The fashion industry needs to understand quickly shifting consumer and cultural trends to maintain relevance. But how do you do that for a generation where authenticity, activism, representation is what’s trending?
For the last 10 years, brands have been trying to answer that question by defining their values and demonstrating their purpose. But for a younger, marketing savvy set of consumers they are looking for more than purpose — they want the power of your brand.
So for brands to succeed today, they need to think and act differently and understand the new power of a rising generation.
The Changing Face and Expression of Power
Unlike previous generations, power is no longer a zero-sum game for this cohort. Growing up as social natives, this generation believes in their collective power. In fact, 57 percent of young people in this demographic believe that power belongs to everyone. Young people are rallying together to express their power, and more often than not, this power is “born” on social media first before it appears off-line.
Take teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg, whose climate crisis message first appeared online through social media, and has led to real-world protests among other Gen Zers in schools and communities around the world. The much-heralded teenage activist recently solidified her voice as a leader in environmental causes by delivering an anticipated address at the UN.
On an individual level, Gen Z is particularly astute about who has historically been represented in important conversations — and who has been excluded. Only a small percentage of them (38 percent) believe that people like themselves are well-represented in the media, though half said that representation makes them feel powerful and seen. As a result, rooted in this generation is the desire to support each other, and lift all voices.
Collective power also comes in the form of boosting voices they feel are underrepresented — and speaking up against views they do not endorse. “Cancel” culture is the best example of how this generation rallies and utilizes social media to speak out against celebrities, ideas, individuals and brands. Luxury brands like Burberry and Prada were both impacted when a swarm of online voices deemed their products racist. Gucci reacted not only an apology, but a commitment to cultural diversity and inclusion.
Challenging Notions of Who and What Is Powerful
Gen Z has never known life without the Internet or social media, so institutions that were once viewed as innovative and disruptive as not seen the same way by young people. Half of Gen Z view brands like Facebook, Amazon and Google as too big and powerful, yet at the same time, aren’t distrustful of all brands. In the U.S., 70 percent said brands that participate in social issues earn their respect, and two-thirds believe that brands ought to play a bigger role in social issues.
Whereas power in the past has been institutional and hierarchical, today’s youth wants faster change. Brands play a pivotal role in stimulating change for young people, especially when you consider that Gen Z trust brands four times more than any politician. Brands have the ability to move faster than government, and are often more progressive than elected leaders. And while youth movements like the Parkland teens were not able to make legislative change on gun safety, they remain instrumental in changing the national conversation on this topic. On Sept. 12, chief executive officers of 145 companies signed a letter to Congress urging them to act on gun control legislation. This is an example of how young people are leading and using social media as a tool.
Though expectations of brands are changing, marketers should resist the temptation to feel paralyzed by the sea change. For brands willing to take a stand, Gen Z may turn out to be the most receptive generation ever for authentic marketing messages. And for those who feel overwhelmed by change remember this: It may be more harmful to stand for nothing.
Mary Kate Callen is the senior director at Viacom Velocity.