Moving Beyond the Binary: How Applying an Intersectional Lens in Market Research Reaps Rewards

Moving beyond the binary

Due to recent societal and cultural shifts, consumer identities are increasingly becoming more multifaceted and complex. But for the most part, market research classifications and analytical techniques haven’t yet caught up.

Evolving notions of femininity and masculinity have made way for a pluralistic understanding of gender expression. There’s no longer just one way to be a man or a woman, but instead an infinite spectrum. Stay-at-home dads, dual-income households, career-focused women … gender roles are converging more than ever before, shattering traditional gender perceptions and expectations. In addition, the most studied generation of all time, millennials, aren’t just the most racially diverse generation in U.S. history, they’re also significantly more likely than older generations to identify as LGBTQ, according to a survey published by GLAAD.

Given these societal changes, understanding how consumers navigate race, gender, sexuality, and other social categorizations (e.g., class, education level, ability) is critical in developing a rich and authentic snapshot of who consumer segments are, how they perceive the world, and what impact this has for brands. In traditional market research, however, the richness, depth, and intricacy of consumer identities are often lost in translation, relying on outmoded binary divisions and often treating demographic groups as homogenous.

At Insight, we’re moving beyond this by incorporating an intersectional framework into our research, our analysis, and our deliverables, and taking into account more than just traditional demographics to paint the whole picture of who consumers are.

What is Intersectionality?

Coined in the late 1980s by Kimberlé Crenshaw, the term intersectionality rose out of frustration that mainstream feminism often referred to a universal category of womanhood from the point of view of white women, and that race and ethnic studies often focused on racial inequality from the perspective of men of color, without taking into account how the experiences of women of color were impacted by both their race and gender. As such, intersectionality sought to emphasize how the intersections of identities such as race, class, and gender created singular and distinct experiences, different forms of discrimination, and a diverse set of voices.

Since its inception, intersectionality has made its way into many fields in academia, from sociology, to psychology, to law, and has now entered the popular discourse, gaining even greater spotlight during the 2016 election and the 2017 Women’s March.

What Does This Look Like in Practice?

Intersectionality doesn’t call for a new set of research methods and classifications, it simply asks that we re-conceptualize the meaning of social categories and understand their consequences on consumers’ experiences, their decisions, their relationships to brands, and ultimately, their relationship with themselves. It can also lead to simple, small changes, from the language used to the options provided in survey demographic questions.

 

Some tangible examples include:

Expand identity options

Going beyond traditional sexuality options in screeners and surveys (e.g., heterosexual, bisexual, gay) to include a wider range of choices (e.g., heteroflexible, asexual, queer) when applicable to the project, has yielded incredible insights on how consumer identities are shifting and is especially relevant for understanding generational shifts. We also increasingly include a “select-all-that-applies” approach to other identity questions (e.g., race/ethnicity), instead of forcing consumers to tick off just one box, better reflecting how they perceive themselves and accounting for the fact that intersecting identities impact social behaviors.

Treat sex and gender as separate

As relevant to the project, we avoid the sex identifiers “male” and “female,” instead referring to respondents in our reports by their gender: women, men, or other/non-binary, based on how they self-identify. In screeners and surveys, we sometimes expand the gender options beyond just woman or man, including options like transgender male and transgender female (among others) to be more inclusive of diverse gender identities.

Consider more gender-inclusive research designs

In our kids’ practice, we push our clients to include both boys and girls when testing traditionally gender-typed toys and products, as we find that today’s kids are increasingly gender-fluid when it comes to what they wear and consume and generally more open to playing with toys traditionally marketed to the opposite sex. While this might not always be relevant to all clients, the rise and popularity of men in the beauty blogging/vlogging world goes to show that even industries dominated by women consumers are shifting, evolving, and appealing to broader segments.

Dig into the complexity of respondent backgrounds

In our qualitative explorations, we unpack how factors like gender, race, ethnicity, where they grew up, and/or socio-economic backgrounds impact who they are and how they experience the world. This creates richer consumer profiles and uncovers deeper implications regarding how brands can resonate more deeply with targets in an authentic, holistic way, and which identity dimensions drive the strongest brand and content connections.

Why Does This Matter For Your Brand?

As market researchers, our job is to understand people and communicate to brands who they are, what they think, and how they act; in turn, informing how brands can deepen their relationships with consumers and increase engagement. At Insight, we are moving beyond market research practices of the past, which gloss over the diversity within consumer groups and often fail to take into consideration how consumers’ various intersectional identities influence their choices, attitudes, and behaviors.

 

Using an intersectional framework allows us to deliver richer, more genuine insights around who consumers are and why they do, think, buy, eat, or watch what they do — in the same amount of time as traditional methods of data collection and analysis. This not only has implications for content (i.e., including characters that better reflect who audiences are, how to increase interest and affinity) but also for positioning and marketing products, optimizing product design, and more. It’s therefore not only good for business, it’s also a way to treat consumers more fairly, more humanely, and more holistically.

While intersectionality will prove more critical for some categories than others, we challenge all our clients to expand the way they have traditionally classified and understood consumers to ensure their future relevance.

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