Brands like Nike and Fenty Beauty by Rihanna are not only reflecting culture, they are moving it forward. What’s their secret? They prioritize their connections with youth culture and their socially conscious beliefs to make a real impact.
That being said, this is undoubtedly delicate terrain to navigate because it can’t be done for the sake of attention or to simply check a box.
We’ve all seen it go left, when the brand enters the conversation without really understanding the nuances or the depth of the topic. It’s clear that little thought was given to whether or not they have the credibility to be part of the moment.
Explaining all the ways to avoid this is worthy of an hour-long TED Talk. But we don’t have that kind of time. So instead, I’ll leave you with three proof points that demonstrate that culture is thriving and how brands are shifting it for the better—when done right.
The roar of the woke consumer
Beyond the pivotal U.S. presidential election in 2016, many countries around the world have experienced significant political shifts.
This has birthed a trend that’s had a powerful influence on our world: the prevalence of political activism—particularly among younger generations—and, along with it, an expectation that brands will take a stand on issues that impact our communities. The impact of politics and activism on culture is not new. For instance, Woodstock and Live Aid have given way to Childish Gambino’s potent “This Is America” and Rihanna and Cardi B’s boycott of the Super Bowl halftime show in solidarity with the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick.
Gen Z and millennials expect brands to articulate their position on important issues and affect change. In a recent global trends research of young consumers, 66% said brands should promote progressive values and play an active role in society. That POV is reflected in the media they hungrily consume, from podcasts to politically satirical TV series.
The feels and brand connection
Although technology and social media have connected us like never before, that hasn’t necessarily brought us closer together or made our lives appreciably better. In fact, society as a whole is experiencing so much angst, melancholy and loneliness that NPR labeled it an epidemic.
The good news is that many younger consumers are doing something about it. They are talking to each other about their feelings, seeking help and turning to activities that pull them out of their funks. And as they’ve shifted their behavior, they’ve normalized the importance of mental wellness, a taboo topic in many communities.
It should come as no surprise that Gen Z and millennial consumers also want brands to acknowledge what they’re feeling. In the same survey, 59% of younger consumers said brands should convey messages of moral support and show they understand their struggles. For example, Gen Z and millennials named Dove the most trusted among all consumer brands last year, according to YBrands, due to the themes of individual beauty and personal empowerment the beauty marketer’s campaigns have come to be known for.
It’s clear to see that Dove lives and breathes this ethos. Dove recently teamed with The Crown Coalition to fight for legislation that protects black women who choose to wear their hair naturally in the workplace, as a reported 80% feel pressure to change their hairstyles because of their jobs.
It’s not enough that brands speak to these all-powerful generations of younger consumers or even communicate that they understand the issues they believe in; they must have a real desire to actively help them address the challenges they face every day.
Beyond being socially conscious and politically engaged, young consumers also refuse to be put in a box. Their identities are broadly based, and they have formed many disparate micro-communities around subcultures, subgenres and common interests, yet they are much more globally minded than previous generations. More than half of Gen Z and millennials are connected to people from other countries via social media, and more than one-third say they identify more as global citizens than citizens of their own country.
Just as young people refuse to be bound by borders, culture knows no boundaries. This is exemplified by the popularity of international music—from K-pop and desi to Afropop and Bollywood—and the proliferation of podcasts for every possible interest. Consumers define themselves across a more diverse spectrum than ever before. They’re primed to connect with brands that break from cultural norms and respond in-kind to this fluidity.
Today’s youth are confident, politically engaged and self-aware, a powerful combination. Their choices are driving a world that is multidimensional and questions outdated cultural stereotypes and norms. Brands that are tuned in to the same frequency—those that go beyond the mere marketing trope of speaking their language to actually being accepted as part of their club of globally plugged-in and culturally pitch-perfect citizens—stand to build relationships that last a lifetime. Let’s level up.