Recent years have seen a dramatic acceleration in the necessity for brands to be a force of good and stand for more than a product or service alone. Consumers across the board have made ‘purpose’ a competitive advantage – we know brands who are seen to have a positive impact outperform those who are not.

Young people have been the vanguards of this shift, largely as they’ve come of age when trust in government and institutions is at an all-time low and they are increasingly looking for action on the causes they care about. Our recent research has shown 92% of young people, ages 13-25, say a brand should be involved in, supporting, or promoting a social issue or cause. And 71% buy from brands specifically because they are doing so.

The oldest of Gen Z (those born 1997 – 2012) turn 23 this year, and they comprise 40% of the US consumer base. Yes, they hold significant purchasing power right now, but they are also at a crucial point where they are forming relationships with brands that are long-lasting. The actions that brands take now and what they decide to stand for moving forward are important – it’s clear young people are watching. We’ve been keeping our finger on the pulse of young people for years, asking which issues they believe are not getting enough attention right now, which causes have become more important to them, and what they want brands to do about it. The answer is clear – and it’s not ‘nothing’.

There’s a collective sense among young people the world over that they’ve been dealt a pretty terrible hand. That many of them have channeled this into activism isn’t surprising – because they feel they have been left no choice. Now, in the context of a global pandemic, economic crisis, and movement for racial justice, this generation is on the cusp of adulthood at a time when nearly everyone is reassessing what matters most to them as what is ‘normal’ has been tossed upside down. The issues that were already so top-of-mind for young people today – mental health, climate change, homelessness, income and wealth inequality, racial justice – have only become more important, urgent, and necessary. The brands that will ultimately win with this generation are those who build this reality and do something about it, into their very way of being.

More than ever, getting ‘purpose’ right requires much more than a good ad campaign – it requires making purpose essential to your brand.

What does this mean in action? How can brands leverage purpose as a key business driver to stay relevant with Gen Z? We break it into two components that are together the key to existing as a purpose-driven brand:

One is pure table stakes, which can be understood as just ‘doing the right thing’. It’s all of the socially responsible efforts that are relevant to your business that have come to be expected – it’s responsible sourcing in your supply chain and ensuring diverse representation among your leadership team. These are the necessary basics to get right for any brand today.

The second component is where the magic happens. It’s a true social impact platform that embeds purpose into the core of your business and defines what you stand for, both inside to employees and externally to consumers. And yet doing so goes beyond a marketing department – it requires operational change at every level of business because it has to be built into the fabric of who you are, not just what you say. More than one-off donations or social media statements, intentionally defining a social impact platform serves as a powerful foundation and roadmap for getting purpose right. It ensures that all efforts – from internal policies and practices to employee volunteer opportunities – connect to your mission, resulting in a true inside-out expression of purpose that resonates.

There are two key elements to getting it right:

1. Start internally before you promote externally

Words like “authenticity” tend to be overused and diluted as of late, largely in response to an increasing lack of trust that’s made it more important to prove you are ‘real’. Gen Z, in particular, with their internet savviness and infinite access to information, cannot be fooled. In a world where trust comes at a premium, there is already a natural skepticism for what can be taken at face value. If you’re saying one thing and doing another, it will come back to bite you.

At the moment it matters most – the steps you take internally are the most noticed externally.

When we run a brand purpose audit for our clients, we’re assessing both risks and opportunities internally first, with a big focus on employees. Your employees are your biggest potential ambassadors, and ensuring what they care about is reflected in your purpose and they are bought in is key. It’s also the first place young people look to see if you can be trusted – are you doing the right thing when it comes to your team? When we’ve asked Gen Z, “What do you believe is the role of brands in light of COVID-19?”, the top answers have consistently centered on employees: 75% said brands should ensure employee and consumer safety and 73% said they need to protect employees financially.

At the moment it matters most – the steps you take internally are the most noticed externally. When we asked if there’s a brand you like more and one you like less as a result of their response to the pandemic, the examples given also point to employee treatment. Brands like Starbucks have gotten love from respondents for offering mental health benefits to employees. While the majority of those mentioned for losing favor did so because they failed to prioritize employee safety and financial wellbeing.

2. Cultivate community

As Levi Strauss CEO, Chip Bergh, said in an interview last April, “The brands that are going to win are going to be the ones that have deep connections’ with consumers.” Without these relationships built through shared values and community, brands face a real threat of becoming irrelevant. Purpose matters more than ever because it is the key to brand affinity and loyalty that is fueled by a sense of belonging to your brand – more than any sales, promotions, or ad campaigns could provide. Those who have built this – like Ben & Jerry’s, LUSH, and Levi’s – now have permission to communicate with their consumers beyond promotion and product. It’s what will ensure these brands survive.

When we asked what type of communications and content do you want from brands right now, 34% of Gen Z said they’d want creative opportunities to engage, like livestream events and virtual get-togethers. There is then an incredible opportunity for brands to build online communities and bring people together despite the social distance. Chipotle launched virtual lunches with celebrity guests to couple its free delivery offering, which has been a key part of their growth despite the challenges of 2020. American Eagle brought people together for a virtual concert series and prom event that raised money for America’s Food Fund. It’s likely that these types of virtual opportunities will continue to be a powerful tool for brands to connect for a long time.

Another way to build a meaningful community is to bring your brand purpose to life such that consumers can get involved in your impact with you. After all, young people today don’t just want to buy your brand, they want to join it, but they need opportunities to do so. Few brands are truly rising to the occasion to give consumers ways to take action with them… A huge miss!

Only 5% of young people do not expect brands to engage them to make a difference. This is certainly unique to this moment, but it’s a desire that has been growing even before 2020. Over half (56%) want brands to provide them with the resources in order to make a difference on their own, and 42% want brands to provide consumers with a volunteer opportunity led by the brand directly, like Love Beauty and Planet did in 2019 with their beach cleanups.

We know that brands have the capability to make lasting change on the issues that are top of mind for young consumers today. The Body Shop led the way to completely redefine the beauty industry around animal testing and clean beauty. The steps that Levi’s, Walmart, and Dick’s Sporting Goods have taken to advance more strict gun policies have spurred lawmakers to pay attention and enact reforms. Patagonia’s activist stance on the environment has galvanized attention and action to protect public lands. Meanwhile, consumers have been quick to call out brands who have offered talk without action, particularly with the recent surge of corporate support for Black Lives Matter.

Performative statements will not cut it – the bar has been raised. If you aren’t walking the talk internally and doing the work required to take a stand on these issues, you will most certainly be found out. As the challenges we face continue to mount, getting purpose right and inviting consumers to join you is increasingly more than a nice-to-have – it’s ‘make or break’.

Cover image source: Clay Banks