A growing number of companies are working to effectively, respectfully engage transgender consumers through ad campaigns and inclusive company policies. Experts explain why — and what it takes to get it right.
Earlier this year, the makers of Thinx, a hip line of underwear designed to absorb menstrual blood, released a new product for transgender men. The idea for its new boyshort came after employees read customer posts on Reddit that aired concerns about the female-focused nature of the line, as well as Thinx’s slogan, “for women with periods,” cofounder Miki Agrawal says.
“We were reminded that women are not the only ones who have periods,” she says. “Many who transition from women to men still menstruate, and would love a pair of underwear from us.”
The Thinx team spent the better part of a year developing the new product, and a new tagline to go with it: “for people with periods.” Agrawal says the product is a hit. “People love it, and they’re grateful that they’re being heard and seen.”
For the transgender community, this sort of intentional inclusion remains largely elusive. While some businesses are hitting the mark, transgender men and women more often face either a lack of concern and attention from corporations and marketers, or a lack of understanding.
But those at the top of a growing number of companies, like Agrawal, are seeing opportunity in this oft-ignored portion of society to broaden their appeal to consumers within the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community — and beyond. And they are reaching out often for a combination of economic and moral reasons, experts say.
Engaging a Complex Group
According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, about 1.4 million people in the United States identify as transgender, or roughly 0.6 percent of the population. The true number is likely larger, however, since continued social stigma and the threat of physical and emotional harm undoubtedly keep many people from publicly identifying themselves (as is the case with the broader LGBT community).
Indeed, transgender men and women are especially at risk of violent attacks, research has shown, and rejection or discrimination from others leads to increased suicide rates. Moreover, many transgender people face discriminatory laws at local and state levels, among other indignities.
The problems facing transgender people are receiving more attention and concern among the broader American populace though, now that more of them are entering the public eye. Not only have folks such as former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, actress Laverne Cox, author and editor Janet Mock and model Isis King achieved cultural prominence, fictional transgender characters, such as Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura on the hit Amazon show “Transparent,” have also been written into popular television programs and films. And next month, National Geographic will publish its first-ever issue focused on gender identity.
The effects are now extending beyond the entertainment and media industries, too — and Thinx is not the only company speaking to the transgender community. Dating sites OKCupid and Tinder have added new gender-identity options that transgender users can select while setting up their profiles. And retailers like Diesel, Marriott and Nike have prominently featured transgender men and women in ad campaigns.
Internal corporate policies are also shifting. A number of Fortune 500 companies have implemented transgender-inclusive anti-discrimination policies, and some businesses are taking public stands in favor of inclusivity. For example, Target announced in April that it would allow customers and employees to use restrooms and fitting rooms consistent with the gender with which they identify.
Engaging the LGBT community as consumers in such ways is a smart business move. Last year, their combined buying power reached $917 billion, according to Bob Witeck of Witeck Communications, who has been researching the subject for years.
Carolyn Weiss, a transgender business professional and the founder of Transgender Business Services, stressed the significance of Target’s move. “It’s important for members of the transgender community to know that, when they go to Target, they won’t have a problem in the changing room. They’ll be respected.”
This, she says, is one way that firms can win over the transgender community and other consumers who value inclusivity. “If you’re a clothing retailer, and you make it known that everyone is welcome in your store to use the appropriate changing room, that matters. That’s noticed.”
Yet while there are financial rewards for businesses that engage the LGBT community successfully, experts warn that, if those efforts lack realness and attention to detail, they can fall flat.
The Need for Nuance and Authenticity
Finding ways to advertise to transgender men and women that are both creative and sensitive can be tricky.
Weiss says that some businesses fall into the trap of “making assumptions that we’re a homogenous block of consumers. Just like everyone else, we have individual issues, needs and concerns. If you treat everyone as though they were the same, then there’s a certain percentage of trans consumers who are going to get turned off.”
Jenn T. Grace, another LGBT-focused business expert, agreed. “They’re looking at the LGBT community as one big, mass lump of people who look the same, act the same and buy the same.”
For instance, companies that want to reach transgendered women need to better understand the barriers that keep them away, says Michaela Mendelsohn, a transgender workers’ advocate and CEO of Pollo West Corp., which runs a chain of restaurants in California. “In general, trans women are somewhat shy about public exposure on an everyday level,” due to fears of being misgendered, or addressed as men, and of being harassed, which is a more common occurrence for transgender women.
Other companies’ attempts to engage transgender people, meanwhile, miss the mark because they’re primarily about optics, says Witeck. “It’s a challenge for marketers to have truthful representation — to show respect, and also, the ‘ordinary-ness’ of trans people,” he says.
Advertising campaigns, such as those by Nike, Diesel and Marriott, as well as others from Honey Maid and Allstate Insurance, light the way by being overt and intentional in their inclusivity. Grace referred to the ideal as “inclusion-based marketing,” or “the intentional act of including all different people within your marketing, with LGBT people as a piece of a whole.”
She also says that inclusivity shouldn’t stop at marketing; it should be a part of the company’s culture. “You can’t throw an ad in an LGBT publication thinking that’s going to work, if someone goes into your location and the person they talk to at the front desk is discriminatory.”
Doing Business in a Shifting Landscape
Stitching inclusivity into the fabric of a company, in Weiss’ opinion, is “simply a matter of educating staff and managers as to the right things to do. For trans customers, that includes avoiding things like improper use of pronouns and disrespecting anyone because of what they look like or how they transition.”
Mendelsohn, who has trained employers on transgender inclusion, and made a video on the subject (to be released soon), says this is also important to transgender employees because “we all identify, so much, with what we do 40 hours a week.”
When businesses get inclusion right from the inside, many consumers take note, Weiss says. After HB2, the controversial “Bathroom Bill” in North Carolina, was introduced this year, a number of local businesses offered open arms to trans people. “A lot of businesses there who want to keep LGBT customers put up signs saying that they’re open to everyone. It sounds hokey, but that kind of thing still works.”
Witeck added that, when businesses succeed in these efforts, they can reach not just those whom they hope to include, but other consumers who value tolerance and inclusion as well — and profit as a result. Younger shoppers in particular tend to “vote with their brand preferences,” he says. They are often more LGBT-friendly, and “they expect brands to use real people, in real situations, telling real stories about real lives.”
“The Right Thing to Do”
Businesses must also be concerned about protecting transgender female and male employees from harassment and assault — protection they are entitled to by law. Mendelsohn recalls a story of an employee whose former manager forced her to use the men’s room, though she identified and presented as a woman. She was subject to a harrowing sexual assault and later lost her job.
Such stories are not uncommon, Mendelsohn says. “Human resources departments need to realize that these lives are more and more important to understand.”
Asked why Thinx chose to incorporate transgender-friendly products into their line, Agrawal says plainly: “They’re people, just like us. If trans people are strong enough to decide to change sexes and transition to be more of who they are? That’s inspirational. If we can support that in any way, shape or form, we’ll do that.”
Transgender Business Services’ Weiss, who transitioned on the job, says she has benefited from this kind of open-mindedness. “People’s abilities and personalities don’t change upon transitioning from one gender to another. It’s the same person, in a different shell. There’s recognition of that.”
When businesses get it right, it works. Mendelsohn says her chain of restaurants has flourished thanks to inclusive practices. “It’s been successful for me, as a business person. Now, I speak about how this is not only the right thing to do ethically, but it’s also good for business.”