While debates about cancel culture, voting rights and who qualifies for which athletic competition percolate on the policy level, consumers are voting with their identities. Americans especially are demanding more specialized options for their pronouns, sexuality, race and ethnicity and — as employees — are resigning from their jobs by the millions for more meaningful work. These shifts in the U.S. markets are occurring fast and businesses must shift, too, starting with how they sample and research their customers and workforce, according to a new project helmed by multicultural research agencies, Insights in Color, where I serve on the board, Lucid and my company ThinkNow.
Studies show that as young Americans are coming of age, they are increasingly choosing to redefine who they are, instead of confining themselves to the restrictive categories researchers have used for years. The U.S. Census, for example, significantly changed during the millennial’s lifetime, allowing some 2.4% of the population to identify as more than one race for the first time in 2000.
From its start in 1790 until 1850, people had far fewer options on the Census (“free white persons,” “all other free persons” and “slaves”) and until 1960 were identified according to the enumerator instead of being allowed to self-identify. Marketers have since learned that Americans’ identities are far more nuanced; many more self-identified as “white” than the enumerators counted.
In our “Redefining Identity in Research” project, we not only included more categories for identifiers but also suggested the use of alphabetical order to mitigate the implicit bias toward the “white,” “heterosexual” and “male” categories that were present even on the 2000 Census.
No group in the U.S. is a monolith, although research has treated them as such. Taking into consideration the nation’s foundational history of immigration, for example, we include options to identify by ethnicity in addition to race, as it is sometimes viewed differently to a consumer than their genetic background. Understanding these subtleties can save brands millions in marketing blunders as social media refines the path for cost-effective, hyper-niche communications that engage multiple audiences simultaneously.
Consumers’ gender, sexuality and pronouns are becoming more fluid, too. Today, more than half of Gen-Z (59%) and a good share of millennials (50%) feel that data around gender should not be restricted to “man” and “woman,” according to 2018 data from the Pew Research Center. To collect insights from respondents who do not identify as male or female, it’s important to include a third, “non-gender conforming” category as well as options to account for changes to a respondent’s identity over time.
Similarly, with sexuality, one may share more information about their experimentation years when she/he/they+ aligned more closely with one identifier than their current preference. This includes variables for periods of uncertainty, for the some 5.6% of U.S. adults who identify as LGBTQIA+, according to a 2021 Gallup poll (up 4.5% from 2017). Diversity in the variables gives consumers the ability to self-identify with confidence and more accurately relay how their identities impact their spending and workplace behaviors, if at all.
As consumers feel freer to live between the lines, leaving space to self-describe also keeps researchers up to date on the new ways in which labels may be shifting. Offering privacy and the use of preferred pronouns and name, which may differ from their birth name, are other recommended measures to encourage trust, honesty and ultimately brand loyalty from the respondents.
It’s only been a decade since Nobel Prize laureate George Akelof and Professor Rachel Kraton published Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being (2010) and the U.S. is already deeply rooted in the use of identity-based marketing instead of superficial monetary incentives, spurred not only by differences in the population demographics, but also in global market responses to the pandemic and worldwide protests for equality and equity. A record 47% of new independent directors from racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds were added, compared to just 22% the year before, revealed board statements released between May 2020 and May 2021.
Although the change is occurring quickly, shifts in behavior take time. I’m seeing organizations setting goals to fully implement their new research structures by 2022. By ensuring that this fluidity can be recorded and measured, researchers and marketers can more authentically connect with consumer values.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.