Stay Alert. Gen Z (and all their wonderful demands for a better world) is coming! Faster than ever…

Gen Z are the generation most intuitively prepared for the changes COVID-19 has forced on our lives: digitally savvy, fiscally conservative and accustomed to the thought of an uncertain future, they are well-versed in the feelings and behaviours that are only just starting to become the reality for other generations.

COVID-19 comes at a critical time for many Gen-Zers – high school and college exams, prom and university graduation, first internships and job applications. It’s unsurprising they feel as though they are being robbed of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. COVID-19 has given them even more reason, and platform space, to make their voice heard – but are brands who want to appeal to them as new consumers listening? And will they continue to listen in the absence of an immediate threat to the global economy and public health?

So, what do they want?

Substance above sincerity

Out of all generations, Gen Z cares least about brands providing clear and reassuring communication, maintaining their brand presence and relevant value – instead 75% of Gen Z said the number one action they wanted to see from brands was to ensure employee and consumer safety, with 73% wanting brands to protect their employees financially.

For these hyper-critical consumers, token gestures won’t cut it. In recent interview with Gen Z readers, Vogue Business found that most were avoiding brands like Whole Foods and parent company Amazon due the reported lack of protection for employees despite donating millions to support COVID-19 efforts. However, brands such as Nike are lauded for not only donating to COVID-19 funds and pivoting to manufacture PPE but also for making their training app free for all users, encouraging people to #playinside. It’s clear that caring for the communities your brands serve is key: and if you’re not doing this, Gen Z don’t want to hear from you.

Change at scale

Gen Z are widely thought of as the activist generation: demanding systems-change from government and businesses and holding these powerful institutions to account. Last year we saw them galvanised by the #schoolstrike4climate movement, voting the climate crisis as the biggest challenge of our time. These intersectional environmentalists advocate for both the protection of people and planet, calling out social inequalities and injustice for vulnerable and marginalised communities and individuals. COVID-19 has exposed the failings of old systems and created an opportunity for brands to work in partnership to build the humane and sustainable future that Gen Z have been fighting for.

With brand responses to COVID-19 under the microscope, and many falling short, the 85% of Gen Z that felt it was important for brands to play a bigger role in social issues today are having their resolve to demand proper action from brands strengthened and supported, with nearly 6 out of 10 consumers saying their perception of brands has been affected by the pandemic. The crisis hasn’t changed this generation’s relationship with brands drastically: it has simply reaffirmed their belief in socially responsible business and made these concerns mainstream.

Can brands keep their heads down?

Conversations about brand behaviour are moving online: 60% of Gen Z are spending more time on social media during the lockdown, Gen Z are poised ready to make their feelings known. Brands can no longer hide from criticism; any action, any statement, any commitment, any misstep will be posted and reposted and Gen Z will be there to judge what’s been said, and not said.

The recent upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement has proved yet again the undeniable power of digital connection. From first alerting the world to the atrocities committed, to galvanising people and brands around the movement with renewed vigour. COVID-19 has the world relying on digital as a lifeline, this is allowing movements to be ‘supercharged’ and amplified but also captivating our attention, which is more focused, vigilant, and alert to the world around us than it has been for some time.

As we navigate the ‘new normal’ the margin for error will be slim and ‘virtue signalling’ called out: tighter purse strings will only be loosened for brands whose actions support their words. Brands will need to have a watertight purpose and visible action that substantiates this purpose that is communicated well. Now is not the time for brands to push out hollow messaging and commitments, but rather a time to rethink and re-evaluate the role they play in society. Gen Z mean business, and that business is cleaner, more sustainable, and kinder to both people and planet. Brands had better be ready to deliver.