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Marketing and Comms
Most Brands' Support of Causes Is Not Breaking Through to Gen Z

New study from DoSomething Strategic reveals disconnect between brands and their support of social causes in the minds of younger consumers. Savage x Fenty, Dove, and Love Beauty and Planet receive among the highest association between brand and cause.

Despite an influx of consumer brands more publicly supporting social cause platforms, most efforts are not resonating with Gen Z, according to a new study released Wednesday from DoSomething Strategic, the social impact consulting arm of that helps brands engage young people around their purpose.

Cause is Working, Your Marketing Isn't: A Report on Brands Taking Stands 2019 found that 66 percent of young consumers say that a brand's association with a social cause or platform positively impacts their overall impression of the brand, and 58 percent say this association will impact their likelihood of purchasing that brand. However, across the 88 brands tested, an average of just 12 percent of respondents had "top of mind" associations between brands they were familiar with and a social cause or platform. Even when provided a list of social causes or platforms (aka "aided awareness"), cause association still only reached an average of 24 percent.

The survey was conducted online among a nationally representative sample of 1,908 current members ages 13-25, about their awareness of 88 consumer brands' support of social causes, issues and platforms.

"This study highlights critical factors marketers today should consider when trying to reach a younger consumer," said Meredith Ferguson, Managing Director of DoSomething Strategic. "Primarily, that you need to shout loud and proud about your support of social issues and cause platforms to break through the noise. Too few young consumers are aware of brands' support of various cause initiatives, and there is a real risk brands aren't getting the 'credit' for the good work they're doing. It is a missed opportunity to build a relationship with consumers based on shared values."

The report also finds that brands can't ride on their history of cause marketing or expect it will be known to a new generation. Even when young people feel they are familiar with a brand, it's no guarantee that their understanding of that brand extends beyond the brand's products. Though a brand’s purpose-driven ethos matters, it’s not easy to break through and create belief among consumers. For example, Nike earned significant media attention in 2018 with its Colin Kaepernick campaign that showed support for his protest movement against racism and social injustice — 4C Insights data showed that mentions of and comments about Nike on social media rose 1,678 percent immediately following the campaign launch; and mentions of Kaepernick spiked 362,280 percent. And yet, in the DoSomething Strategic survey, Nike still only secured a 60 percent aided awareness of an association with any cause at all; and only 27 percent with racial justice.

The study pointed out a few methods that are giving brands an edge when it comes to strengthening their connection to social cause initiatives among young people:

  • Finding a unique angle within a brand category: Most undergarment brands focus on body positivity, but Rihanna’s lingerie brand, Savage x Fenty, takes its position a step further by making a powerful statement about racial equality — promoting diverse models and products that appeal to women of different shades and sizes. And consumers are noticing: 33 percent of respondents associate Savage x Fenty with racial justice and equality, locking it in as the only brand in this category representing this cause platform. Likewise, in the beauty category, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty is a clear standout with its known focus on inclusivity. Launched in 2017 with a clear (and sadly novel) position of Beauty for All, the brand created The Fenty 40: a line of foundation in an impressive 40 shades, including for those with traditionally hard-to-match skin tones, and it has since added 10 more shades. Since then, the “Fenty Effect” has spurred other cosmetic brands to expand their own shade offerings. Young consumers are not only flocking to Fenty Beauty for their cosmetic needs, they have a clear understanding of the brand’s ethos.

  • Having a singular focus: Since 2004,  Dove has stayed laser-focused on its commitment to raise self-esteem and drive body confidence. An impressive 53 percent of respondents associate Dove with body positivity — among the highest associations with a single cause found in the survey.

  • Courting controversy: Patagonia's bold "The President Stole Your Land" campaign attracted so much attention, Patagonia struggled to handle the web traffic; it also contributed to Patagonia's position as the outdoor brand most strongly associated with the environment. And, among our respondents, the brand received the most consistent unaided association with a cause space, the environment.

  • Putting your cause front and center: Hair & body brands have some recognition as being associated with positive body/self-image, which — again — makes sense. But two brands stand for something else: The environment. LUSH and Love Beauty and Planet both enjoy a 33 percent and 43 percent, respectively, association with the environment. Over one-third of LUSH’s products are package-free (also known by LUSH lovers as “naked”), and the brand has begun opening completely Naked shops where all products are plastic packaging-free. Love Beauty and Planet launched in 2017 with a goal to capture the “sustainable living” market and already has a relatively high association with its cause platform of choice — thanks, in part, to its name. As DoSomething Strategic’s previous study noted, price, value and convenience still matter to young consumers. But all things being perceived as equal among the huge array of shampoo brands, having its purpose right in the name certainly helps this brand stand out. And standing for something less common in the category — such as sustainability via ethically sourced ingredients and 100 percent recyclable packaging — can help, too. LUSH and Love Beauty and Planet show how incorporating your cause platform on packaging helps to put the issue literally right in front of/in the hands of consumers, which also drives awareness.

"Gen Z defines 'authenticity' differently than older generations," Ferguson said. "To them, there is no such thing as a cause that is off-limits for a brand to champion — it doesn't have to be in lock-step with what a brand sells. So long as the brand is walking the walk and supporting the issue from the inside out, they're game."