importantly, it assumes a lot about the customer. By using the pronoun “she” here, you’re (possibly inadvertently) indicating that:
- Only people who identify as women use your products.
- Individuals who identify as men have no interest in using your products, which is not always true.
- Individuals who fall along the gender spectrum that use makeup use she/her pronouns.
There are some additional gendered assumptions in ads like this that are worth questioning when you’re figuring out how to position your brand. For example, are you relying on preconceived societal expectations around femininity and makeup to make the case for a potential customer, or are you saying something unique about your product? For ads targeting one half of a couple like this example, are you assuming that the couple is heterosexual? Question those assumptions: that’s how you can make your brand unique and truly find a voice that connects with your customers.
That’s equally true when using demographic information for personalization in marketing assets like emails. But there are plenty of ways that can go sideways. We often make gender assumptions based on names, but a person’s name is not always reflective of someone’s preferred pronoun or gender identity. When creating email content, keep it neutral, keep it simple, and avoid “he” or “she” unless speaking about someone who has made their pronouns clear. Additionally, don’t assume you know someone’s sexuality even if you know their preferred gender identity.
If a person in your database identifies as male, that doesn’t mean they are automatically dating a female. That means a “Gifts for Her” email may fall flat or exclude individuals in a same-sex relationship.
The same rules apply when you’re creating a blog post. While it may be unclear for readers at first (we’re all still learning!), assuming a pronoun in an article or blog can do more harm than good. If you’re interviewing someone for a piece of content, ask them their preferred pronouns and include a clarification in the article you’re writing. This will help the reader follow along, and it shows that your client is genuinely making small, necessary steps towards inclusivity.
Further, if you’re writing a post tied to a gendered keyword, such as “female workout plan,” do your best to remove any implicit bias. Don’t assume that all women want to avoid weight lifting and only do yoga or dance classes. Don’t assume all women are, can, or want to be mothers. Don’t assume that they all have or want the same body shape.
Brands embracing pronouns and inclusivity
Imitation is a form of flattery—and while we’re not saying you should play copycat other brands, sometimes it helps to look at brands who have been doing it right from the start. When looking for inspiration, look at the foundational playbook of brands designed to be inclusive from the very beginning. That inclusivity isn’t siloed into gender-related progression; rather, it transcends race, size, sexuality, and so much more. If you need a reference point, here are some brands we love to learn from:
What about the plural?
You can keep it all plural, or you can mix up a singular and plural pronoun—as long as it’s inclusive. Saying, “When shoppers arrive at our store, they can…” or “When a shopper arrives at our store, they can…” are perfect ways to account for all of our customers, no matter their individual choice of pronoun.
Putting customers first as marketers means being conscious of implicit or explicit biases, prioritizing inclusivity, and challenging our assumptions (and our brand’s assumptions). It’s your responsibility to build a long-lasting relationship between your brand and your customers, and that begins with understanding that customers are individuals. As language continues to evolve to be more empathetic, it’s part of your job as a marketer to adapt and keep up with the changes. If you’re looking for extra guidance, check out the GLAAD Media Reference Guide.