What Brand Purpose Means to Gen Z


Dear brands, we need to talk.

Brand purpose is a hot topic in boardrooms, marketing trade press, and conferences around the world. And it should be - purpose beyond profit should guide everything a brand does. 

Yet if the sentiment of my non-marketing friends are at all representative of Gen Z, the challenge for brands is getting us to believe them and earning our trust. 

Let’s talk about it. 


Gen Z and me

Gen Z (those of us born between 1997 and 2012) want to challenge the status quo of those who came before us, exactly like those who came before us

The difference is our generation has come of age in a world where the speed of social disruption has accelerated dramatically. It’s not an exaggeration to say many of us are feeling a sense of urgency to make positive changes in the world. 

So when it comes to brands, not being evil isn’t good enough. We expect them to actively help make the world a better place to live. 

Having grown up alongside the internet we are fluent in the art of carefully curating how we’re seen online (aka catfishing). 

So we’re naturally skeptical of purpose-led communications that feel inconsistent with the brand - like Kendall Jenner’s unforgettable Pepsi ad

It’s not all bad news. When speaking with friends, many said they make purchase decisions based on a brand’s values and whether it is ethical, supports sustainability and/or generally makes a positive contribution. 

One friend pointed out that their expectations vary based on the type of business. Her expectations of a wafer company are very different to a fashion label or technology company. 

Yet most focus on the quality of the product and how it meets their needs before considering purpose. So purpose can be a differentiator but - amongst my friends at least - it’s considered mandatory and all said they wouldn’t buy from a brand that didn’t align with their values. 

Gen Z expect a lot from brands, make buying decision based on these expectations, but are sceptical when seen in marketing communications. I told you we had trust issues. 


Brands need to think, do, and then say

Look, I’m just a marketing intern in a digital agency who’s looking for a job.

I don’t have any significant expertise in brand strategy or communications, but I am an archetypical member of Gen Z so let me give you some advice anyway.

We are bombarded by media that has been created to achieve a goal. This makes it impossible to know where to look and who or what to trust.

At the risk of falling prey to cancel culture, brands need to be true to their values and walk the talk. 

I recommend every brand manager read the book, Think. Do. Say by Ron Tite who is Founder and CEO of Canadian-based agency, Church+State. 

Ron (we’re on a first name basis), writes that brands need to do three things to cut through with authentic purpose-led communications:

1. Think: what is the brand’s purpose beyond profit? what are its’ values?  

2. Do: what does the brand do to live its purpose and values? 

3. Say: Talk about what you do to live the brand’s purpose and values

In other words, where brands get into trouble is when they communicate what they think without meaningful and consistent actions to back that up. If they talk about what they actually do it’s hard to be anything but authentic.

A great example of this is Patagonia who’s anti-Black Friday campaigns consistently go viral, increasing brand love and ultimately helping the business have greater impact and grow. 

Patagonia’s purpose is to save our home planet. Their core values are to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to protect nature, and not be bound by convention. Everything they do is aligned to their purpose and values. 

As part of Patagonia’s ‘Buy less, Demand More’ campaign, the brand has actively taken steps to discourage people from buying new products from them. This includes not participating in Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales. By talking about their actions, they gain significant  media coverage each year and standout in a sea of sameness. With sales up nearly 30%, the results speak for themselves.

Nobody expects every brand to go to the same lengths as Patagonia. I believe it’s about brands being true to themselves, their purpose and their values. If these are lived through actions then there will always be positive stories to tell. 

Younger generations will remain sceptical of brands jumping on the latest ‘woke’ trend. The opportunity for business and marketing leaders is to win trust by telling stories about how they live their brand’s purpose. By doing so, they might just win the hearts and minds of generations today and tomorrow. 


Gen Z

Editor’s note: Marcella interned with Clue for six weeks in April-May 2021. She was a pleasure to have in the office and passionate about all things digital marketing, with particular interest in social media and content. Marcella is currently seeking a permanent gig within an agency environment. Prospective employers can check out her profile and connect with Marcella via Linkedin.


Category: Branding