‘Progress starts with a pronoun’: Austin agency T3 adds to industry conversation around gender fluidity

The Pronoun Project, launched by T3 for SXSW, hopes to proactively drive dialogue about gender fluidity / T3

Austin-based independent agency T3 has launched a new initiative, entitled “The Pronoun Project” to have brands and other agencies start embracing the fluidity of gender, and to stop marketing gender through a binary lens.

The agency, located in the same city as the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference, looked to create a unique discussion and challenge the industry on the topic.

Angela Yang, T3’s director of social and strategy, explained: “We ourselves wanted to be more active.”

Gender is an increasing topic of discussion among millennials and Gen-Z'ers , which has not gone unnoticed by the advertising industry.

According to a “Massive Millennial Poll” conducted by Univision-owned network Fusion, half of millennials consider gender to not be limited to a male-female binary, but a spectrum in which people fall outside of set categories. Further, according to J. Walter Thompson's innovations group, more than 56% of Gen-Z’ers know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.

Social media has been a facilitator and accelerator for these discussions evolving from fringe chatter to more mainstream acceptance of an evolving view of how people identify themselves. However more traditional mediums have been slow to understand and reflect this “new normal” to a mainstream audience.

Yang warns against agencies looking at the research as a trend, noting a discussion with panelist Shane Whalley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who also identifies as "ze." "Ze's been talking about this forever," says Yang, "It’s not a new thing, it’s not a trend, but rather a moment in time where we can take a meaningful look at something that’s been going on for a while."

By launching The Pronoun Project, Yang and team hope to create a simple thought-starter that will help create the necessary dialogue around gender as a spectrum. The team focused on pronouns, Yang said, because “It’s an easy way to say ‘Hey! I’m going to question that.’”

In addition to the panel at SXSW, T3 will be handing out pins and buttons to attendees; the buttons saying “My pronouns are: ______” and the pins etched with the project’s logomark.

The swag and dedicated page, Yang said, are an attempt to make a lasting impression on those in attendance.”We wanted to make sure that the message went beyond that and could grow past the conference.”

On the dedicated landing page, key facts about the developing views of gender have been highlighted, as well as additional resources, developer codes, and web browser plug-ins. In addition, the agency has partnered with local organizations Equality Texas, Trans Lifeline, and Gender Spectrum, pledging to match every donation up to $5,000 for the charities.

T3 hopes this conversation and what comes from it will allow The Pronoun Project to scale. “This is just a phase one,” Yang said, “but the hope is that we can get this to a broader audience and get other companies to jump on board and pledge money like T3 is.”

Brands have made attempts to market their awareness to gender inclusion in the past. Most recently, for International Women’s Day, Johnnie Walker introduced “Jane Walker” for women’s equality, and McDonalds flipped its trademark golden arches to resemble a ‘W.’ The stunts recieved an overwhelming mixed response, causing concern that brands may misstep further in an attempt to resonate to people who don’t fit into the binary.

Further, Yang asked, “what happens to gender fluid people, or those who don’t identify? Can they be included in an International Women’s Day? Are they a part of this?”

“I think some brands will do it well and some won’t.” she said, adding: “This isn’t a trend that we’re seeing – it’s a challenge as we go to see how people will identify.” A potential solve would be to strip gender out of brand marketing, but she warned against it. “It’s not about removing gender, it’s about providing the opportunity to identify themselves beyond your gender. Gender is not the core of who they are.”

As brands begin to dive deeper into these waters, things like the gender pay gap and the “tampon tax” become redder flags than they used to. Since Gen Z has been said to have over $1.5trn in spending power, looking into adjusting the purchase end of the traditional marketing funnel needs to be considered as well. “If you think about business objectives, the truth is that Gen Z is looking at gender on a spectrum,” said Yang, “and these are the people who have potentially trillions of dollars in buying power. It’s smart to acknowledge that.”

This added to the diversity and inclusion discussions that the advertising industry, along with others, are having. Race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender, in the male-female sense, have been points of contention, but the concept of a spectrum adds a new layer of discussion. Yang herself had to take a step back, wondering, “Who gets to decide what is included? Who gets to decide what kind of diversity is accepted?”

Further, with holding companies like WPP dealing with the fallout of its pay gap revelation earlier this month, this evolving "new normal" complicates an already interesting issue for the industry to tackle. Yang cited the inclusion of panelist Andy Bossley, who works as IBM’s head of performance marketing. “There’s room for large companies too. It’s hard to move a large organization into something that might not feel the new normal,” but she believes individuals like Bossley are the people that can get change to happen.

“For him to share this with IBM, an organization of that size, is a key part.”

There are expected to be many questions to come from the SXSW discussion, but Yang—who identifies as cisgender female—considered herself “pretty humbled” by the experience of building The Pronoun Project with her agency. “I’m looking forward to challenge the things we hold true every day. We think we’re being allies, but it’s not just a social trend or a hashtag.”

And for brands? “I think it’ll be difficult for brands to insert themselves into the conversation authentically,” she admitted, “but if they start educating themselves, it’s a good start.”

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.