Last Saturday, more than one million people took to the streets for the March for Our Lives, telling the government that “Enough is enough.” That it’s time to prioritize student lives—all lives—over gun regulations and open a meaningful dialogue about gun violence. Was Congress watching? And more important, did they listen? The midterm elections should give us some indication. However, while the streets were peppered with organizations looking to register young people to vote, research shows that only 28% of Gen Z believes the government even cares about them, much less actually listens to them.
Corporate America is a different story. Young people see that they’re watching; they’re listening; and a few of the smart ones are acting. And this is driven largely by young people who are making it clear that they expect brands – unlike politicians – to take a stand and will call them out when they don’t. It is Gen Z who is making sure everyone knows who is still partnering with the NRA and who’s not. Consumer power, rather than political, has become the driving force behind Gen Z’s movements.
But just writing a big check isn’t enough. Young people want brands to commit to something, and invite them to be a part of it. It’s why you see brands like Lyft offering free rides for students attending the March, and LUSH both funding and inviting its consumers to take action with the brand on issues from human rights to animals rights.
One of the many inspiring attributes of Gen Z (individuals roughly under the age of 22) is that they believe as citizens, they are responsible for changing the world. Not nonprofits. And not even the government. They believe citizens like themselves should be the ones to solve the world’s problems. And they will direct that passion and power in any way they can, including how they interact with and what they demand of brands.
Of consumers ages 13 to 25, 78% are more likely to buy a product or service from a company that gives back to society; 56% are willing to pay more to buy a product or service from a company that gives back; and 69% believe brands should stand up for what they believe in, even if controversial.
Brands are beginning to realize that every action they take and every cause or group they support, no matter how small the connection, is being scrutinized. Every association now speaks to who they are as a company—an incredible opportunity for wise companies and a giant stumbling block for the unwise.
For brands to connect with Gen Z consumers through social impact, the brand’s commitment must be genuine, consistent, and impactful. And the ones who invite their young consumer base to be a part of their social good community see an even greater edge.
For example, Patagonia has a long history of supporting grassroots activists working to find solutions to the environmental crisis. It has invited consumer involvement in its sustainability efforts in a variety of ways—from encouraging customers to repair and reuse their clothing, to starting the Patagonia Action Works, which connects employees and consumers interested in taking action with organizations and efforts that need their help. It continues to galvanize the Patagonia community around its shared values and aren't afraid to use its own platform to speak out. In the eyes of Gen Z, Patagonia is always a winner.
More recently, we’ve seen the rise of clothing brand Everlane. In addition to making noise for its digital-first retail approach, Everlane has an impressively radical transparency policy. It clearly communicates with consumers on pricing and sourcing and uses social channels to invite consumers into its production process (including a recent Snapchat tour of a factory). It encourages—solicits even—consumer feedback on its textiles, processes, and factories.
From gun violence to the environment to ethical sourcing, young people are forcing brands to think differently about impact and how they define success. They know that money drives corporate, and political, behavior and they’re prepared to direct their dollars to companies that are taking a stand and making a difference. As we saw with over one million people marching last weekend, young people aren’t afraid to stand up and speak out. Businesses of all size and scale will need to listen and take action. Otherwise, they’re going to be called out or left out—neither of which is a smart long-term business strategy.