The Intersection of Generation Z, Social Consciousness and Business

Back-to-school shopping took on another dimension this past fall when my then 13-year old Generation Z stepdaughter insisted on boycotting what had once been a preferred retail store due to poor environmental practices.  In typical Gen Z style, she presented her case to my husband and me thoroughly researched and backed by news articles, facts and evidence.  Consequently, we made the decision as a family to support her request. The result was that what would normally have been a one-stop shopping trip turned into visits to – I kid you not – fourteen separate retailers before our purchases were complete.

The intersection between Gen Z and the growing trend in social responsibility and social impact is something that has been on my mind a lot lately.  I recently became a mentor in the Social Business Accelerator, a program organized by the Social Innovation Forum for entrepreneurs that are focused on both profit and purpose.  The entrepreneurs in the program are primarily Millennials or members of Generation X, however their mission and approach to business seems to provide a glimpse of the world to come as Gen Z begins to graduate college and enter adulthood.

Many of those in Generation Z express interest in starting their own businesses.  A recent study by Millennial Branding found that 72% of high school students and 64% of college students want to start a business someday.  Part of this mindset is due to the fact that Gen Z, having watched their parents and older siblings ride the roller-coaster of economic uncertainty since the recession of 2009, understands that job-security is a thing of the past.  One way to mitigate this risk according to Gen Z is to take matters into their own hands through a more self-reliant approach, and they are in the unique position to make this happen more easily than previous generations.   Vivek Pandit, teen author of “We Are Generation Z”, reminds us that due to technology and increased connectedness “Gen Z will be able to bring ideas, services and products to the public faster than any other generation, and we will be able to fund our ideas more quickly with online support such as crowdfunding to make them a reality.”

Even if they aren’t all starting their own company at the moment, Generation Z is definitely keeping an eye on businesses and influencing purchasing both directly and indirectly to divert funds to more socially conscious organizations where possible.  Andy Salt, co-founder of Salt and head of Salt Social Purpose, references a recent study that reported “six in ten 16-to-20-year-olds saying they will go out of their way to buy products and services from businesses they know are helping to create a better world”.  This aligns with the findings in newly published book “Generation Z Goes to College” by Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace where they report that “nearly one-third of Generation Z students have already made changes to support the environment”.

So what does this intersection of social awareness and an entrepreneurial mindset mean for existing organizations today?    I believe there are 4 points that need to be top of mind in order to remain relevant with Generation Z as they come of age:

1. Identify a clear point of differentiation for your organization, brand or product. This most fundamental requirement still hasn’t changed regardless of what you are offering.  What unmet need are you meeting, and what is it about your offering that makes it unique from the competition?  It is important to identify this and communicate your point of differentiation clearly and concisely in an engaging and meaningful way.

2. Show how your organization is solving – or helping to minimize – a real world problem. This could be directly related to your offering such as the Tom’s Shoes “one-for-one” program or Warby Parker eyeglasses and their “buy a pair, give a pair” initiative.  It could also be related to the broader community such as Microsoft’s digital inclusion training program, or an across-the-board values based approach such as Whole Foods’.  The important thing is to not only to follow the Hippocratic Corpus pledge and “do no harm” but to also show in some tangible way that your organization is making the world a better place.

3. Ensure transparency and honesty. Generation Z places a high emphasis on authenticity and will see through marketing and communications hype that isn’t based in genuine facts.  Millennial Branding reported that 52% of Generation Z feels that honesty is the most important characteristic in a leader.  Importantly, Gen Z has the technology and the reach to communicate broadly with their peers and beyond, so organizations with questionable values and disingenuous messages will be called-out publicly.  Stay open and upfront.

4. Speak to Gen Z in a way that resonates. Ensure that your organization is communicating to Generation Z where they are online via platforms that are popular with the cohort such as Instagram and YouTube.  Don’t shy away from a 2-way dialogue and instead look to build relationships with Generation Z.  They can be a great source of advocacy for brands and organizations that have a message that aligns with their interests and values.

Generation Z is uniquely poised to positively change the face of business and our world.  Organizations who recognize and embrace this will be uniquely positioned to benefit from this trend as Gen Z comes of age.