Dollars & Change: Young People Tap Brands As Agents of Social Change

FULL REPORT: 2018 Survey of Young People and Social Change

Meredith Ferguson
DoSomething Strategic
16 min readMay 14, 2018


Edited by Director & Editor of Research, Irene Pedruelo

Young people are having a moment. Parkland survivors are demanding a national conversation on gun violence and are refusing to back down. The International Indigenous Youth Council, which grew out of the Dakota Pipeline protests, works to inspire, organize, and empower young leaders. Black Lives Matter youth groups have spent the last six years fighting for justice for young people of color.

So much for the cliché of the lazy, self-centered kids worried about their avocado toast and hardwired to their smartphones. (A myth we blew out of the water in our 2016 report).

So, who are they and what’s their plan for changing the world? That’s what we set out to find in our 2018 Survey of Young People and Social Change. Young people — we’re talking 13–25 year olds — are the most racially and culturally diverse generation in American history. They refuse to be bound by the traditional ideological boxes. Nearly half of our survey respondents said they identify as independent or unaffiliated and 50% view themselves as moderates. While young people may be considered “liberal” on many social issues, those positions reflect more of a societal shift than a political philosophy.

For example, even a majority of our respondents who identify as conservative support universal background checks for gun purchases and believe that the government has a responsibility to ensure health coverage for all.

Engaged, Yet Disenchanted

Not surprisingly, then, young people don’t see themselves represented on the national political landscape, either demographically or philosophically. The stereotypical old, white congressman is a stereotype for a reason. Women and minorities each make up less than 20% of lawmakers in the 115th Congress. The average Congressperson is 57 years old — that’s among the highest average in recent history. Congress is the most polarized it’s been in over one hundred years with “nuance” and “compromise” seemingly seen as dirty words. Radicalism prevents even the most agreed upon national issues from resolution.

Young people don’t see themselves represented on the national political landscape, either demographically or philosophically.

Faced with such entrenched and unflinching ideologues, only 28% of Gen Z believe the government even cares about them and only 17% of 18–29 year olds trust Congress to do the right thing all or most of the time. Which may be why so many voting-age young people haven’t voted. Only 46% of 18–29 year olds voted in the 2016 presidential election, compared to over 60% for those older than 30.

Interestingly, our latest survey of young people reveals that 80% of those not yet old enough say they plan to vote; but young people also tell us that after one or two election cycles of voting eligibility, enthusiasm drops. Nothing changes, nothing gets fixed, so what’s the point?

But young people aren’t disengaged from society at large. In fact they’re desperate to make a difference and want to see real change in their lives and communities. As we’ve reported before, they volunteer at incredibly high rates. They are well aware of the myriad problems facing our nation and the world. Growing income equality, soaring healthcare costs, and gun violence impact them directly. And they consider their generation the key to fixing these and other problems.

So, if not politicians, to whom are they turning? Increasingly, Corporate America.

Money Talks (and Drives Social Change)

Sure, consumer activism isn’t new and using consumer power isn’t limited to young people, but they have elevated it to a place of primacy. Where politicians and politics increasingly let them down, Gen Z is expecting — demanding even — that brands use their platforms for good. Young people made sure everyone knew who was partnering with the NRA. And they called on advertisers to pull their ads from Laura Ingraham’s show after she took petty shots at Parkland survivor David Hogg. They’re the ones instantly sharing on social media when companies misstep. As explained in a recent CEO Daily from Fortune in regards to a Starbucks employee calling the police on two black men sitting quietly:

“This is just the latest example of how dramatically corporate leadership has changed in the social media era. The incident, while clearly objectionable, would likely have passed with little notice in earlier days. But today, every Starbucks customer has become a potential citizen-journalist, and every social media user feels empowered to react as if he or she has witnessed the event first-hand. It’s up to the CEO to provide the antidote.”

Young people have long looked to brands for leadership in a variety of areas that are important to them — technology, music, entertainment, and fashion. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that they would add social change to that list. They’re saying they want government to do their job, but when that’s not happening, they’re making companies — the other big influence in their lives — responsive and responsible. And companies large and small better take notice — by 2020, Gen Z will account for about 40% of all customers, and they’re prepared to speak with their dollars.

Everyday acts like grabbing a fried chicken sandwich from Chick-Fil-A or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s are now political statements and social action. And young people are the vanguard of this change.

Everyday acts like grabbing a fried chicken sandwich from Chick-Fil-A or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s are now political statements and social action. Shopping can be a point of pride and the refusal to buy can be a very intentional act of defiance. And young people are the vanguard of this change.

In our latest survey, 76% of young people said they have purchased (53%) or would consider purchasing (23%) a brand/product to show support for the issues the brand supported. But perhaps even more importantly — and more costly — 67% have stopped purchasing (40%) or would consider doing so (27%) if the company stood for something or behaved in a way that didn’t align to their values. With new customer acquisition costs anywhere between five and 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one, businesses simply can’t afford to ignore these numbers!

Compare that to only 29% and 32%, respectively, of respondents who have contacted a representative or attended a political event. If they can’t impact policy with their vote, they’ll vote with their dollars. (Check out film critic and social observer Amy’s Nicholson’s great post about corporate efforts to embrace activism to attract consumer dollars.)

This isn’t to say that social stewardship has replaced price and quality in the buying decision matrix; those factors are still number one. A plurality of respondents said they would not buy a more expensive equivalent product or a lesser quality product even if the brand was clearly superior from a socially or environmentally responsible standpoint.

As TOMS has recently learned, having a clear and well-established ethos can’t make up for the lack of a solid and forward-thinking business plan. But as everything from potato chips to laptops becomes commoditized, stewardship becomes a definable difference maker.

Social stewardship hasn’t replaced price and quality in the buying decision matrix. But as everything from potato chips to laptops becomes commoditized, stewardship becomes a definable difference maker.

For over half of our survey’s respondents, brand reputation and values influence the buying decision. Almost 30% actively seek out socially or environmentally responsible brands and 26% say they often or always decide to purchase solely because they support the brand’s values. The numbers are even higher for people of color.

We hear you thinking it — yes, the extremes on the left and right are the ones vocally driving this new form of consumer activism (and getting all the attention for it), but the quiet majority — moderates in the middle — are not exactly indifferent. They’re just as open to purchasing a brand/product to show support, stop buying a brand because they stood for something or behaved in a way that didn’t align with their values, and engage with a company to advocate for a social cause as those who identify as conservative and liberal.

To truly stand out, companies must engage with young people and make them partners in progress.

In a world in which the ‘Buy 1 Give 1’ model extends from soccer balls to toothbrushes and where the Wendy’s twitter account can win the internet, simply standing for something or having a personality isn’t enough. To truly stand out, companies must engage with young people and make them partners in progress. Nearly 50% of respondents say it’s important for a company or brand to have social change initiatives that consumers can be a part of.

‘Started From the Bottom Now We’re Here

So young people want brands to stand for something, to drive social change, and to engage them in the process. But how the hell do you do that? Well, it can’t be done overnight and it can’t be done all at once.

As a roadmap of sorts, we’ve created the New Brand Ethos Hierarchy. (Fancy, right?) Think of the lower levels as just the price of doing business. Whether you’re a billion-dollar global behemoth or the corner coffee shop, you’ve got to be taking care of this low-hanging fruit. By the time your reach the final stage, you’ve won the ‘big boss level.’

Level 1 — All Are Welcome

At the most basic level, a brand must be seen as “for everyone” or face instant, and very public, backlash. Consider the recent fails of H&M, Dove, and the aforementioned Starbucks. Perhaps this goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: this doesn’t mean you can’t target your product and marketing to certain groups. But that targeting can’t insult, exclude, or degrade others — even if unintentionally. Check out Fenty, who changed the game with beauty products to cover nearly every complexion. Young people are here for it. (Fenty was a favorite purpose-driven brand among our respondents.)

Level 2 — We Care

Consider this the entry-level version of “good corporate citizenship.” This includes corporate sponsorship of social causes and events, corporate donations to nonprofits, and the like. Think the classic big bank underwriting a cancer fundraiser or weekend fun-run. Such ‘behind the scenes’ support is great and vital, but checkbook philanthropy alone won’t do a brand any favors when it comes to Gen Z and their desire to support brands that are actively working for the common good. “Of course you donate some profits to charity, what else ya got?”

Checkbook philanthropy alone won’t do a brand any favors when it comes to Gen Z and their desire to support brands that are actively working for the common good.

Level 3 — Caring is Integral to Our Story

You’re inclusive and contributing to social causes. Awesome! Now it’s time to show leadership on causes that align with your brand values and use above-the-line marketing dollars to communicate this commitment as a fundamental part of your brand story. In our 2017 Brand Love & Ad Nausea report, nearly 60% of young people believed that a brand’s ads should include the company’s values and beliefs. And don’t be afraid to blow your own saxophone — as we previously noted in that same report, only 11% of young people actively seek information on a brand’s social, environmental or political position, employee diversity, or the causes it supports.

This level can be fraught with peril, however. Young people’s BS detectors are especially fine-tuned and adopting a cause that has no logical connection to the brand can appear disingenuous or opportunistic. Nobody wonders about Cheetos’ position on immigration reform.

When we asked young people in our survey what brands they associate with being positive towards the environment, Dawn was the most common answer. Yes, Dawn dish soap. Dawn has done a tremendous job highlighting how wildlife rescue workers use Dawn to clean up birds after oil spills. They’ve effectively extended their core competency, cleaning, to include the environment. And young people noticed.

Level 4 — Engaging for Direct Impact

Now we’re getting somewhere. You’ve built a solid foundation. But, so have most other (smart) businesses. While the first three levels are a requirement to compete in today’s climate, it’s not enough to thrive.

You can’t limit your cause engagement to the purchase — only 34% of respondents feel that their purchases “make an impact when the brand supports a cause I believe in.” To build deep, lasting connections with young people (read: your primary customer base for the next 40 years) you must engage them directly in impactful work.

To build deep, lasting connections with young people, you must engage them directly in impactful work.

Nearly half of our respondents say that it is important for a company or brand to have a social change initiative that consumers can be a part of. Now on the surface, this may not seem like a significant percentage, but really consider what they’re saying. Forty-nine percent want to be an active partner with you. That’s an opportunity to tie yourselves together in a way that rarely presents itself.

This is where innovation and ingenuity can really make the difference. At Patagonia (noted by respondents as a top purpose-driven brand), they’ve encouraged customers to actually not buy their clothing (sending them in for repairs instead) and created a marketplace for customers to resell their used apparel. Even more boldly, in February they officially launched Patagonia Action Works, a digital platform designed to connect customers to causes. Oh, and they’ve doubled revenue in the last eight years.

Level 5 — The Company Lives Purpose

This is the top of the pyramid, where purpose and business are so intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable. These entities strive to live purpose on a daily basis. They were built on the passions of their founder or are driven by the personal beliefs of their leaders. They are proactive in their activism, carefully balancing areas of their business (sourcing, production, profits) with the value of doing good.

Howard Schultz, the founder and executive chairman of Starbucks, explained it this way:

“Starbucks is not profit driven. Starbucks is values driven, and as a result of those values, we have become very profitable. Not every business decision should be an economic one…if every decision goes through a very defined lens of how much money can you make as a result of this, it’s not going to add up to much at the end. There has to be a balance between the profit you’re searching for and the values that will endure.”

A great example of Starbucks, and others, living its values was during the government’s recent attempts to ban people from certain countries to enter the U.S., and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Both offered an opportunity for interested organizations to put words in action. Starbucks committed to hiring 10,000 refugees in five years. AirBnB allowed stranded refugees to stay in their listings for free and has vowed to facilitate the temporary housing of 100,000 refugees by 2022.

In our survey, young people overwhelmingly mentioned Lush cosmetics as a model for living the purpose. Lush was founded on an ethos of doing good, while making a profit. They insist their products are ethically sourced, use only vegetarian ingredients, and keep their packaging to a minimum. They’ve created a product, the Charity Pot, for which 100% of the sales go to support charitable organizations around the world, and they’ve run major campaigns focusing on human rights and the environment. Much like Patagonia, Lush prides itself on campaigning with its consumers to bring to light important topics and gives its consumers ways to turn their passions into action. They’re working to save your skin and the world.

Much like Patagonia, Lush prides itself on campaigning with its consumers to bring to light important topics and gives its consumers ways to turn their passions into action.

Some new brands are starting at this level. Purpose and principles are the foundation on which the brand is built. *Adjusts my Warby Parker glasses.*The ‘Buy 1 Give 1’ model redefined how a purpose-driven company could operate. And the evolution is continuing. Consider Love Your Melon.

Love Your Melon — another oft mentioned example of one of young people’s fave purpose-driven brands — is an apparel brand dedicated to giving a hat to every child battling cancer in America. They created the Love Your Melon Campus Crew Program, an exclusive group of students looking to improve the lives of children battling cancer. These brand ambassadors raise awareness for childhood cancer, represent the brand through promotions and sales events, and directly help children with cancer. Through its more than 13,000 student ambassadors on 840 college campuses, they’ve donated over $4.3 million and 125,000 hats over the last six years (and they’ve done this without sacrificing growth or profit!). They’ll soon be expanding their brick & mortar storefronts.

While New Brand Ethos Hierarchy levels can blend a bit into each other, the bottom line is that Gen Z is forcing brands to ask not just “what do we stand for?” but “how do we live that every day at every touchpoint with our employees and customers?” And brands better have a considered and consistent answer.

Gen Z is forcing brands to ask not just “what do we stand for?” but “how do we live that every day at every touchpoint with our employees and customers?”

Brands that are seen as grossly opportunistic and sloppy will be met with swift ridicule and derision. (‘Sup, Pepsi?) Those that don’t live it will be targeted (#deleteUber).

And brands that do nothing? At best, they will miss the chance to more deeply connect with their customers; at worst, they’ll be seen as complicit. Brands must remember that “even inaction is a type of action. The silent acceptance of wrongdoing” or the failure to do what’s right is how bias, division, exclusion, and harassment becomes normalized or swept under the rug. And young people are always watching.


For young people, the age of mass appeal is over. Young people are looking for a brand that understands them and gives them an opportunity to engage in a way that’s meaningful for them. It’s “here’s what’s on CBS at 8:30” vs “recommended for me” on Netflix. It’s segmented terrestrial radio stations vs. self-programmed ‘stations’ on Spotify. How does that relate to businesses taking a stand on social causes? When a company doesn’t take a stand on an issue or doesn’t engage in their community, it’s because they’re afraid of upsetting someone — their goal is mass appeal. But such inaction can actually turn off the young consumer base.

Businesses must balance profits and purpose. And this only happens if brands are as committed to and innovative around doing good as they are about increasing sales. Customers aren’t just revenue centers, but potential partners in the greater mission. And employees aren’t just head count, but ambassadors of the company’s ethos.

Young consumers are looking for a company that’s run by people, not profits. They’re looking for empathy, community, and humanity. Almost half of respondents believe that “In the future, I will…change the world in a meaningful way,” but just over a quarter believe that they are part of a “larger social movement to solve social problems.” Provide them that opportunity, lead by example, foster connectedness, and you’ll build a stronger company and healthier community.

Research & Editorial Team

Meredith Ferguson, Managing Director, DoSomething Strategic

Charlotte Horseman, Data and Research Analyst, DoSomething Strategic

Irene Pedruelo, Director of Research & Insights, DoSomething Strategic

Sohaib Hasan, Director of Analytics,

Jess Li, Survey Research Analyst,


This survey recruited young people aged 13–25 living in the United States. Data were collected between March 1st and March 23rd, 2018 and the median time to complete the survey was 17 minutes. Prior to analyses, the data were cleaned and weighted as follows:

–Individuals with completion times under one-third the median time to complete were excluded from the results

–Individuals younger than 13 years of age or older than 25 years of age were excluded from the results

–Individuals living outside of the United States were excluded from the results

–Post-stratification weights were applied to reflect young people in the general population (based on gender, age, race, and parental level of education)

The final sample includes 2,461 observations. Results presented here are reported post-weighting to help ensure a nationally representative sample with respect to core socio-demographic variables. Assuming a population size of approximately 56,500,000 13–25 year olds nationwide*, a sample size of 2,461 at a 95% confidence level allows for a 1.98% margin of error (based on the assumption that data are normally distributed).

*Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2016 Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division

About DoSomething Strategic

DoSomething Strategic is the data-driven social impact consultancy arm of We help brands and organizations engage young people for positive social change. We combine proprietary data with a deep understanding of what young people care about to help clients build relationships with this unique demographic and activate them for social good. Our expertise is grounded in moving 6 million members — ages 13–25 in every area code in the United States and in 131 countries worldwide — to take social action, and we’ve been doing this work successfully day in and day out for over 25.