Gen Z and the future of brand purpose

May 24, 2022 | Publications

Compass pointing north

Brand purpose is a bedrock of contemporary brand building

In recent times, brand building ideology has made a marked shift towards having a brand purpose. A brand has a fundamental reason to exist in the lives of its consumers. And to have deeper meaning, it is important to go beyond mere functionality, and make a real difference. Brands now are all about doing good for the world – elevating their purpose with broader issues such as social impact, eco-impact, taking a stand on minorities, etc.

Starbucks supporting fair trade coffee, Dove advocating beauty diversity, Lego committing to sustainable play for children in underprivileged areas are all examples of these. Brands take a stand on something, align their business practices to it, and communicate it to consumers and stakeholders alike. This has driven some tangible growth for these brands, and some key studies show that there is a very real business case for Purpose.  

What is the next brand purpose?

To understand the future of purpose, the generational view is a useful lens.

Millennials were the first globally connected generation, and have been confronted with conversations around wicked problems such as climate change, social inequality and sustainable development as they reached adulthood. As a generation, they have high awareness of global issues, and express a strong desire to change the world for the better.

Millennials were the generation who kicked off this whole movement of purpose. Unlike the generations before them, they asked not only what the brand does for them and how it fits with their aspirations, but what good is it doing in the world?

In keeping with the global millennial narrative of standing for something, it became important for brands to stand for something too. According to an article in the PR daily, which quotes the 5WPR Consumer Culture rep, among audiences in the millennial demographic, 83% want companies to align with their values and 76% want CEOs to speak out on issues they care about. About two-thirds (65%) of millennials say they have boycotted a brand that took the opposing stance on an issue, and 62% favour products that show off their political and social beliefs..

As a result, brands started taking a social stand in very visible ways, and aligning with consumers on broader issues – issues like Diversity, Body Image, relationships became topics for brands. Brand building worldwide shifted towards this thinking.

Some brands had high purpose ideals embedded in the brand – think Body Shop or Patagonia. However, in the last couple of decades, several brands which were ‘well-meaning citizens’ earlier started a search for a brand purpose that visibly supports a social or environmental cause. This also meant communicating it in more obvious ways to reach the target audience, and add back positive emotional equity to the brand. Which in turn led to tangible business results.

Nike’s push for encouraging girls to participate in sports is one such example. The campaign was highly visible, adopted a relevant and inspiring tone, and was able to impact and grow the women’s range business for the brand.

Unilever’s Lifebuoy is another inspiring story of a hygiene brand that adopted the cause of preventing illness and saving lives. According to the Unilever website, the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan has helped more than 1 billion people develop good handwashing habits by 2021, and these efforts have continued through the pandemic, supported by very visible brand communication and public service announcements.

Today Gen Zs are entering the brand universe

So that was the story with Millennials, who can be credited with starting the brand purpose movement. So what happens to this thinking with the Gen Zs entering the consumption fold, with their own money to spend? What do they feel about brands and brand purpose?

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While Gen Zs take the idea of global connectedness forward, we see some fundamental differences in the way they approach brand purpose.

Green washing

Gen Z consumers have entered a consumer universe full of purpose messaging. For them, this is advertising like any other. Unlike the Millennials who felt that these brands stood out in a sea of profit driven brands, the Gen Z’s are attuned to greenwashing. Most brands they see purport to have a social or environmental impact to some extent – this is not a differentiator any more. In fact it is likely to level the playing field. Brands need to have a meaningful impact to even enter the consideration set.

Gen Z consumers are more likely to ‘see through’ or dismiss brands who have big claims and emotional advertising around their purpose. To cut through a sea of purpose brands, they want to see proof of impact, which for them, sets brands apart.


Gen Z’s are touted to be the least hopeful generation in the history of modern society. They are constantly made aware of ecological and humanitarian disasters, and feel the burden of the need to change. Gen Z icons like Greta Thunburg highlight the weak impact of those in power, and how little words mean when it comes to real action.

As a result, the generation tends to be sceptical about authorities and public figures doing what they say. And this is almost cynical when it comes to big leaders. It is foreseeable that this lack of trust will be transferred to big, leader brands. Perhaps there will be greater credibility for smaller brands that communicate directly through social media pages. This will mimic the shift from the big-celebrity to the micro-influencer culture, which we already see happening in many cultures around the world.

Cancel Culture

Gen Z’s are growing up in a global cancel culture. They tend to react strongly with a disengagement mindset if there is negative news about a celebrity, brand or social media personality.

If we put this together with the idea that Impact is a leveller, it is likely to result in cancelling brands that are known NOT to do good.

Some of the examples of this would be:

  • Rumours that a fashion brand uses child labour or exploitative supply mechanisms
  • A brand that purports to support a minority but doesn’t have representation within the staff
  • Brands whose CEOs have racist posts in their background, or take overtly racist stances
  • Companies whose ad campaigns feature a disadvantaged group, but don’t donate or contribute to the welfare of that group

Results speak louder than words

The relationship between Gen Z and Brand Purpose is likely to be complicated. On the one hand, they are filled with stories of ‘fake impact’ and are keenly aware of greenwashing in a way that the earlier generations are not. At the same time, they feel the planet burden and know it takes big bucks and bravery to make a difference – leading to true appreciation for true results.

What brands should note though is that while social or environmental impact is likely to be a leveller, it is the negative they should look out for. Rejection or disengagement happens fast, and is often very difficult to undo.

The big need for brands is to be authentic, to do what global leaders don’t, and importantly highlight the impact.

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