At Barkley this summer, we decided to take our questions about Gen Z to the people in our building who we thought might have some answers: the interns. Using a survey, focus groups, and a variety of secondary sources, we gained two key insights as to why this demographic is not as predictable as we might have thought.
Part 2: Social (Media) Activism
From the stand taken by Malala Yousafzai on children’s and women’s rights in Pakistan to the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington D.C., it seems reasonable to assume that young people today are more engaged in social activism than previous generations. After discussing the issue with our young people, however, we learned that this isn’t necessarily true. All of our respondents said that they were at least somewhat concerned about social issues and current events, yet many were hesitant to identify themselves as political or social activists. We heard the following sentiments:
“I think our generation has more access to learn about social issues. . . I don’t think the fire is any different though.”
“The biggest thing about our generation is we have so many more platforms to speak out on.”
“I think there’s also some bandwagoning going on.”
“You see a lot of physical protesting [in the older generations]. . . in a lot of, I guess, more modern groups. . . you get a lot of people who are taking a stand on social platforms instead.”
“When brands get involved with social activism [a lot of young people] see it as like. . . they’re just trying to jump on the bandwagon.”
With teens shaping the gun control debate via Twitter and an entire award being given based on teen activism in social media, it’s clear that Gen Z is aware of the power for social impact provided by social media. They understand the potential they have for reaching broad audiences through their phones, yet feel more pressure to have opinions than to act on them. The danger of bandwagoning was discussed by all of our focus groups, expressing their concern with the phenomenon of many people suddenly engaging in a specific activity or cause due to it being in style. Gen Z is wary of their own impact-driven output because they know that good intentions often end with a tweet or share.
Gen Z’ers aren’t alone in their dilemma with social media causes; a recent study found that though 69% of Americans feel that social platforms are important for accomplishing political goals, 71% agree with the assertion that “social media makes people believe they’re making a difference when they really aren’t.” The term ‘slacktivism’ has been used to describe the diluted form of activism often seen on social channels. It’s so easy for individuals and brands to participate that it’s hard to tell whether their participation is sincere. The same tools used for beneficial cultural conversation can quickly lead to inauthentic support.
Marketers are being given a lot of good advice on making social activism a larger part of their brands, but they need to make sure that they go about it in the right way. Young people do not require brands to be socially active; in fact, they dislike when brands only superficially engage in anything that resembles bandwagoning. For a brand’s social activism to be respected by its consumers, the brand must actually act on its values. Though Gen Z’ers expect more from their brands than they would from themselves or their peers, they value any progress toward their social ideals so long as it’s more than just words.
We repeatedly heard Nike mentioned as a favorite brand that is also socially active. Nike’s core idea that everyone is an athlete lends the brand credibility. This belief positions them to promote diversity and opportunity in everything from the ads they run to the people they hire. Their Equality campaign is one specific example of expertly-integrated social activism.
Warning: A social cause can act as a little accelerator or a small landmine. Before diving into any social issue, a brand must make sure that it is in line with its editorial authority.
Since most social issues have supporters as well as opponents, there is no guarantee that any particular social cause will lead to success. It is crucial that a brand acts out of genuine interest, otherwise it will merely make enemies. An example of this is Chick-Fil-A. One focus group participant extolled Chick-Fil-A for its values, saying “you just get excited to go!”, whereas another focus group participant claimed that she stopped going to Chick-Fil-A after hearing about their stance on a particular issue.
“We want to see brands come out and say things, but, depending on if they agree with me or not, makes it a good or bad decision in my book.”
Here are the best tips we learned from our focus groups:
- Be authentic
- Be appropriate
- Be active
For better and for worse, social activism can strongly influence the way we think about brands. By both choosing causes that fit the brand and engaging consumers in more than retweets, brands have a powerful way of building community and even strengthening society as a whole.