According to a new national study by BBMG and GlobeScan, by a 5-to-1 margin, Gen Z does not trust business to act in the best interests of society, and nearly one-in-four cannot name a single brand they consider to be purposeful.
And yet, the study also found that Gen Z is 3X more likely to say that the purpose of business is to “serve communities and society” rather than to simply “make good products and services,” and they are more likely than all others to call on brands to make a difference by “using their voice to advocate or speak out” on the most pressing issues of our times.

So while Gen Z may have a lot of social and economic reasons to feel apathetic, far from it they are actually calling for new leaders to take action now across every part of our society and they are ready to help lead the way.

This is a huge opportunity for brands that are ready to not just pay lip service to pressing issues like gender and racial equality or climate change but to implement meaningful change. Particularly, at a time when our political institutions seem mired in gridlock, young consumers see the scale and speed of business as an exciting lever for progress, but only if brands can first earn their trust.

Nowhere to Hide

Recently, Gillette caused a stir when it launched an ad campaign that took a hard stand against toxic masculinity. Many applauded their message, but the criticism was also thick. Some people felt it was too preachy or alienating to their core customers, but what I felt was the most valid critique were the people who said ‘OK, but what are you doing about it?

In today’s age of transparency, consumers don’t have to do much to research a company’s reputation, its supply chain standards, or its investments in sustainability or social impact. There are even apps like DoneGood that help conscious shoppers find brands that align with their values. With no place to hide, many brands feel afraid to stick their neck out on important issues lest they open themselves up for scrutiny.

But staying silent on issues that are intertwined with a brand’s business, like masculinity and Gillette, is no longer a good strategy for brands when the younger generation sees silence as complicity and is generally distrustful of brands. Gen Z and Millennial consumers want to know where brands stand and are ready to reward their loyalty to brands that prove their values through action.

Gen Z Wants Action Not Perfection

The good news for brands who have been hesitant to speak up on issues or to broadcast sustainability and social impact goals they have yet to reach is BBMG and Globescan’s study found Gen Z is the least likely to associate trust with “not having made mistakes in the past,” indicating a willingness to prize authenticity, speaking out and impact over perfection.

The research also found Gen Z is most likely to trust that large companies are operating in the best interests of society when they “prove it by action (i.e. walks the walk)” and demonstrate “clear intentions through business strategy and goals.”

Nike is a favorite brand among Gen Z. You don’t hear young consumers talking about the company’s supply chain inhumanities of 30 years ago; all they see is a company that is standing up for social justice today by supporting athlete Colin Kaepernick’s stand against police brutality.

Gen Z also has super active Instagram users, and during Pride Month their #UntoldPride campaign stood apart from so much inauthentic rainbow-washing from other brands. Beyond the celebratory rainbows, the brand is taking meaningful steps to support members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies who are seeking acceptance and understanding. Instagram added new gender identification options like “gender non-conforming” and they partnered with The Trevor Project on a guide to online well-being and self-care geared toward the safety of LGBTQ+ teens.

The North Face has also been winning over Gen Z consumers through its commitment to reach equal representation of women in all of its advertising and by offering environmentally conscious products like its refurbished apparel line The North Face Renewed. Both those efforts are journeys toward a more equitable future, and it’s okay that it’s a work in progress — Gen Z respects that.

A Branding Strategy for Gen Z

With the Z generation just entering the workforce and seeking brands they can trust, now is the moment to determine what that means for your brand. Particularly, if you’ve never really articulated your brand’s purpose beyond selling products.

Any successful strategy starts with listening. And in the case of building a brand purpose strategy, that means listening with real empathy for the everyday struggles of your consumers to identify how your brand is uniquely suited to help make a material difference in their ability to thrive in this world.

Next, taking action starts with setting goals, communicating those goals, and finding the first steps your brand can take to reach them. If it feels like you’re sticking your neck out there, look to others in your category to form or join a coalition where all can benefit from making progress together.

Then, to really earn the evangelism of Gen Z, invite their participation. Hold space for them to share their ideas or put their own voices out there and you just might find that they stick with you — even if you aren’t always perfect.

Image source: Shane Rounce