With so many businesses temporarily shutting their doors during the pandemic, Gen Zs are having a come-to-Jesus realization that — no matter what they personally feel about marketing and ads — big corporate brands do play an incredibly important part in society and in their daily lives. Even those Zs that previously railed against capitalism or identified as Bernie-loving Social Democrats now say they’re empathizing with many of the corporations being hit hard right now (others, not so much).
Zs recognize that big companies can play a critical role in helping people out right now. “Help your customers in whatever means necessary. Do good, don’t be passive,” urged Aaron, 21, in Tempe, AZ, citing an airline that did the opposite by charging him thousands of dollars for an emergency flight home from abroad.
Zs are making personal sacrifices to benefit the greater good, and they want to see brands do the same. “I love that DoorDash has waived its delivery fee in an effort to keep kitchens open,” said Mathias, 20, in Lancaster, CA. “E‑commerce brands could provide small things that benefit everyone, like hand sanitizer or wipes in their packages,” said Gab, 21, in New York City. And Karla, 19, in Cypress, TX, wanted to see essential stores provide medical care to keep community members safe, such as checking customers’ temperatures, handing out bottles of hand sanitizer, and generally providing “small things that will help.”
While Zs expressed mixed feelings about seeing retailers close their doors, many acknowledged the category’s critical role in promoting social distancing and preventing the spread of coronavirus — all while taking a financial hit. “It may be hard for retailers to close, but it shows the brand cares about their employees, customers and the general public. Unfortunately, people would have still been going out to shop if they stayed open,” said Emily, 19, in New Jersey.
People Before Logos
Most critical in Gen Z’s minds is how the people behind brands’ logos are faring. Many Zs said the most important thing they believe brands can do right now is take good care of their employees. “No one should get sick because your profit margins aren’t where you want them to be,” said Maddie, 17, in Sunnyvale, TX. Camryn, 20, in San Diego, CA, agreed, “Make sure your employees are being well taken care of.”
Corporate response to this pandemic has hit home for Zs — literally. They’re seeing their friends, neighbors and family members impacted firsthand, from being laid off to being sent to the frontlines of the pandemic as healthcare workers, first responders, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, and more. “My grandparents work part-time at T.J. Maxx, and my grandmother insisted on working until the stores closed so she could make as much money as possible. When T.J. Maxx announced they were closing, I was relieved to find out they’re still paying employees,” said Alex, 19, in Boston, MA. Casper, 19, in Omaha, NE, put it this way: “Look at your employees as people with families and bills to pay rather than as exclusively useful to the company’s purposes.”
Many Zs are taking note of which businesses are providing their employees with safe working conditions, paid sick days and continued remote work, versus those that are not. “When you see large companies laying off employees to save money during this time, it’s apparent that they’re not looking after their employees. For Gen Z, that does not go unnoticed,” said Andrew, 22, in Minneapolis, MN. Many Zs are pledging to support the brands that have pledged to support their employees, citing Urban Outfitters, Lululemon and Patagonia, among them. “I love the brands that close, but still pay their employees. That’s a brand I will support until the end,” said M’Kaila, 18, in Dallas, TX.
To Be (Or Not To Be) Essential
In a moment when companies are being deemed essential versus not, Zs expect brands to be humble, honest and forthright. The stakes are literally life or death. “Necessities only consist of food or stores such as Walmart; clothes and beauty are just not necessary right now,” said Lilian, 16, in Los Angeles.
The brands and retailers that have tried to falsely claim their services as essential have left an extremely negative impression. “GameStop has not closed. Why? GameStop is disregarding people’s health. Simple advice: close your stores!,” urged Ben, 20, in Lincoln, NE. Gen Zs have called out airlines, hotels and tourism companies that are still marketing “fun spring getaways” that feel completely tone deaf to the actual needs of their consumers.
Zs want to see brands innovate, even pivot radically if they have to, to keep operations going. “Get creative. Instead of just giving up and closing your doors, find other ways to keep employees on while making money at the same time,” advised Ericka, 18, in Lakewood, CA. Zs respect the hustle of companies that have rethought their products, services and manufacturing facilities, in a wartime-like effort to provide essential services. They’re taking note of good deeds from multinational brands, such as Louis Vuitton and Anheuser-Busch, which have pivoted to manufacture hand sanitizer to Tesla shipping ventilators from China. Zs are also encouraged to see local brands in their communities doing their part, such as craft alcohol distilleries across the country manufacturing hand sanitizer (kudos to Old Fourth, Durham and New Deal Distilleries in Georgia, North Carolina and Oregon, respectively).
Zs are also applauding the efforts of brands that are looking out for vulnerable communities. “I saw Walmart designate certain hours for the elderly, which I think is a great idea,” said Gigi, 18, in California. Other Zs called out brands’ efforts to provide much-needed supplies to healthcare workers, from Allbirds donating free shoes to healthcare workers to fashion brands, Citizens for Humanity and Christian Siriano, sewing face masks for local hospitals, and fabricators, including Bednark in Brooklyn, 3D printing hospital supplies. Heck, even McDonald’s scored some points from Zs we spoke with for providing free coffee to healthcare workers.
Finally, Gen Zs are hoping that through this global crisis, brands will step up to provide a sense of normalcy in this far-from-normal moment. “I’ve seen brands close their stores but maintain their online shopping, which is a great idea. I love that there’s still a distraction in shopping,” said Daniel, 17, in Los Angeles. Megan, 18, in New Jersey wants to see brands provide a sense of comfort: “Acknowledge the situation at hand, but ease the minds of customers,” she said. “How can you encourage people, and make them feel safe and normal?,” asked Grace, 20, in Lawrence, KS.
That doesn’t, however, mean communicating with consumers as if the world is still spinning on its normal axis (let’s be honest, it’s not!). Gen Zs, like the rest of us, are being inundated with COVID-19-specific emails from every restaurant, nail salon and cobbler they’ve ever visited, and they’re simply deleting them en masse at this point. Try communicating transparently about your business’s situation without being salesy. “Don’t pressure people into buying your product when the whole world is shutting down,” said Luz, 21, in Atlanta, GA. “Just tell us what is really going on with your business,” said Samantha, 25, in Little Rock.
What It Means
- You’re in the relief industry now. Tell the public exactly what you’re doing to protect employees and customers during this time, physically, financially and emotionally
- Zs are making sacrifices for the greater good, and they want to know that brands are doing the same. Depending on your category, consider whether or not this is the best time to sell your product or over-communicate unnecessarily.
- Zs see brand interactions and engagement as a normal and cathartic part of their lives. When possible, provide Zs with a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos.
- Pivot to help vulnerable populations, from healthcare professionals on the front lines to elderly populations (yes, even if you’re a youth-focused brand).
- No matter your category, you’re a media and community brand now. Consider ways to produce content that reaches consumers where they are: at home.
- You have Gen Z’s permission to try just about anything you can dream up right now. Carve out new products, partnerships and spaces in your industry. If it helps, it’s fair game.