What Makes A Brand Cool To Gen Z? Sustainability | Hall & Partners

What makes a brand cool to Gen Z? Sustainability

With today’s youth increasingly concerned about saving the planet, Ken Muench explores the implications for brands

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.

Check out more Big Thinking Articles

Gen z

‘Zoomers’ call on businesses to be kinder to staff, more transparent and respectful of their privacy

5 ways UK marketers can combat the HFSS ad ban

Travel and tourism are struggling right now, but a new future for hospitality beckons

Conscious Health webinar highlights

We made the GRIT ‘Top 50 Most Innovative Companies’

Are behaviour change strategies useful for tackling health inequality?

The key to creating better habits? Temptation bundling

PharmaExec: Hall & Partners on purposeful partnerships for a post-COVID era

Research Live: Vanella Jackson helps form MRS Disability Group

WARC: Hall & Partners explain how pharma can keep building trust

About Hall & Partners

Hall & Partners is a global insight agency that specialises in quantitative and qualitative market research, data analytics and strategic consultancy. 

We provide brand performance tracking, customer segmentations, customer and brand experience, predictive modelling, insight engagement platforms, as well as communications and advertising strategy. This is in addition to our award-winning insight platform, The Hub.

Our global team help brands, businesses and organisations in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East inspire growth. Together, we utilise over three decades of insight expertise to solve the toughest branding, marketing, communications, and innovation challenges for our clients.

Hall & Partners is a part of Omnicom’s Communications Consultancy Network.

Subscribe to our newsletter

By submitting this form you are opting in to receive occasional brand, marketing and communications insights from Hall & Partners.

© 2021 Hall & Partners. This website is powered by 100% renewable energy. All rights reserved.

Website developed by Digital Berry Ltd

Signup for our Newsletter

A monthly newsletter bursting with thinking on how to grow your brand: from in-depth analysis to practical advice. Sign-up for the latest industry perspectives, insight reports, free-to-attend webinars, and exclusive events.

By submitting this form you are opting in to receive occasional brand, marketing and communications insights from Hall & Partners.