Brands and businesses are facing increasing pressure from consumers to deliver not just good products and services, but social good as well. Gen Z, in particular, wants brands to place social change at the core of their business. In a recent survey, 76 percent of young people said they have purchased or would consider purchasing a brand/product to show support for the issues the brand supported. But perhaps even more important, 67 percent have stopped purchasing or would consider doing so if the company stood for something or behaved in a way that didn’t align to their values. Why does this matter? Gen Z will comprise more than 40 percent of all shoppers by 2020.
For business leaders more comfortable with profits than protests, embracing a social cause can be tricky; it’s a minefield of inauthenticity and controversy that many brands are scared to enter. But don’t think simply staying on the sidelines will protect your brand. In today’s culture, inaction is action; every association, every partner, every business choice will be looked at by young consumers. Silence is no longer a safe play.
Brands must evolve and grow with the expectations and demands of this important young consumer base, but they can’t do so opportunistically or sloppily. One way to provide value in the social impact space is to engage your young consumers in your social good initiatives. Young people aren’t just socially engaged, they want to be personally involved and see first-hand the difference their action makes. (Less than half feel their purchases alone make an impact.) This presents a huge opportunity for brands to directly engage consumers in impact initiatives and tie themselves to their consumer in a meaningful and long-lasting way.
But before you jump at this opportunity, here are three questions to ask yourself first.
What’s the natural nexus between my brand and social impact?
Think about your product, service or company. Where does it touch on social good? The environment? Opportunity? Health? For instance, our disposal culture has extended to clothing, which is piling up in landfills. As a clothing retailer, Patagonia took notice and has created a marketplace for customers to resell their used apparel, perfect for young consumers on a budget and the environment. We Wood plants a tree for every wood watch purchased, while Lauren Conrad’s The Little Market features handmade, ethically-sourced products from artisans around the world.
How can we engage our customers in our social impact initiatives?
This year, Unilever launched its own Take Action platform designed to give consumers ways they can take action on issues they care about. Similarly, Lush cosmetics has products that are ethically sourced, use only vegetarian ingredients and have minimalist packaging. They also created a product called the Charity Pot, from which 100 percent of the sales go to support charitable organizations around the world. What’s more: They’ve run major campaigns focusing on important and timely issues ranging from human rights to the environment. Lush prides itself on campaigning with its consumers to bring to light important topics and gives its consumers ways to turn their personal passions into action.
How can we help our customers feel the impact of their contribution?
The one-for-one business model (think TOMS, Bombas, Yoobi) is an obvious example. But you can also engage consumers more directly. Environmental stalwart Ben and Jerry’s, always on the top of the CSR company list, is piloting a program in its London location where consumers have the option to pay a penny (or more) for carbon credits to offset the carbon footprint of your cone. H&M understands the environmental cost of fast fashion and invites consumers to bring in their unwanted garments—any brand, any condition, even odd socks, worn-out T-shirts and old sheets—to an H&M store. In exchange, they give consumers a discount card for 15 percent off your next in-store purchase.
For young people, a brand is an extension of themselves, a reflection of who they are or aspire to be. As hyperaware and involved social citizens, they’re forcing brands to not just ask, “What do we stand for?” but “How do we live that every day at every touchpoint with our employees and customers?” And brands need to have a considered and consistent answer. Because young people are watching and buying—or not.