You may not recognize the name Peter Kuli, at first blush, but you definitely know his impact on pop culture. In October 2019, Kuli (a college sophomore) remixed a friend’s audio clips into a music track that he then uploaded to TikTok. The name of the song? “OK boomer.” His tweet about the song ignited a new trend and within a few weeks, tens of thousands of “OK boomer”-themed TikTok videos flooded the Gen Z-dominated platform.
Not long after, New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz published an article that catapulted “OK boomer” to the mainstream, codifying the point-of-view of a new generation. Gen Z has reached a boiling point over issues like racism, gender inequality, college debt, climate change and gun violence. “OK boomer” became, as Kuli called it, a “digital middle finger”—not against baby boomers en masse but against a perceived mindset of ignorance and inaction.
Enter 2020. Gen Zers now have their digital middle fingers armed and ready to flip off brands who hold that same “Boomer” mindset. The events of the past year have deeply impacted Gen Z, a group that is coming of age at the intersection of a global pandemic, a reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement, and a not-so-peaceful transition of presidential power.
As part of a larger research effort on next-generation consumer behaviors, I interviewed a number of Gen Zers and asked about how the chaos of 2020 affected their relationships with brands. As 19-year-old Georgia native Rob Felton shared with me, “Every one of us is going through some sort of introspection right now. The pandemic has made me look at brands more seriously. I’ve started to care less about the products they sell and more about their message to consumers. Are they reflecting the emotions of the world? Do they care about being direct and honest with consumers, even if it’s uncomfortable?”
The answers to these questions directly impact a brand’s bottom line. A recent retail consumer survey from Forrester (my employer) found that 55% of Gen Z indicated that a company’s social responsibility reputation either influences or highly influences their purchase behavior (compared to only 26% of boomers).
As brands reflect on last week’s domestic terrorist attack on our nation’s Capitol building, many have taken swift and public action. But earning the devotion of Gen Z—a deeply purpose-led cohort—won’t happen with just a one-off CSR effort that some might say is too late. It requires brands to take deliberate, consistent and sustained actions to win and keep the business of the next generation of consumers. To do so, brands must:
1. Impact with influence
Forrester’s data shows a 6 point year-over-year drop in Gen Zers who think it’s cool to be associated with a brand on social media (from 52% in 2019 to 46% in 2020). Despite the downtick, brands still wield a great deal of societal influence which Gen Z expects them to exert.
Nineteen-year-old Zafi Smith from Massachusetts put it bluntly: “It is your job as a brand to come through right now because you have such a large impact on society. When a brand like Nike says, ‘This is what it is,’ that can go really, really far.”
Like Nike, Procter & Gamble has been using its platform of influence to combat racial inequality through a series of short films. Its most recent one, titled “The Choice,” addresses what it means to be anti-racist. Content like this can make an impact particularly on Gen Zers who personify brands as influencers that can succumb to cancel culture when they’re not seen as stepping up to the plate. As 22-year-old Dominican Republic native, Joan Garcia questioned, “Do I really want to use a brand that does not care about what’s going on in society?” Influencing through provocative storytelling is just the tip of the spear when it comes to standing up for what’s right in the eyes of Gen Zers, who believe words alone aren’t actions.
2. Act with action
The past year particularly tested Gen Z’s B.S. meter and entered phrases like “purpose-washing” and “performative activism” into the common lexicon.
Michael Pankowski, a junior at Harvard and founder of Gen Z consulting firm Crimson Connection, challenges brands to act beyond just content. “Every brand wants to get on the purpose train but so many of them are simply saying nice things but not doing anything,” he says, “If you want Gen Z’s trust as a brand, we need to see that you’re legitimately backing your words with actions.” But it’s critical that the actions a brand takes are seen as originating from the inside out.
As Felton discerns brands’ responses to Black Lives Matter, he asks, “What is your brand doing behind the scenes? Are you hiring more people of color into your offices? Are you trying to reach out to communities that you haven’t been in touch with? Are you ensuring your marketing is inclusive from the start?”
Jeff Fromm, a partner at Barkley and author of Marketing to Gen Z, punctuates this by saying, “In order to win with this generation, you better win inside to win outside, because if your employees say that your external comms are fake, you will get called out.”
3. Equalize with empathy
Hulu’s Generation Stream report indicates that the most sought-after content experiences by Gen Zer’s are the ones that are helping them to cope. This applies to brands as well because, increasingly, Gen Z approaches brand transactions as an ROI exercise in empathy. As Felton says, “I’m now transacting with brands a lot less frivolously. I only want to give my money, attention and time to brands who care about me. I’ve become more cognizant that when I spend money on a product, I’m actually making an investment in a brand.”
Brands who can truly empathize are also able to equalize. As Garcia put it, “I look for brands who are using their platforms to amplify those voices that are not being heard.” And Smith adds, “When I think of the pandemic, I think of everything that’s happened this year; I think about George Floyd. I’m no longer supporting brands that I’m not seeing take action for a more equitable future.”
To lead the way with Gen Z consumers, brands must embrace the interconnectedness of profit and purpose. Patagonia, Allbirds, Ben & Jerry’s and Dove are just a few examples of successful brands that are seen by Gen Z as prioritizing humanity through their influence, action and empathy. In a way, they make standing up for what’s right look easy because “purpose” is hardwired into their DNA.
Yet, most brands have much more work to do to become conscious companies that pass Gen Z’s sniff test. According to a recent Piper Sandler report, teen spending since the pandemic is at 15 year all-time low, while data from Spotify shows that 53% of Gen Zers are growing increasingly wary of big institutions. So, OK brand, how will you impact, act and equalize in 2021?