Futures, research and brand strategy practice Light Years has teamed up with the Conspiracy of Love, the Los Angeles-based “purpose consultancy,” to publish “The Future of Good” — a 112-page report that takes a deep dive into how the global pandemic has changed the mind-set of Generation Z and Millennials. The report revealed a shift in how these demographic cohorts view the world, which includes a change in priorities around social justice, climate change and overall societal good.
Here, Lucie Greene, founder of Light Years, discusses key findings from the report, which include why purpose-driven brands are more important today to consumers and why forging connections and practicing empathy is in the spotlight.
WWD: What was the impetus behind teaming up with Conspiracy of Love for this research?
Lucie Greene: Purpose has become central to brands in every way and that’s only become more accelerated during the pandemic. But how that looks is evolving every day, from consumer expectations of brands to the culture of societal and world issues. We’re also living in a time where brands are being bolder, more creative and daring than ever, and winning fans in the process. We wanted to explore how key spaces in purpose-driven activity are moving forward: sustainability; universal well-being; diversity and inclusion; community and connection, and the culture of societal good. We also wanted to inspire brands to be braver by including bleeding edge “Moonshots” in innovation.
Conspiracy of Love, founded by Bobby Jones and Afdhel Aziz, is a leading global purpose consultancy that works with brands around the world on defining and developing their societal role and identifying territories in which they can create change. Light Years’ core focus is exploring changes in culture, consumer behavior, and innovation in core consumer verticals and translating them into strategy. These two specialisms intersect in this report.
Why now? Specifically, we are living in a major paradigm shift where purpose is essentially becoming fundamental to business on every level. In fact, increasingly, “good” business is the future of business, period.
Recent global consumer data from Wunderman Thompson found that 75 percent of consumers said COVID-19 had exponentially raised their expectations of businesses in terms of helping to tackle the world’s biggest challenges, such as climate change. Since the pandemic, acting with purpose has become essential to recruiting and retaining talent — especially in the midst of the Great Resignation, where workers are questioning everything about their work and lives, and seeking to insert more meaning into careers. On a commercial level, being purpose-driven is also becoming a key driver of growth and investment. The most exciting new venture capital companies are focusing squarely on purpose-driven businesses. Likewise, Unilever has said its purpose-led Sustainable Living Brands are growing 69 percent faster than the rest of the business and delivering 75 percent of the company’s growth.
All of this is going to continue, particularly in the light of the rising Generation Z cohort. Millennials were raised in an atmosphere where direct-to-consumer brands doing good, the one-for-one donation model and ethical manifestos were novel. Gen Zers see this as table stakes. Look to any of the new Gen Z-centric brands launching today — each has sustainability, purpose and radical inclusion as its key pillars. Direct-to-consumer period care brand August even talks about reinventing capitalism with its profit-share model. Gen Zers are not scared of bold or controversial issues. The urgency of climate change is not a subject for debate for this group, so the pressure on brands and employers is only going to continue.
WWD: What are some of the key findings of the report?
L.G.: One key takeaway is the interconnectedness of issues. Climate change does not exist in a silo. Pollution is a public health issue and a social justice issue, as well as being an environmental issue. Poor mental health has been linked to pollution. Access to nature and fresh air is linked to social inequality. Innovation in regenerative farming techniques is being championed not just for environmental benefits, but also for health benefits as it creates food rich in nutrients. It’s all connected.
We’re moving toward a more nuanced understanding of social justice and of environmental, civic and cultural issues, and brands need to consider this in their approach. They also need to consider the multiple drivers of influence in this space. Having diverse companies is not enough — you need diverse creators in culture and access to funding for all. There’s an increased emphasis on economic inclusion and an understanding of systemic bias in financial structures — and breaking those barriers down.
We’re also seeing a move away from the top-down model of philanthropy espoused by traditional charities, and the one-for-one model popularized by brands such as Toms. Innovative brands are moving away from one-way charity to collaboration, grassroots activities, listening to communities and letting those communities decide how they want to create impact. There’s also a greater emphasis on diverse stakeholders helping to execute purpose-driven initiatives.
WWD: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed consumer behaviors?
L.G.: It’s raised expectations of brands to act more decisively and be proactive as opposed to reactive. The most dynamic, exciting brands right now are investing in creating new materials and building new business models — even if the latter seems counterintuitive.
During the pandemic, mental health became a multifaceted central concern for consumers in all aspects of their lives, work-related and personal, this, in turn, raised awareness of how to make resources available to people from all walks of life, often using digital platforms. Nature is also being appreciated more than ever for its mental health benefits. Long-distance walking, camping, birding and cold-water swimming, are all on the upswing, not just in terms of physical fitness and lifestyle, but also for their mental health benefits.
There’s a wider existential crisis occurring, especially among the much-maligned Millennials, who are faced with the second global economic event in their lifetime (the last being the 2008 economic crisis) and trying to make sense of it. We’re seeing books, tools and influencers start to focus not only on meaning but also on how to be happy and content, and achieve quality of life. There are also sharp upticks in new ways of living, such as nomadic living — spending several months living and working in a region away from home to save money and experience a different way of life. Such practices are becoming normalized. As people’s quest for better quality of life continues and work detangles from cities for many, this will likely continue. (Twenty-four percent of Airbnb stays are now over one month, the company recently reported.) There’s also an emphasis on self-sufficiency and life skills, as a route to resilience, better mental health and balance. Baking is good for your mind, not just your Instagram!
Finally, there’s a renewed focus on community, connection and empathy. We see this playing out in a number of ways, from new models that help consumers support local restaurants to the Buy Nothing, Get Everything lending movement to the wave of decentralized “virtual villages” connecting people to advice portals. A good example of the latter is Peanut, a purpose-driven platform for women seeking advice on parenting, menopause and more from a decentralized network. In general, there is a sense of desire to invest in communities, connect IRL on initiatives and help small businesses to thrive.
WWD: What exactly is “next-wave Gen Z activism”?
L.G.: Gen Z is famously stereotyped as being activists to the core. We’re seeing a maturation of that. Snapchat recently launched a platform encouraging Gen Zers not only to be civically engaged but also to run for office. Programs launched by companies from Nike to Patagonia to Toms are emphasizing collaborating with Gen Zers to co-create grants for social good. New platforms such as Wishly combine social media with civic activism and brands. Many Gen Z cult brands launch with activism at their core from the outset.
WWD: What else do brands need to consider as we enter a post-peak-pandemic period?
L.G.: The pandemic has not only pushed substantial numbers of women out of the workforce, but it has also pushed many consumers out of the middle class. Inequality is rising. And that’s only going to continue, as we face inflation, wage stagnation and further pandemic-related headwinds. The next wave of purpose for brands, especially mass-market brands, will be innovating to make quality of life accessible to all — with initiatives around affordable wellness, good quality food at accessible prices, access to education, financial inclusion and social mobility. Making quality of life accessible, helping people to survive and thrive, will be a purpose in itself, more than ever.