Your Brand’s Real Offering to Gen Z is Community

Mary Noel
Mary Noel
Apr 2 · 6 min read

Originally posted on March 18, 2020 in Marketing Dive.

In a world of endless competition, what is the magic behind the brands who nail it? It’s less about what they are actually selling. Sure, quality matters, but there are many cool brands making arguably the same quality product. What is Gen Z really in the market for? They want a community — ​ a tribe in which they belong. That’s where your brand can stand out. Especially as social distancing becomes the norm amid the spread of COVID-19, the threat of an isolation crisis is real. There’s never been a more important time to prioritize community, especially if it’s one that’s built through a screen.

It’s time to look beyond the features you offer to what young people crave: belonging. Gen Z doesn’t simply want to buy what your brand is selling, they want to join you.

The loneliest generation

On paper, they’re the most connected generation, born after the digital revolution was in full swing. But in reality, they’re the least connected where it matters: relationships. The increased screen time may mean a lack of true connection, although the jury is still out on the true impact of how all this tech will impact our well-being. What’s certain is the decline in religion (more than one-third of young adults are now disaffiliated) has meant a loss of the community that frequently comes with a regular religious practice; and in our culture of relentless overwork starting at a young age, there is little time for building relationships anyway. All of this has contributed to a growing sense of isolation among a generation overburdened with massive issues like the climate crisis, school shootings and student loan debt. It’s no wonder a 2018 Cigna Health study found Gen Z reports the highest levels of loneliness than any other age group, and mental health among young people today is reaching a crisis point.

It’s largely this sense of loneliness and a deep craving for meaning and connection that are behind growing trends around self-care, astrology, music festivals and which musicians top the charts. A piece in The New Yorker discusses the rise of pop artist Billie Eilish and includes a text from a 21-year-old fan on why the musician resonates with this generation: “ALSO! I think gen z is extremely lonely!!!! songs like ‘When the Party’s Over’ get RIGHT at the desperate, gnawing sense of isolation social media has sewn into a generation who are becoming increasingly sequestered.”

Brands are filling the void

The longing to belong offers a huge opportunity for brands to matter in a way that transcends sales into lasting loyalty. At a time when trust across the board is at an all-time low, brands that get it right may forge deeper connections with their customers. Cult brands like SoulCycle, CrossFit, and Peloton saw incredible success not because everyone suddenly decided they enjoy fitness over watching TV. They did so because they threaded community into the core of their identities and provided a community of like-minded people, something their customers crave.

Young people are looking for brands to make this happen. A 2019 Spotify study found 62% of Gen Zers and millennials believe brands have the power to create communities based on common interests and passions. As Seth Godin writes: “People like us, do things like this.” It might not necessarily mean your customers are on the verge of getting a tattoo of your logo, but you should aim to get pretty close to that level of love.

Get on it

So how do you get that? It means more than offering in-person community events or building a platform for an online community around product ideas and reviews. It has to start with your brand’s purpose and trickle down your company’s entire way of operating. We break it down into three key components below:

Stand for something

What do you stand for? Do consumers know? Data shows 49% of young people want brands to have a social impact initiative they can be a part of. When consumers say they want to purchase products that are ethically made and sustainably sourced, part of that stems from their value sets. Consumers’ purchases have become both a vote with their wallets and a mark of what tribe they belong to. Young people care deeply about key issues including addressing the climate crisis, supporting mental health, gun policy reform, inclusivity, economic opportunity and more. Gen Z is three times more likely than older generations to say the role of business is to “serve communities and society.” If you want to build a community among Gen Z, having a purpose that is authentically rooted in your brand’s values and operations is the foundation.

As Levi’s SVP and CMO Jen Sey shared last fall, “Gen Z and millennials really care what you stand for. In the future, there won’t be room to just not tell people what you stand for and just talk about skinny jeans. I just — who cares? If you can get a great product and you can get it from a company that shares your values, you’re gonna build a lifelong connection.”

Hand over the keys

Gen Z is a force of creativity. If you really want to engage them, you’ve got to move beyond viewing them as mere consumers or an audience to market to, and instead tap into their potential to help shape your brand. Participation is the new expectation, and it fuels a true sense of belonging, as humans feel connected to what we create.

Take the rapid growth of Glossier, which takes its strategy “born from content, fueled by community” seriously. It knew that friends are the top reason girls and women try a new brand or beauty product, and so Glossier went all in on elevating the role of its community — from product design to content. Everything it created was designed to spark digital conversations and help its customers feel a sense of ownership in the products and brand. Glossier’s first TV ad from September 2019 did this by featuring seven real-life employees and customers.

On the fast-food side, Taco Bell has done a ninja-level job of catering to the whims and trends of Gen Z, with everything from branded apparel with Forever 21 to a nacho cheese-dispensing billboard. The chain is meeting young consumers where they are and showing how well it knows the audience. Rob Poetsh, Taco Bell’s senior director of global communications and engagement said in 2018, “We always say this, but we don’t own our brand anymore. They own our brand. They don’t just buy our brand; they buy into the brand.”

Foster connection

In order to build a community that can sustain and grow, members need to have unique ways to connect over their commonalities. This might take a bit more creativity and investment on a marketer’s part, but it’s where the deepest sense of belonging can be found. Make Gen Zers feel less lonely by providing opportunities for relationship-building among this tribe? Sold.

As everything from happy hours to concerts go digital, Chipotle recently invited its audience to get together for a virtual lunch, one of daily “Chipotle Together” virtual hangouts on Zoom. Each chat will bring together 3,000 fans and celebrities like Colton Underwood from “The Bachelor.” Take note and dig into ways your brand can provide unique value like this to bring people together during this era of uncertainty.

I also expect to see existing strong online communities like Lego Ideas thrive in the days ahead. It’s an online platform for fans to submit ideas for future kits and garner support from other members in order to qualify for review. The platform has over 900,000 members who have submitted more than 20,000 project concepts, but the coolest part is the connection it’s created among members, many of whom join only to browse and support others’ ideas.

The bottom line is that young consumers are increasingly looking to brands to represent who they are and what they stand for, and are eager to connect with the tribe a brand can create. Brands that prioritize community-building will win with Gen Z and make the world a little less lonely in the process.

DoSomething Strategic

We are the authority on young people and purpose.

Mary Noel

Written by

Mary Noel

Director at DoSomething Strategic

DoSomething Strategic

DoSomething Strategic is the social impact consulting arm of DoSomething.org. We leverage 25+ years of driving action along with proprietary data and learnings from engaging over 5M young people ages 13–25 to provide in-depth understanding and insights brands can’t get elsewhere.

Mary Noel

Written by

Mary Noel

Director at DoSomething Strategic

DoSomething Strategic

DoSomething Strategic is the social impact consulting arm of DoSomething.org. We leverage 25+ years of driving action along with proprietary data and learnings from engaging over 5M young people ages 13–25 to provide in-depth understanding and insights brands can’t get elsewhere.

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