Culture Next in focus: Zs and millennials expect purpose-driven brands

While 2020 has been full of uncertainty, one outcome is pretty clear: For Gen Zs and millennials, staying engaged on social issues is now the norm. As we learned in this year’s Culture Next global trends report, these generations are rewriting their future — and the way forward for the world at large — by engaging with social causes. They’re making personal choices that foster empathy, and taking public actions that create broader change. And it turns out they expect the culture they engage with to follow a purpose-driven path too, from their favorite artists and podcasts to, yes, the brands they love.

When we spoke to Zs and millennials in August, a sizable 87% told us they expect brands to have a real purpose and to be more socially responsible.1 That’s up from 68% in January,2 highlighting how attitudes shifted across a mere seven months in a tumultuous year. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, a worldwide racial justice movement rose up to challenge the status quo. Brooklyn’s Ella, 17, summed it up: “I think a powerful voice is the soundtrack of the times,” she said, “chanting clearly through the chaos [and] fighting for what is right.”

Of course, “what’s right” isn’t always obvious, especially from the brand side. That’s why we focused on finding out how Zs and millennials made themselves heard. Sure, the individuals we surveyed share a tendency to be passionate — 3 in 4 said social causes are core to who they are3 — but their reactions to the shifts of 2020 were wide-ranging. Naturally, many we talked to around the world attended rallies or worked to promote general civil engagement.

“With the Black Lives Matter movement, we have really seen that unprecedented change is possible through protest and outrage,” said Finn, 24, in Surrey, U.K., highlighting exactly why such a thing can be so galvanizing: “This should be used to the advantage of the people.”

Young people also made themselves heard in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. As recently as October, the New York Times wrote, “Most young people in the United States don’t vote,”4 but that may be shifting as of November 3. According to a non-partisan research center from Tufts University, turnout among eligible voters ages 18-29 may have leapt as much as 11% from 2016 to 2020 — to as high as 56%.5

Such collective actions were also complemented by an array of highly unique responses. Mael, 18, in Atlanta, took personal pride in distributing info about both public demonstrations and voting resources. “I will continue to do these things as a Black man,” he said. Kenneth, 23, in Jakarta, said he plans to submit political writing to his local newspaper: “To contribute to the debate just once is a dream of mine.” And Andrea, 25, in Mexico City, told us she focused on spreading the word among members of her family who come from “a small city in the north of Mexico where a huge part of the population doesn’t realize that the reality of this country is racism, classism, machismo, transphobia, homophobia, and many more [social] diseases.”

While many we spoke to worked to educate others, some did the same for themselves. Rani, 20, in Melbourne, said she’s been specifically tuning into “podcasts that showcase what Black people experience.” Either way, one thing unites all of these actions: They’re authentic to the person doing them. That’s a key takeaway for brands. Young people are allergic to hollow words and hypocritical positioning. As Bianca, 20, in New York put it in the months following George Floyd’s death, “Brands are using hashtags to get attention and using black boxes in solidarity, but not specifically helping in any ways other than trying to sell things.”

When we gave Zs and millennials a list of ideas for what brands should be doing to meet the moment in 2020, they largely skipped over options like “prioritize the youth,” “get radical,” and “get political.” In other words, young people aren’t looking to be catered to or caught up in divisive partisanship. Rather, these were their top 5 picks, in order:6

  1. Take action: Words are great but actions are better; more than just messaging, people want to see brands “roll up their sleeves” and do something.
  2. Be inclusive: It's important for brands to embrace all genders, sexualities, races, cultures, sizes, and walks of life.
  3. Be purposeful: Brands should take a stand and let people know who they are and what they stand for.
  4. Give back: People expect brands to give back and do good — they have the resources that others, quite frankly, just don't.
  5. Be transparent: Misinformation and a general distrust for big companies has made showing your cards — good, bad, and ugly — all the more important.

Specifically, these generations expressed support for brands owning up to past mistakes, diversifying present leadership, and sowing the seeds of advancement for future participants who have been historically left out. They’re also keen on brands supporting social movements with unequivocal statements and cash donations. As is the case with individuals, brands can take actions that strengthen their inner voice or project a message — or do both at once.

Even though we quoted him in Culture Next 2020, Nick, 30, in Oakland, California, put it too perfectly to pass up here: “Taking action that actually influences younger generations has to clearly demonstrate that you’re willing to lose profit or customers for something you stand for.”

Download our Culture Next 2020 report

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  1. Spotify Trends Survey among 2,000 respondents 15-40 in BR, DE, UK, US, August 2020
  2. Spotify Trends Survey among 5,500 respondents 15-40 in AU, BR, CA, DE, ES, ID, IN, IT, MX, UK, US, January 2020
  3. Spotify Trends Survey among 2,000 respondents 15-40 in BR, DE, UK, US, July 2020
  4. The New York Times, “Why Don’t Young People Vote, and What Can Be Done About It?,” October 2020
  5., “Youth Voter Turnout Increased in 2020,” updated November 9, 2020
  6. Spotify Trends Survey among 2,000 respondents 15-40 in BR, DE, UK, US, July 2020

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