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Using language to be an inclusive brand

23 July 2021

Language is an important element of any brand. From organisation names, to strap lines, to the voice of copy text, language does a lot of heavy lifting for a brand’s identity. It can communicate conscious and unconscious messages, including messages of who is included within your audience or excluded from it.

Language as a representation of different lived experiences

The use of language in brand is commonly associated with the idea of a brand voice – the way in which things are said, for example to seem friendly and approachable. However, it’s particularly important to ensure there are individuals with diverse lived experiences involved in the creation of your brand. Without these voices, it can be all too easy to use language in a way which maintains structural and systemic inequalities and discrimination.

Ensuring your team is diverse is also an important step, as is conducting regular user research and consultation to inform your use of language. There might be particular lived experiences which are the most relevant for your brand, like experiences of being a child today for a youth charity and place-based experiences for a local charity. Then there are experiences which all or the vast majority of organisations need to think about: 

Using language to bring people in

My experiences as a dyslexic person with a non-binary gender inform how I receive different brands. Small differences can make me feel included and welcomed, or excluded and ignored – and if you’re looking for me to become a supporter or beneficiary and your brand does the latter, I’m far more likely to walk away.

Little changes include making sure you’re using phrases which are inclusive of non-binary people and avoid gender stereotypes, such as switching from ‘ladies and gentlemen’ to ‘everyone’ or from ‘guys’ to ‘folks’ or ‘friends’. This might seem tiny and unimportant but can make the world of difference to the experiences of people like me.

Being dyslexic also influences how accessible a brand is to me and whether I’m likely to see an organisation positively. The government has issued guidance on accessible communication formats across a range of disabilities and British Dyslexia Association have created a style guide. Design is important to accessibility, but so is language – be concise, use the active voice, and use images and icons as another form of language to support text.

Using graphics and challenging stereotypes

Word choice is a key part of the language we use in branding, but icons and other graphics also offer a form of language which carries meaning. Icons often simplify in order to convey messages quickly, but can resort to stereotypes as a result. It’s important to think about the range of icons used, how they are combined, and how they are being used alongside text to communicate a message.

A common example of this is gendered icons for ‘male’ and ‘female’ – often we create icons that suggest a male figure first and a female option based on that figure through the addition of long hair or a dress. This can reinforce the idea that male is the norm and, when used together to signify a couple or a family, also reinforce the idea that heterosexuality is the norm. It can also erase the experiences of people with visible disabilities.

Having a range of icons with the same style can be the easiest way to show your brand is welcoming and inclusive of diversity, rather than relying on a single or small number of icons to be universal symbols. Caroline Casey explains why the launch of emojis including disabled people will have a major impact on society’s perceptions and inclusion of disabled people. The same is true for spending time creating an inclusive iconographic language for your brand. 

Top Tips

  • Challenge stereotypes, don’t reinforce them. With time pressures it can be easy to fall back on what we think we know about people different from ourselves, but often this is based on harmful tropes repeated in the media and not on individuals’ lived experiences
  • Start with small experiments in user research for new brand materials and adjust elements of your language based on feedback. This can help you make your brand more inclusive in an iterative process
  • Align your brand manual or style guide with resources produced by experts in their fields. If your central resource for brand embeds an anti-racist approach, prioritises accessibility, and talks about different lived experiences in inclusive ways, it will mainstream this thinking in all your branding

Other resources to check out:

Image: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Pip Gardner

chief executive, The Kite Trust

Pip’s career to date spans a variety of leadership, communications, research and evaluation roles in the charity, education and arts sectors. Pip is chief executive at The Kite Trust who provide services for LGBT+ youth in the East of England. Prior to that they were communications manager at Woodcraft Folk, monitoring and evaluation manager at Hull UK City of Culture 2017, and has completed a PhD in Cultural Geography from the University of Sheffield. Pip has previously held trustee roles with Girlguiding, Girlguiding Anglia, and Purple House Women’s Centre.