This article originally appeared on The Drum.
Today’s customers are empowered, Gen Z no exception, holding expectations of brands which continue to evolve and deepen. With the emergence of “cancel culture,” many brands, celebrities and popular personalities are discovering that audiences today hold those pedestaled to very high standards indeed.
As technology continues to give consumers a strong voice, we are keenly aware that the internet doesn’t forget. Where a well-timed PR campaign may have helped a brand through a damaging period in the past, technology now acts as a digital report card where organizational gaffes are collated and collected.
Brands are likely to be held to even higher standards in the future, and with Generation Z now moving into the workforce and earning some level of disposable income, its constituents will no doubt be the target focus of many brands.
So, what are some things Generation Z may expect more from brands than the generations before?
It may seem obvious, or even a bit depressing that it needs to be pointed to, but we do see many brands still attempting to get away with greenwashing consumers. Or at the least, brands still grappling with how to pivot their business model and its profitability, alongside what can be a lengthy time to change, to a more sustainable future. This is no doubt a difficult position. It’s important to remember that authenticity is vital. Being upfront about the pace of change to address sustainability challenges at least allows consumers the ability to choose whether their values align with yours, and whether to exercise patience if not. They may still go elsewhere, but authenticity works in your favor alongside actionable change, even if incremental – another evolving expectation of consumers.
When it comes to environmental sustainability, no brand is impervious to criticism. Some industries are more in the spotlight than others though, with the financial services sector found to be the biggest financial contributor to fossil fuel production, alongside, of course, energy. But as Ørsted, ranked the world’s most sustainable energy company three years in a row, has shown, businesses can operate in an industry associated with a certain perception and still own a different and distinctive story. As long as it’s not just a story.
Values and purpose
Consumers like brands that align with their values more broadly. It feels good to interact with brands with similar belief systems. Understanding who your brand is and what it stands for helps attract like-minded customers (as well as like-minded employees!).
A genuine Purpose can be a guiding light for quick, consistent, and strategic decision-making across the entire business and can also help to guide stakeholders in times of crisis. And while Purpose and Values are important for people of all ages, evidence suggests that it is especially high on the priority list of Gen Z.
By understanding, clearly defining, and then abiding by Purpose and Values, brands can identify which social and cultural movements make sense to be an active part of, offering an opportunity to stand up and stand out.
Standing up to stand out
Adhering to Purpose and Values means that brands are expected to stand up for what they believe in: when they do, they stand out. Authenticity again plays a key role here, to ensure first that your brand actually belongs in the conversation and isn’t just adding to noise around causes that currently have momentum. A brand does not have to fight for share of voice in every conversation.
Diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging
The global social upheaval we’ve seen over the last year has uncovered the depth of feeling and need the majority of people share around the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion, and creating environments of belonging. Generation Z is shouting as loud as anyone. This is a critical topic, aligned with using Purpose and Values in an authentic way, that many organizations are keen to address. Keeping up momentum over time is key.
As the Right to Repair movement gains momentum in the world of consumer electronics, consumers have begun calling for an end to planned obsolescence and wastefulness more generally. The short shelf life of products, e.g. in electronics both hardware and software, is being increasingly highlighted, as the climate crisis worsens and waste piles higher.
Patagonia accepts all clothing it has sold to be recycled or stored until a better option to landfills is discovered for products that cannot currently be recycled. As a leader in environmental conscientiousness, Patagonia is likely at the cutting edge of a future where more brands will begin to place the onus on themselves to recycle their products and packaging.
Time to change for Gen Z?
In short, yes. If you haven’t yet thought about many things on this list, your brand may already be behind. But it’s not too late! Focusing on your Purpose and Values in an authentic way is a strong way in to creating a change plan. This foundation and guiding light lays the groundwork for a future in which the consumers of a powerful Generation Z can become your next powerful advocates.
Liz Olsen is Head of Strategy for EMEA