Picture: Getty Images
Picture: Getty Images

It doesn’t matter what you call the current generation of young people, whether Gen Z or the lockdown generation. What does matter is that if you call them, you’d better know who they are and you’d better be sincere about it, because the youth of today are not interested in superficiality.

The most important thing to understand about them is that if millennials were the “me” generation, Gen Z is the “you/us” generation. They are the least selfish generation we’ve ever known, and they will support brands that mirror their selflessness. Support is probably not a strong enough word – this generation is intensely loyal to brands they deem worthy.

I’m talking about the kind of loyalty we marketers have always dreamt of, the kind that brands spend millions trying to cultivate. These conscious consumers want brands that have purpose. Not only will they invest in them, they will advocate for them too, actively supporting and defending them.

While money may have unlocked the door to the youth market in the past, this strategy is unlikely to work now. This generation doesn’t trust what people say, only what they do. They expect brands to live their purpose and to demonstrate it. And that purpose needs to be meaningful.

Nike’s response to the Colin Kaepernick controversy is a great example. Had Nike not backed Kaepernick, sacrificing part of its market in the process, it would have made a lie of its values of equality and overcoming adversity. Instead, it gave its values real meaning and gained many more fans than it lost. The reason it worked is that it wasn’t a calculated move, but rather a very natural thing for Nike to do.

This sort of behaviour needs to be able to translate to any context, from a personal controversy to a pandemic to a movement like Black Lives Matter (BLM). Indeed, it is heightened in the context of Covid-19 and BLM.

While consumers are struggling with lockdown and its effects, they’re watching brand behaviour. Are brands donating to the Solidarity Fund or supporting health-care workers? How are they helping consumers?

Industries like financial services, which have always been rigid in their approach to marketing, have suddenly been able to change and innovate very quickly. This has proved that customer centricity is possible for any brand. It bodes well for the future because these companies have now experienced the massive benefits of being more agile, responsive and innovative.

This very different generation and the massive societal shifts that have happened in the past few months raise the question of how advertising will change. Have no doubt: brands will not succeed by cruising along under the radar and paying lip service to marketing with superficial messaging. Consumers have real power and they’re asking for meaning and depth.

How do you translate all this to your brands? It’s important to understand that you shouldn’t change beyond the point of recognition … not unless the brand’s values are really wanting.

Most companies have a solid purpose at heart. They now need to find credible ways to communicate it to their audiences. The brands that have done well through the pandemic and BLM are the brands that have shown how their purpose is relevant in the current context. It’s not about constantly changing and adapting to circumstances, it’s about the brand’s core purpose being strong enough to be articulated across various conversations and needs.

The big take-out:

Connected brands are those that are purpose-driven.

While purpose is the main tenet of modern marketing, it’s not the only one. It goes hand in hand with connection. When we talk about creating connected brands, we mean that brands need to connect with consumers and live in people’s lives. This is more important than ever now that we’ve all experienced how difficult it is to be starved of connection to so much we hold dear.

Even when lockdown and the pandemic are over, this need for connection will remain, not least because our youngest generation won’t forget this time. They value meaningful interactions more than ever. There is no longer a place for impersonal and exclusive brands, but there is plenty of space for purpose-driven and truly connected brands.

I’m very optimistic about this generation. The kids are all right. They want community success and are invested in helping each other, as we’ve seen from their involvement in saving the environment. They want to enable everyone and are particularly considerate of vulnerable people. They’re thinking further ahead. Capitalism isn’t working for them; they’re socialists.

Personally, I’m inspired by a consumer audience that wants collective success. You too should be inspired because this is the basis on which the youth will hold brands accountable.

  • Atiyya Karodia is the lead strategist at VMLY&R SA


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