By: Mary Noel, Director of Business Development, DoSomething Strategic
In 2019, 58% of Gen Z said a brand’s support for a cause that was important to them had a positive impact on their likelihood to make a purchase from that brand. When we asked the same question again in February 2021 of over 3,200 members of Gen Z across the US—82% say the same.
Of course, the increase is unsurprising given where we’re at. From the many challenges wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic to the ongoing reckoning over racial injustice, young people are coming of age in a world that needs serious work to address the issues we face.
Throughout 2020, they watched brands show solidarity with frontline workers, post Instagram statements in support of Black Lives Matter, diversify their advertisements, and advocate for democracy. And they are down with it—58% want brands to use their platforms, including social media and advertising, to raise awareness on key issues they care about. Yet while this is certainly welcomed, a statement alone won’t cut it: only 1 in 4 Gen Z believe brands are doing enough to back up public statements with action on these issues.
When we ask Gen Z about brand purpose—a phrase as ubiquitous as it can be elusive—it’s clear that credibility reigns supreme. Nearly half (45%) have made a purchase from a brand specifically because they believe the brand is genuine in wanting to have a positive impact on the world. When it comes to the actions they want brands to take: 56% want to see long-term commitment beyond a one-time statement; 54% want brands to donate to organizations in that cause space; 46% want to see proof of impact, and 41% want brands to have internal corporate policies that reflect their external commitments. The vast majority—88%—say it is important to them for brands to take these types of actions on the causes they care about, with racial justice, COVID-19 relief, and mental health taking top priority. On the flip side, only 4% of Gen Z say brands have no role to take action at all.
What does all of this mean in action? It’s clear Gen Z is paying attention to how brands are deciding to show up and do the work beyond any statements shared on social media. There are 3 must-haves to not missing the mark:
Credibility = Consistency x Proof
Given the digital savviness of Gen Z and their penchant for realness, it’s no surprise that many brands tiptoe the purpose waters for fear of missing the mark and getting called out. And yet, we know that staying on the sidelines on big societal issues, including the ones that might feel risky, is no longer an option. On racial justice, our research has shown only 3% of Gen Z do not expect brands to take action to address racism in society. And following the January 6th attack on the US Capitol, only 1 in 5 (21%) said that brands should not get political when it comes to taking a public stand on what happened.
The good news is Gen Z prizes transparency over perfection. When we asked, “How do you want brands to take action on the causes or issues you care about?” 56% say they want brands to be honest about failures—the second-highest answer. They aren’t expecting you to get it all right out of the gate. Instead, credibility is won by continuing to show up over the long term and proving the weight behind your words from internal policies to external actions.
This past January, Sephora released The Racial Bias in Retail Study, which included a research-driven diversity and inclusion action plan. The plan outlined the changes and steps Sephora would be taking to advance racial justice within their stores and the broader industry, including dedicating more shelf space to Black-owned beauty brands. These actions are detailed on their website, along with a breakdown of diversity metrics among their own workforce, which they plan to update bi-annually. When Sephora then shares a post to celebrate Black History Month, there is little doubt over their commitments to the Black community.
Speaking of calendar celebrations, while many brand efforts run the risk of a PR stunt, Netflix separated itself from the pack this past International Women’s Day. To mark the day, the streaming giant committed $5 million to train and mentorship programs for female filmmakers, as part of a bigger five-year, $100 million commitment to advancing diversity in entertainment through its Creative Equity Fund. The initiative is reflective of an internal commitment well in place. In February, Netflix released a report that analyzed the diversity of both on-screen talent and the team behind the scenes. The report found they are outpacing the industry in hiring women and women of color directors and creators, in addition to having achieved gender equality in leading roles. This is credibility in action.
Meet Them Where They Are
Last October, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined popular Twitch streamers to play the video game ‘Among Us’ in an effort to talk to young gamers (which are 90% of Gen Z) about voting. Garnering over 400,000 viewers, the event became one of the platform’s most-viewed streams of all time. Politics aside, it was a stealth move that few brands have yet to pursue: games are increasingly becoming the new ‘third place’ to find Gen Z.
While the platforms and communications channels are key, it’s also about knowing what matters to Gen Z. Right now, this generation is experiencing a growing mental health crisis. Recent studies have shown Gen Z is the most stressed and most likely to report experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression than any other generation before them. The pandemic has hit young people hard—65% of our Gen Z survey respondents say their mental health has been negatively impacted in the past year.
DoSomething Strategic helped our client PINK identify how they could best show up to help serve their Gen Z consumer and employee base around this issue, and establish them as a purpose-driven brand among this audience. We helped to create and launch PINK With Purpose— a new platform with evidence-based ways to help teens and young adults navigate their mental health and self-care. The initiative included a YouTube video series for young people to find community and support in the stories of peers like them as well as influencers including Chloe x Halle. The ongoing initiative has strengthened consumer perception of the brand’s social impact and continues to drive deeper engagement with young people around an issue that is increasingly important to them.
Invite Them To Take Part
Gen Z is eager to take action: 76% say they are looking for more ways to get involved to make a difference on the causes they care about, up from 67% when we asked in April of 2020. Doing so is a big part of their identity, and it’s a powerful way for brands to build community—41% say they want brands to get them involved in their social impact efforts.
Ben & Jerry’s couples education on social justice issues with a call to sign a petition. Lush has provided tips on “How to Be an Indoor Activist” given the constraints of social distancing. Most recently, Gushers and Fruit by the Foot’s recent Black History Month TikTok campaign included a $400K donation to the NAACP Youth & College Division to provide weekly activist training. As part of the campaign, Black TikTok creators like Taylor Cassidy shared ways for followers to take action along with them, including diversifying their social media feeds, giving credit to Black creators, and sharing their own messages.
Especially now, after more than a year of social distance and isolation, young people are eager for the community. A community built on shared values and impact is a uniquely powerful tool to drive brand affinity and ensure young consumers and employees alike are aware of your efforts.
The bottom line? Young people have always been at the root of change—igniting and fueling movements that change the conversation and the course of history. Now more than ever, after 2020 has flipped the script on what is expected and what is possible, the stakes for brands are higher than ever. Gen Z demands brand purpose with legs to stand on.
Survey Methodology: DoSomething Strategic survey of 3,220 young people aged 13-24 across the United States; February 24-26, 2021.