In articles about generational differences, millennials and boomers tend to get all the attention. But that may be changing soon as the next generation ages into greater influence.
What’s popularly called Generation Z encompasses those born between 1996 and 2010. In 2020, that makes the oldest of the group 23—old enough for experts to begin to see trends in the generation’s buying habits and values. And that matters to marketers, since Gen Z has recently overtaken millennials in size.
Beyond being digital natives who have a different relationship with technology than the generations that came before, Gen Z is notable in another big way: they feel strongly about the causes important to them. 77% of Gen Z has taken action for a cause they believe in. And another 23% have boycotted a brand they disagreed with.
If you want to build a relationship with this segment of the market, embracing cause marketing—the practice of making ethical choices a part of your branding—is a winning strategy. And it comes with the added benefit of meaning you’ll be, you know, making ethical choices.
Using Cause Marketing to Reach Gen Z
To connect with Gen Z around shared causes, you have to understand what they care about and find the right approach to do it effectively.
The #1 rule of cause marketing: It has to be authentic.
First things first, you can’t fake it. Trying to align your brand with a cause won’t work unless your company is living the values you claim.
A Do Something Strategic report on consumers between the ages of 13 and 25 found that 66% have a better impression of a brand if they associate it with a social cause. But when asked about specific brands and the causes their campaigns purport to stand for, only 12% reported linking the cause and the brand in their minds.
Brands are investing in campaigns that claim a cause, but launching a campaign on its own isn’t good enough. It has to become part of what your brand is to really sink into how consumers perceive you. And for that to happen, it has to be authentic.
Think of the most famous recent example of a cause marketing failure: Pepsi’s Kylie Jenner spot that clumsily attempted to make a statement about bringing police and Black Lives Matter protesters together with… a reality star and a sugary drink. It revealed a lack of understanding about a complex issue, and was (fairly) read as an attempt to cash in on a cause people care about—racial justice— without doing the work.
Embrace gender fluidity.
Brands are far behind Gen Z on this one. According to one McKinsey study, 48% of the Gen Zers included said they prefer brands not to classify items as male and female. Pew Research found that 35% of them know someone personally that prefers gender-neutral pronouns.
A visit to pretty much any clothing store or eCommerce website shows how ingrained the gender binary still is in how businesses think about products and marketing. And it’s a big part of how marketers talk about buyer personas and ad targeting. That makes embracing gender fluidity a big opportunity for brands that want to differentiate themselves.
In addition to thinking beyond the gender binary in how you organize and talk about your products and audience, Gen Z expects cause marketing campaigns to overcome the harmful ideas about gender and sexuality common in past generations. In McKinsey’s survey, 81% said they’d avoid brands with macho campaigns, and 76% said the same about homophobic ones.
Hire a diverse staff.
McKinsey also found that 79% of Gen Zers will stop buying from brands that produce a campaign they see as racist. You’re probably thinking that of course your company would never create a racist campaign! And yet, many companies end up facing criticism for the kind of unintentional racism that’s common when everyone involved in making decisions is white.
A clear recent example was the publishing and promotion of American Dirt, a book about the Mexican immigrant experience by a white woman that got a huge promotional push from the publisher—only to gain widespread criticism for inauthenticity, inaccuracy, and insensitive marketing decisions once the first Mexican-American readers gained access to it. The publishers weren’t meaning to publish and promote a racist book, but they had a lack of Mexican-American voices in decision-making roles to help them catch the book’s issues in advance.
Choose a cause (or a few) to align your brand with.
In order to appeal to the values of a Gen Z audience, you have to show you stand for something. Figure out what your main cause will be. Then decide on a clear action plan to make sure your brand is living that cause.
This has to go beyond mentioning it in campaigns. If you choose an environmental cause, what specific steps will your company make to reduce waste and minimize your impact on pollution? If it’s gender equality (across all genders, not just the two most often referenced), how are you going to bring that into your hiring practices and the language you use? Will you partner with nonprofit organizations, either sending a percentage of your profits or committing to product donations?
One thing you can do right now, as we’re all inundated with brand emails about coronavirus, is demonstrate your commitment to support your employees. Are you making sure your employees will have all associated health care costs covered, receive paid sick leave, and have continued income if they can’t come in for a while? You could also go a step further and use your influence to encourage followers to help out a nonprofit in need, like Nuts.com did with Feeding America.
Figure out who you want to be.
Gen Z provides a good incentive to bring ethical choices into how you do business, but they’re not the only good reason to do so. When employees know the company they work for stands for something, it’s good for morale. And as a business, you get the chance to use your powers for something good—a calling that goes beyond profits and KPIs.