The Rise Of Cultural Movements

In 2007, I fielded a global quantitative study of Gen-Yers in 13 countries and was surprised to find the No. 1 attitude unifying the generation was: "I would fight for a cause I believe in." A large majority of global Gen-Yers agreed with it from among dozens of other attitudes. My colleagues and I were all puzzled by this finding and weren't quite sure what to do with it. As I've created campaigns for Gen-Yers during the past couple of years, the meaning of this finding has become crystal clear.

Simply put, Gen-Yers have an activist bent. But their activism is different from the idealism and rebellion of their Boomer parents in the 1960s and '70s. For today's Gen-Yers, activism is not about rebelling against institutions -- there's simply not that much left to rebel against.

Belief in institutions like government and big business crumbled long ago. Rather, in a world of almost infinite lifestyle choices, Gen-Y activism is about young people knowing their own inner priorities and making a vow to live by them -- even in the face of adversity.



A big part of Gen-Y activism is what I call "self-activism." They treat themselves and their dreams almost like causes. It's less based on idealism and more a matter of necessity: If they don't activate the revolutionary inside, they simply won't get anywhere in today's hyper-challenging marketplace.

According to the Wall Street Journal, half of all new college graduates now believe that self-employment is more secure than a full-time job. According to a Gallup pool, over two-thirds of high school students say they intend to start their own companies. Clearly, an independent spirit pervades this generation, and it's fueled by a strong sense of their personal values and beliefs. Among GenYers' most important personal values are authenticity, altruism and community.

Yet, it is this generation's consumer activism that makes them a unique challenge for marketers. Gen Y-ers don't just want to buy brands, they want buy in to what a brand believes in. They flock to brands like Red and Livestrong that spark movements.

Some are social movements -- the sweatshop-free and socially responsible clothing movements are making clothing brands like Timberland, American Apparel and Patagonia must-have items for GenY. Others are cultural movements -- rather than selling processing speed, Apple invites GenYers to join a creativity movement. Obama became the choice of Gen-Y voters because he asked them to join a movement for change, not simply to vote for him.

Would your brand fight for a cause it believes in? Would your employees? Most Gen-Yers would. Today more than ever, GenYers are seeking to summon their own passion, courage and determination. Thus, if you want to connect with them, it's time to stop doing traditional marketing and start believing in something bigger than making money.

It's not easy for a brand to spark a cultural movement. But it's worth doing because it allows us to go beyond having a point of difference and actually have a difference-making purpose in the world. I, for one, believe Gen-Y's unique activist spirit will be its lasting generational hallmark, one that will change the future practice of marketing for the better.

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6 comments about "The Rise Of Cultural Movements ".
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  1. Gillian Murrell from Boys Scouts of America, April 3, 2009 at 4:05 p.m.

    Cheers to Gen Y! Not surprising...they're a chip off the old block. As a boomer parent, Gen Y is proving to be a generation to be proud of...

  2. Lish Gazda, April 3, 2009 at 4:44 p.m.

    Using the term "Gen Y" is not appropriate. Those who have conducted extensive research into generations (namely Howe and Strauss know that the generation that we are referring to are MILLENNIALS, not Gen Y. This generation is nothing like Gen X, and thus their label should not be related as well.

  3. Marilyn Lee from Directions Media, April 3, 2009 at 5:25 p.m.

    @ Lish

    It seems as though the debate over Gen Y versus Millennials is not quite as black and white as you think.

    Even the page to which you refer has a Generation Y section that classifies people born between 1982 and 2001 as belonging to this group. Which, unless I'm mistaken, is the age to which this article is referring.

  4. Terence Chan from, April 4, 2009 at 2:45 a.m.

    I would offer that living up to something higher besides the superficial trappings of this world, is what everyone is feeling a much more fired up need for - in today's economic SHOCK OF A LIFETIME.

    While the Gen Y, X and Os exhibit more emotion exuberance of this need (and therefore, easier to measure and justify), Chip's observation of 'a cause to live by' is a tool that all those cackling made scientists down in Brainwash Ave. can most certainly exploit for EVERYONE in the age of The Great Human Value Depression.

    This, however, should be handled with the greatest of empathy - phony, insincere, manipulative Marketing attempts are easily called out. Leave that to the politicians.

    When you think 'Green Ocean, not Blue', remember that the green does not stand for greenbacks.

  5. Chloe Mays from GenY Blogger, April 4, 2009 at 1:33 p.m.

    I agree. I asked my readers to vote with their pocketbooks by choosing Green companies vs. others. Making a difference in companies' bottom lines is the best way to change the world!

  6. Jim Dennison from DigitalMediaMeasures, April 4, 2009 at 1:57 p.m.

    From a research prespective, what is a "large majority"?

    And isn't "I would fight for a cause I believe in." pretty broad, similar to the WWII generation attitude about patriotism? Therefore, a large majority might care about a cause, but the number of causes is quite large, and perhaps not useful as a targeting tool. The question is whether you can get them to care about your product or service, and if they do, how many others will join in.

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