​​​​​​​How Gen Z Is Changing the Landscape for Purpose-Driven Brands & Retailers

Future Forward

In a Future Forward session on May 17 in Chicago, Lucie Greene will give a forecast that explores key macro trends that will shape the way consumers think, connect, shop and appraise brands in the years to come. For more information and to register for the in-person event, visit the Future Forward website.

To assess the landscape we're currently operating in with regard to Gen Z and purpose, it’s worth looking back a decade or so to when the first Millennial-centric direct-to-consumer brands launched. 

Across the late 2000s and early 2010s, many categories were disrupted as brands — from Warby Parker to Lola (tampons) to Everlane, Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s — hit the scene, uprooting all manner of dusty categories with a sleek design, unexpected prices, new concepts like product subscriptions, and a familiar pithy tone of voice. They addressed a generation of Instagram-fluents who were open to alternatives to traditional stables, with upscale aesthetics and affordable prices. 

p2piq future forward
Lucie Greene

But there was also perhaps another important trait to this group. Looking at each we saw the notion of corporate social responsibility evolve from something corporate, even traditional, to something fundamental in a brand’s concept and marketing. One-for-one commerce (one pair of glasses for you, one donated), addressing period poverty in emerging economies, and tackling wage inequality in supply chains with radical transparency all became commonplace attributes of this Millennial wave, and as such the cultural lexicon thereafter. 

Fast forward to the 2020s, and we’re in a new era altogether. One where what was novel to Millennials is literally table stakes to Gen Z (born approximately mid-1990s to 2010s). This group, rising to prominence in terms of multi-generation cultural influence and spending power, has altogether higher expectations of brands. 

It is also thinking more critically about brand virtue signaling in social commerce, should the actions not stack up. I’m fresh from exploring this as part of a collaborative trend forecast, The Future of Good, with global purpose consultancy Conspiracy of Love. It’s clear that Gen Z is going to transform brand practice even more in the common decade. 

For a flavor of this, cast your eye over the most prominent Gen-Z positioned brand launches in recent years. Vegan, plant-based, sustainable, cruelty-free, radically inclusive (and representative in marketing), political and more have emerged as key criteria.

And that’s not even something these brands brag about. It’s hygiene and due diligence. Rather than wait to scale, new direct-to-consumer Gen Z brands are starting out with bold purpose-based initiatives. See Madhappy, the clothing brand launching a nonprofit foundation supporting mental health and Local Optimist, its suite of tools accessible to any teen seeking help with mental and emotional health. 

For a good example of Gen Z inclusivity, see Youthforia, a recently launched direct-to-consumer skincare brand that describes itself as “universal.” Its packaging is awash with color pops and playful and ironic language (it uses emojis to explain scientific evidence on its website). The premise is that the makeup is so clean, sustainable and plant-based, you can even sleep in it. 

New Gen Z brands are unafraid of taking on bold issues that might have scared the boardrooms of corporate America, too. Cult L.A. fashion brand No Sesso is famous for upcycling old garments and creating one-off, genderless pieces. The name is Italian for “no gender.” No Sesso describes itself as “making nonconformity as beautiful and inclusive as it can possibly be.” The brand’s founder, Pierre Davis, says her ambition is to use profits to support organizations that help homeless trans women of color and sex workers. 

Gen Z is raising expectations of bigger brands and the ways they approach purpose too. While similar issues remain important to them — climate change, inequality, racial justice — increasingly Gen Z’s are thinking critically about the way brands approach this. They seek to be part of the process rather than top-down philanthropy. (Hence, Toms shoes recently scrapped its 1-for-1 model to donating one-third of its profits to grassroots organizations, creating a giving advisory council with diverse perspectives to enhance community activities, and co-creating “impact grants” to resonate with Gen Z.) 

Gen Z’s are expecting brands to empower existing grassroots activists rather than supplant them. To create diverse boards impacting the execution of initiatives so that they serve all and truly make change. They’re expanding the notion of purpose to involve economic, creative and entrepreneurial inclusion (access to platforms, progress and social mobility). 

They are also already thinking of purpose in intersectional terms, while also discussing issues from the environment, to social inequality, to mental health and how they are all interconnected. 

In other words, creating a sophisticated next-stage approach after the first DTCs broke the mold. It’s an exciting journey in the path toward brands truly being impactful with a new consumer cohort who supports them, but also holds them accountable.

About the Author:Lucie Greene is a futurist and founder of New York-based Light Years. She is a specialist in applying emerging consumer behaviors, cultural trends and innovation research to brand strategy and incubation. Her company consults brands including LinkedIn, Coach, Unilever, Neiman Marcus, Apple and Soho House group, as well as partnering with specialist agencies and venture capital groups on initiatives.

In a Future Forward session on May 17 in Chicago, Greene will give a forecast that explores key macro trends that will shape the way consumers think, connect, shop and appraise brands in the years to come. For more information and to register for the in-person event, visit the Future Forward website.