Engaging Gen Z with Empathy

By Chris Penny


The past two years have had a dramatic impact on consumer behavior. New cultural phenomena like pandemic exhaustion, digital inspiration, and ethical online shopping have forced brands to quickly adapt to the ever-changing dynamics — and leading the charge is a growing market of young, empathy-driven buyers.

Today, there has never been a bigger challenge than to effectively market a brand towards the gen Z population, who are quickly rising to take over as a prominent buying power in the United States with $360 billion in disposable income.

Gen Z is the generation of empathy; the kids who grew up in a recession and came of age during the pandemic. They won't purchase a product, or seek a job for that matter, from a company with values that don't align with their own – so how do brands target these values and avoid "corporate slacktivism?"

It starts with an empathetic approach and being authentic about the commitments and efforts towards corporate social responsibility. A brand cannot utilize empathy, inclusivity, or sustainability to effectively market towards gen Z without actions that entirely reflect the message being put out.

What does empathy mean to gen Z?

Credibility: Consumers must trust that a brand won't only speak to upholding proper values, but act on it too. They treat their employees with respect and fairness while still delivering quality products or services. Recent TV sensations The Bad Vegan and LuLaRoe are cautionary tales for brands as they expose the lies and bad practices inherent in these organizations. Brands must ensure they remain authentic and trustworthy.

Compassion: Brands must demonstrate care for both customers and employees. The Great Resignation is a growing movement of employees demanding greater respect, fairer pay, and a better working environment in businesses across the US – and you bet gen Z are watching how businesses respond (77 percent of gen Z American adults are planning to switch jobs.)

Connection: While social media isn't the be-all and end-all of customer engagement, gen Z spend more than eight hours online each day, with the majority spending more than five hours on their smartphone alone. Connecting with this audience authentically – online or in-person – means demonstrating shared values, care, and human connection.

Without authenticity, risk being disingenuous

Take Nike, for example, a brand that stays consistently popular with gen Z using smart marketing campaigns and taking bold stances on social issues. A Nike campaign featuring such a controversial figure as NFL star Colin Kaepernick is a clear commitment to ethics and values, winning favor with an audience that wants to see companies take a risk for the greater good.

"Nike has become not just a commodity, but a statement," Jeff Carvalho, managing director of Highsnobiety told Business Insider. "When you try to reach a new young consumer on their playing field and on their terms, it's no longer simply putting out a great product. You now have to be a company that can stand behind something because the consumer today is demanding that."

Patagonia comes to mind as another brand popular with gen Z – remaining authentic to the environmental values it was founded on. In 2011, Patagonia ran a Thanksgiving promotion encouraging consumers not to buy new clothes, instead encouraging them to buy used items, sacrificing profit for sustainability.

In 2015, Patagonia strengthened this message by launching the Worn Wear Wagon, a mobile repair shop travelling the US to repair worn and torn clothing – as well as teaching customers how to repair their own clothing, all for free. Customers can now get shop credit in store for trading in used items and can resell their old clothing on the Patagonia website.

How do brands engage empathetically?

Understand your consumers: Conducting qualitative and quantitative research helps you to connect with the needs, desires, motivations, and values of your consumers.

Walk in your consumers shoes: Shop online or in store as a customer – experiencing customer journeys for yourself will help you make valuable and visible improvements. And give your corporate leadership team the opportunity to spend some time working with your customer-facing employees.

Act on it: Translate your learnings into quick wins and medium to long term changes to give consumers what they really want. This could be improvements to your products and services offering or acting on your values to demonstrate authenticity. Actions speak louder than words.

Foster continuous improvement: Make listening, learning, and improving a key operational procedure to ensure your brand continues to meet the wants and needs of your consumer.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Chris Penny is the managing director of brand strategy agency SSR. Chris has worked as a senior brand and marketing executive on both the client and agency side for the world's biggest brands over the last 30 years, including Renault, Volvo, Sony, and PepsiCo. His mix of European and Global brand expertise across multiple B2C and B2B sectors adds tremendous value when delivering brand strategy and activation for SSR clients.