What makes a brand cool to Gen Z? Sustainability

Ken Muench
Yum Collider HERO

Take a peek at any ‘cool’ brand around the world and one thing stands out: somewhere, somehow they’re trying to do good. Whether it’s Nike’s LGBTQ+ attire, or Patagonia’s entire purpose (‘We’re in business to save our home planet’), nearly every hot brand is on a mission to, well, find its mission.

But what about the consumers of cool? How are they reacting to all this goodness? Is it a turnoff? Is it irrelevant? Simply a nice to know? Or is it actually impacting their brand preference? After all, sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility have been a part of business forever. And, frankly, they’ve always been a hallmark of mainstream brands – and not necessarily the cool ones. The Ronald McDonald House has been around since 1974, and the golden arches have never been accused of hipness. Cadbury has been actively improving workers’ lives since at least 1870 – great company, beloved product, but not really at the cutting edge of culture. Perhaps then, this current trend of trendy brands tapping into sustainability is simply an extension of the mainstream. Are ‘cool’ companies simply trying to ‘give back’ to society to check the sustainability box like the mainstream brands?

Our experience around the world suggests another, entirely different, hypothesis. In nearly every country we’ve worked the last few years, we’ve seen a huge uptick in young people truly digging brands’ sustainability efforts. It’s a fascinating dynamic to watch. We never expected to hear a hyper-dialed-in 14-year-old girl in Shanghai explain that she bought a certain pair of shoes because they’re made from recycled rubber.

If you’re, say, a Gen X-er, you can be excused if you’re caught off guard by this. Have kids really changed that much? Sure, the world is in serious trouble and some of the more civic-minded youth are protesting. But since when is your average teenager – especially a ‘cool’ one – that aware and truly engaged in the world’s problems? Previous generations certainly weren’t, and there were no shortages of problems back then.

So why are the youth of today suddenly so amped for sustainability and buying into responsible brands?

Because it’s cool.

We started decoding this in the US as we asked kids to choose metaphor images that described a normal brand vs a responsible brand. Consistently, they selected images of wealth, modernity and popularity to describe the responsible brands. Irresponsible brands were pegged as old, forgotten, lonely and sad. Note how they didn’t ascribe good, holy or saintly images to responsible brands, or evil, bad images to irresponsible ones. That’s because the most salient emotional benefit they derive from associating with responsible brands is coolness, not goodness.

Knowing what to talk about, what to buy, what causes to support now makes you cooler than good looks or a rebellious streak

Fearing this whole dynamic could simply be our Gen X cynicism, we set out to look for guidance in the world of academia, and quickly discovered Professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett at the University of Southern California. We found her book, The Sum of Small Things, to be a gem of insight into this topic. In short, she posits that ‘cultural capital’ is replacing income as the marker of the ‘aspirational class’. Knowing what to talk about, what to buy, what causes to support now makes you cooler than money, good looks or a rebellious streak. The very predetermined factors of belonging to the ‘it crowd’ seem to have shifted.

Good is a big part of the new and redefined cool.

So what does this mean for brands? For starters, it means that if you want your brand to be accepted by the ‘cool kids’ or their followers (which, like it or not, is most of us), you’d better ramp up your sustainability efforts. But more importantly, it means that those efforts should be conducted in a cool manner. Having your brand donate to a cause is nice, but it probably isn’t terribly brag-worthy for your customer. Patagonia’s aggressive stance on controversial topics is something to talk, tweet, post and get excited about. Same with Nike’s BETRUE Air Max 720s, created as an homage to the designer of the iconic rainbow flag. But the standard brand’s standard sustainability box-checking? Not so much.

In the end, it’s obvious and clear that sustainability is a mandate business must embrace – if for no other reason than for the sheer survival of humanity. But what may make the difference between a ‘meh’ and a ‘damn!’ is the immense power of cool. Discounting the sticky, contagious, viral power of cool, in other words, may be a huge disservice – both to your brand and, most importantly, to the cause itself.

So get out there and do good, and enjoy looking so very, very cool while you’re at it.