Marketing and inclusiveness: how to avoid discrimination with an inclusive language

22 June 2021Reading time: 6 min.

It’s Pride month. Let’s take this chance to bring the gender inclusion debate onto our blog, which is becoming increasingly central in the world of digital communication. Here are some tips to make your Email Marketing campaigns (and language) more inclusive.  

Since the beginning of digital communication, we’ve been accustomed to a language that frequently uses well-marked gender labels. This includes the predominance of masculine formulas to address an audience that’s definitely varied. Think, for example, of a simple, everyday expression like “Hey guys!” that we find and hear so often online. 

This type of language never gave rise to any special discussion in the past. In fact, it often went unnoticed. However, over recent years, we’ve witnessed the growing relevance of matters like gender inclusion and the fight against absolutist “male” and “female” labels. Nowadays, there’s a magnifying glass on all the formulas that explicitly denote a binary gender distinction. The same is true for all the advertisements or visuals that tend to convey a non-inclusive and narrow vision of society. 

So let’s look at how to communicate in a more inclusive way, plus the tricks to create a truly universal digital marketing strategy. 

Inclusive language: what it is, and why it matters 

Inclusive language respects, legitimizes, and recognizes any gender identity. It doesn’t use labels, formulas, and expressions constraining identification freedom and excluding groups of people from the whole public it addresses. 

Why does it matter? It’s simple: language isn’t just an expression tool. Rather, it reflects society’s cultural structure and mentality. Language shapes our thoughts. Therefore, any linguistic barrier that can favor gender discrimination risks making those discriminatory barriers concrete and real. That’s why educating ourselves to abandon some limiting labels and learning to use an inclusive language matters. This is even more true when it comes to web communication. Here, given the web’s social reach and impact, the consequences of a non-inclusive language can be even more heavy and dangerous

Inclusive language and, more generally, an inclusive marketing strategy are key for a company today. They let you:

  • consolidate the brand’s good reputation;
  • transmit universal values and messages for everyone to identify and recognize themselves;
  • create a community where every user can feel accepted, and
  • promote a culture and environment without discrimination and labeling. 

Avoiding risks and mistakes 

In order to optimize the language of your content and make it more inclusive, avoid the main pitfall: don’t use formulas that make explicit gender distinctions (“What’s up, dudes?”, “He’s missed the last post”, or “The client may be fed up with his subscription. Man, it’s time to get Premium!”, and so on). Don’t use gender pronouns (he/his and she/her) or resort to dynamic fields associated with the gender of the contact. This way, you can formulate sentences accordingly, such as “Hello Paola, A womand like you deserves her own personal discount.” 

Wrong formulas are especially evident and annoying in the following cases: 

  • when directly addressing the reader, especially in calls to action, greetings, email openings, SMS, chatbot conversation, etc.;
  • in very short, prominent texts like the H1s and H2s or the subject line and preheader of an email, since these are immediately evident to the user’s eye, and
  • in all microcopies, i.e., the contact messages that establish a face-to-face conversation with the user. 

Obviously, all of this holds true for both masculine- and feminine-oriented formulas. 

Different proposals for an inclusive language

How to bypass these pitfalls? Over recent years, proposals have also emerged in Italy to innovate and make language more flexible. These include the replacement of the final letters (that indicate the gender in Italian) with “neutral” asterisks or apostrophes, such as “_” or “@”, or with letters like “U” or “x”. This tendency to innovate language isn’t just Italian. Proposals meet the emerging need for inclusive language solutions all over the world. For example, the singular they in English, the “at” sign in words like “muchach@s” or plural forms like “todes” in Spanish, or even the introduction of new terms like the inclusive pronoun “hen” in Swedish. 

So let’s take a look at the main alternatives for making your social media, email, and SMS language more inclusive. 

The schwa

The schwa (“ə”) symbol belongs to the International Phonetic Alphabet (AFI) used by linguists to write down the sounds of all the languages spoken in the world. The name schwa comes from German which, in turn, comes from the Hebrew “shav”. The latter associates this word’s meaning with “nothing” or “zero”. In fact, it’s an intermediate vowel placed halfway between the actual vowels. Its sound is pronounced by keeping the mouth at rest without misshaping it, but opening it just slightly. 

schwa scheme

Source: Italiano inclusivo (Inclusive Italian)

We could compare this sound to the pronunciation of “a” in English words like “about” or “u” in terms like “survive”. There, a specific symbol corresponds to an indistinct and non-codable vowel sound. 

In recent years, the schwa has been one of the most popular linguistic proposals due to a series of benefits

  • it has a sound, unlike other solutions like the asterisk;
  • it’s never been used to identify any gender, as opposed to vowels such as “u”, which in some Italian dialects have a masculine value, and
  • its indistinct sound perfectly suits an indistinct gender.

However, these relevant benefits come with some disadvantages that constitute a significant obstacle:

  • it sounds alien to the standard Italian pronunciation, except for those dialects in which it somehow resonates more familiar;
  • many PC and smartphone keyboards lack it, thus requiring copy/paste, and 
  • it’s considered ableist and ageist, i.e., it adds reading problems for those with difficulties and the elderly.

Despite these hindrances, the symbol has gained momentum lately. We find it in advertising, social media, publishing, and, surprisingly, even public administration (see, for example, the social posts by the municipality of Castelfranco in Emilia Romagna). 

The asterisk 

Quite possibly, the asterisk has been one of the first attempts at inclusive language. It’s often used on social networks and advertisements in a very similar way as the schwa. In Italian, it replaces the final letters that imply a binary distinction between the masculine and the feminine (such as the “a” and the “o”) with a neutral symbol, e.g. transforming “amico” (friend, he) into “amic*”. 

Unlike the schwa, however, the asterisk has a great limitation: it can’t be pronounced because it doesn’t correspond to any kind of sound. Accordingly, it’s an optimal choice for read-only objectives and communication channels. However, it’s not recommended for associated content which, for example, could be the subject of voice searches. Now, the real big obstacle in adopting this linguistic proposal lies here. In fact, audio is growing in relevance and the voice technology trend, such as the voice search for content, is increasingly wide spread. 

Gender-neutral formulas

A way to avoid replacing letters (e.g. using * instead of he/she in English) may bypass any risk and rephrase an expression with a more neutral phrase.  

Obviously, this solution implies a reformulation of the sentence and can lead to different nuances in the communication. It requires the writer to make an effort of flexibility. However, among several proposals, it undoubtedly presents the least number of problems and obstacles:

  • it doesn’t involve introducing new symbols or characters unfamiliar to the public;
  • it doesn’t mess with reading and understanding, thus representing the most inclusive and universal choice;
  • it doesn’t imply the use of special characters, which are often absent on PC keyboards and mobile devices, and
  • has no voice search pronunciation barriers. 

Inclusiveness and Email Marketing 

Of course, these best practices of inclusive language can also settle within an Email Marketing strategy. Here, indeed, a broader work must make room for such kind of language optimization. It’s not just a matter of copy on CTA, titles, and subject. Tt must also involve images, photos, and content. In other words, not only the language but every single component of an email must be just right. Everything needs to represent and convey the general concept of the cohabitation of differences. Any recipient should truly relate and feel called into question. 

Examples of inclusive email marketing campaigns

everlane-inclusive-email-campaigns

This collage by Litmus highlights the strong inclusiveness of Everlane email campaigns. Here, both the visual and the copy target an extremely varied audience.

aisle-inclusive-campaign
lyft-inclusive-email-example

Conclusions

We’re still far from finding definitive solutions and universal norms to regulate a unique and inclusive way of communicating. However, the various proposals made so far and the growing corporate interest in more and more gender-inclusive messages, have shown a clear fact: there’s an issue to be discussed. If we want to preserve a relationship of loyalty with our community, then we can no longer neglect it. 

This article was written by

Paola Bergamini

Paola Bergamini

I was born in 1993 in Como and I escaped from this little town to study in Milan, where I graduated in 2017 in philosophy. I've always been interested in marketing and communication and I love writing and reading. As Content Editor at MailUp, I try to keep up to date with Email and Digital Marketing news, in order to share trends, theories and tools about this constantly evolving sector.

Related articles