Every generation’s youth has a role to play in shaping culture and influencing how brands behave in public. It’s been true ever since parents heard the music their kids were listening to and shouted “Turn it down!”
It was the youth culture that gave birth to Coca-Cola “wanting to teach the world to sing” in the ‘70s, and it was the same youth culture that decades later quickly deemed the 2017 Pepsi-Kendall Jenner ad a tone-deaf disaster. And not much has changed since -- except everything.
Yes, today’s youth are still shaping culture and influencing how brands behave, communicate and grow. But they are doing so by iterating language and imagery, broadcasting who they are and what they love, and demonstrating an absurdist sense of humor (see all memes) as they cope with lives turned upside down -- accelerated by the pandemic -- during a formative life stage.
Gen Z is pushing brands to dispense with the BS, contribute to social progress, ease their considerable anxieties, and help them course-correct the imperiled planet they and their children will inherit. Expect more brands to wake up to that power and influence, especially as that cohort sets the terms for what’s next in a changed, post-Covid marketplace.
As an article a year ago in Harvard Business Review noted: "Today’s consumers, and Millennials and Gen Z specifically, expect companies to establish and advance clear stances on social or political issues. They are increasingly using the power of their pocketbook and social media feeds to shape corporate behavior."
We’ve been calling this particular moment of brand reckoning "GenZ Rising" and their viewpoint as "omnicultural." The sense of them as a generation that’s rising derives less from their size as a demographic cohort, but from the outsize influence they’re exerting on the culture and the marketplace, and therefore on brands.
As the first minority-majority generation, they’re already predisposed to see the world from a broader omnicultural perspective. But it’s their native digital fluency, especially on social, that underpins their consumption of global culture. Just look at what's topping the music charts today -- everything from K-pop mega group BTS to Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny. They’re omnivorous consumers of style, food, entertainment, and ideas from across cultures.
And given their influence, they’re setting the terms for what brands must deliver in terms of innovation, social responsibility, sustainability and a commitment to diversity and inclusion that transcends mere representation. While the implications of these elevated expectations are already on the radar of traditional youth-focused categories such as fashion, beauty, and entertainment, woe the brand marketer who doesn’t think they need to pay attention to this generation.
Digital fluency, co-creation, sustainability, radical inclusivity, and the ability to pivot to meet new needs should be on every brand’s agenda if they hope to succeed with this new wave of omniculturally minded consumers.
Or they can do the equivalent of having Kendall Jenner give a Pepsi to a police officer in riot gear -- and we’ll see how that works out.