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On Ben and Jerry’s, Gen-Z and social justice: How 2020 has changed branding forever

On Ben and Jerry’s, Gen-Z and social justice: How 2020 has changed branding forever

By Jeff Fromm
President, Futurecast

What a year it's been—from an ongoing pandemic and dire economic fallout to a polarizing election year and social unrest, 2020 will have a lasting impact on the way we think about and see the world. 

The uncertainty of these past months have unduly shaken Gen-Z as they consider  post-high school education plans and employment opportunities. Frankly, processing such concerns while doing their best to "socially distance" as a generation hyper-focused on social connection has left them feeling overwhelmed and isolated from friends. The vast majority of them didn't even get to celebrate graduations with the traditional ceremonies.

And then there's the current push for social justice causes in response to recent events surrounding police brutality and systemic racism, stemming from the tragic deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake. For the cohort deemed as the Action Generation, Gen-Z overwhelmingly supports the Black Lives Matter cause: 90% of Gen-Z respondents to a recent poll strongly favor BLM and what they see as social justice.

All of these factors will have direct impact on Gen-Z’s expectations for the brands they favor—and especially those they won’t.

Gen-Z demands more from favored brands.  

As a recent Forrester Research report points out, Gen-Z is increasingly scrutinizing both institutions like governments and police as well as brands. Gen-Z leads its own charge for social justice, and wants more transparency about the brands it supports with its buying power. And there does not appear to be any going back to old ways.

The Forrester report, authored by analysts Dipanjan Chatterjee and Nick Monroe, examines how many brands have struggled to provide an adequate response, while others are addressing Gen-Zs demands for social change in creative ways.

"In many ways, this is no surprise to anyone, but it's caught a lot of brands off-guard," says Chatterjee about the report's findings. "The unfortunate part of that is that a lot of brands have discovered Black Lives Matter the summer of 2020, so they've scrambled around trying to figure out how to respond. Now, that is not to take any credit away from some brands, and unfortunately there aren't enough of them, who've really spent quite a bit of time focused on programs in the area of social justice and racial equity."

Some of its findings reinforce a lot of what we know about "whole brand thinking":

  • Brands are expected to be more human. Today's consumers expect a more human and relatable brand. In just 20 years, a newer breed of leading brands (led by Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet) have replaced more "functional" brands (e.g., banking and medicine). The newer brands are not only more human and relatable, they have made themselves hard to live without by becoming a part of consumers' lives, connecting families, memories, and offering up more ways to be creative. Their interactions with their consumers are based on more of a relationship, and less on transactions. This has become the new expectation for viable brands.  
  • Brands' actions matter. Brands can (and often do) have a significant cultural impact, because they have the kind of reach to be the broadcast platform that consumers want. Brands can help set a social tone. For example, this year, NASCAR banned the display of the Confederate flag, which helped set the stage for Mississippi eliminating Confederate symbols from its own flag.
  • Authenticity is difficult for brands to fake. Especially in the glare of social media and the current social justice spotlight, more human, "real" brands might sometimes show themselves to be just as inconsistent and fallible as humans. In albeit sincere attempts to promote social justice, brands may have to work through a past they'd rather forget, the great efforts required to get an entire organization on board with building a social purpose into a business model, and resistant leadership. Others are finding their purpose calls them to build a bigger platform to speak on social issues. Think Bombas, the BOGO sock brand that donates a pair of socks to a homeless shelter with every purpose. Since Black people make up 40% of the homeless population compared with 13% of the general population, the company has expanded its product offerings, messaging, and charitable partner lists in the past several months, to a vocal and engaged community of true believers who see these actions as authentic.

One prominent advocate of an authentic brand approach—also specifically referenced in the Forrester report—is Unilever-owned Ben & Jerry's Activism Manager, Chris Miller. Ben & Jerry's first aligned itself with Black Lives Matter back in 2016, and Miller has been working diligently on the brand's initiative to "dismantle white supremacy" ever since.

According to Miller, this was not a marketing exercise, but an opportunity to stand up and be counted, especially in its local communities.

"In the United States, we're primarily focused on issues around civil rights and racial justice broadly," says Miller. "[We focus] on the need to reform our nation's criminal justice system and the way we approach policing. In Europe, we are focused on issues related to the refugee and asylum-seeker crisis there. And in many of our new markets, including Australia, we're focused on issues of climate change and climate justice."

After 2016, Ben & Jerry's work also continued on voting rights issues and criminal justice reform, and Miller's oversaw work in Florida around re-enfranchising citizens who had been convicted of a felony, but "who had sort of paid their debt to society."

Miller points out that for brands to create meaningful change in the world, it's not an exercise in Facebook posts or Instagram stories, but rather how a brand drives impact. He continues to be optimistic and likes to focus on how significant this year is in our nation's history. 

"We're in the midst of a global pandemic," he points out. "Our country is not doing particularly well in managing it. But we're also at a moment where people are speaking out and taking action on the issue of race in America, unlike anything that's happened in a generation. I think we are at a moment where there is a real opening to make the kind of change that would have seemed impossible three months ago." 

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This article originally appeared in Forbes


Barkley US

Oct 09, 2020

filed under:
Brand Culture, COVID-19, Gen Z, Marketing, Millennial, Modern Consumer, Purpose, Sustainability, Whole Brand

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