Gen Z is coming of age in a radically new world defined by instant access to information, polarized politics and a social media-powered desire for validation.
While Gen Z is experiencing boundless creative possibilities, they are demanding more of themselves, more of society and more of business than has any previous generation.
According to a new national survey by BBMG and GlobeScan, by a 5-to-1 ratio, the leading edge of Gen Z (ages 18–22) does not trust business to act in the best interests of society, and nearly one in four cannot name a single brand they consider to be purposeful.
‘Commitment, action, follow-through, and transparency’
Though that may sound discouraging to brands and corporations trying to win the loyalty and respect of this ascending generation, the flipside of that skepticism is an eagerness to champion organizations that show courage on issues that matter, hold space for Gen Z to have their voices heard and validated, welcome all people (especially those who have often been marginalized), and support their individual growth and career aspirations.
When it comes to PR and corporate reputation management, Gen Z wants organizations to own their mistakes, be transparent about their role in systemic issues that need to be addressed, and, most of all, demonstrate the actions they are taking to create a better tomorrow.
“What I understand is actual commitment to something,” said Harrison, a 22-year-old student in New York City. “One thing I get really turned off by is when it appears that what [companies] are trying to promote or what they are saying is not aligned with their actions. Commitment, action, follow-through, and transparency matter to me.”
Talking the talk
This is an important warning for any company looking to earn quick PR by speaking up in support of a hot topic, whether that’s touting equality during Pride Month or condemning the treatment of refugees.
Gen Z is savvy enough to question a brand’s motivations and look for the action behind the statement that proves it’s not just talk, that the company is committed to investing in steps to help the issue in a meaningful way.
For them, there’s a disconnect between the “do-goodery” proclaimed in superficial marketing campaigns and the significant economic, social justice and environmental challenges that shape their lives and sense of possibilities.
At a time when awareness of these issues is at an all-time high and as tech-enabled radical transparency leaves businesses with nowhere to hide, the opportunity for organizations to win Gen Z’s respect and faith is rooted in honesty, transparency and good intentions backed by action.
Walking the walk
For a large corporation, taking action could mean creating a program to fund work that helps out where government institutions have fallen short. Or it could mean taking steps to divest from partners or suppliers who aren’t values-aligned.
For a smaller company, it might mean enacting new hiring practices or company culture models that promote equality or values that matter, internally as well as to customers—especially Gen Z.
Our research into the attitudes, beliefs, desires and behaviors of the leading edge of Gen Z reveals that they are most likely to trust that large companies are operating in the best interests of society when they “prove it by action” and demonstrate “clear intentions through business strategy and goals.”
That doesn’t mean that companies have to be perfect from the start—only that they’re making progress and proving it along the way. Gen Z is the least likely to associate trust with “not having made mistakes in the past,” indicating a willingness to prize authenticity, speaking out, and impact over perfection.
“Brands need to understand the problem they are causing and that their company will not exist if they don’t fix the system. Their priority should be the same as the people’s priority,” said Lauren, 18, from Richmond, Virginia.
Brands will win with Gen Z not by being perfect, but by speaking openly and honestly about the challenges they face and declaring clear strategies for action, improvement and impact.
Raphael Bemporad is the founding partner of BBMG. Briana Quindazzi is BBMG’s head of strategy, and Liz Schroeter Courtney leads business development.