The last couple of years feel different in the way companies are responding (or not responding) to sensitive social issues that are important to employees and customers. The Financial Times published an article in March 2022 titled, When should business take a stand? In the same month, Politco published a piece called, Inside the Progressive Movement’s TikTok Army. In the past, employees and customers were not very vocal when companies and brands made decisions that violated their values. Something shifted in the past couple of years. Today, employees and customers expect companies and brands to take a stand on complex political, social, and moral issues. I think the shift is being led by Gen Z coupled with the immediacy of the Internet.

Earlier this year, Starbucks surveilled and fired several employees who were involved in a unionization effort. After the firings, Gen-Z for Change, a non-profit that uses social media to create change, asked their TikTok army of activists to flood Starbucks with 88,000 fake job applications. A long-time Starbucks executive, who opposed the unionization resigned in June.

Brands looking to appeal to Gen Z need to be fun, authentic, and good. In a 2020 study by The Center for Generational Kinetics and commissioned by WP Engine, a majority of Gen Z expect the following from brands:

Be fun. 65% of Gen Z goes to the Internet for access to entertainment

Be authentic. 82% of Gen Z trusts a company more if the images they use in their ads are of actual customers

Be good. 72% of Gen Z is more likely to buy from a company that contributes to social causes

The consulting firm, McKinsey published their Consumer Pulse survey in May 2022. They found the biggest concern for younger consumers is that:

"companies are transparent and show that they care for people (employees, customers, others in their communities)...younger consumers prioritize authenticity and social issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Twitter published research in June 2022 showing that their users, especially Gen Z, expect brands to take a public stand on serious issues:

“When it comes to serious matters, such as racial justice, gender equality, and climate change, people on Twitter not only welcome brands into these conversations but expect them to speak up on behalf of their followers and others who share their values.”

The New Era of Corporate Political Responsibility: Let's compare reactions by brands to two racial events in the US. In 2014, Michael Brown, a black teenager was killed in Ferguson, Missouri by a white police officer, who was not charged. Brands remained silent despite unrest and protests. In 2020, George Floyd was killed by a police officer, Derek Chauvin, in 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Corporate executives in America and Canada were quick to make public statements expressing strong opinions about injustice before and after Chauvin was convicted.

Elizabeth Doty, the director of the corporate political responsibility task force at the Erb Institute, University of Michigan describes the shift over the past 5 years as “remarkable”. She says companies today are:

"shell-shocked by the frequency of need and the ballooning requests to engage”.

In a time of increasing racial injustice, gender equality, war, and economic inequity, this period is being called the new era of "corporate political responsibility".

For brands, the risk of not speaking out quickly is far greater than remaining silent. Expect consumers, led by Gen Z, to continue to hold companies accountable for communicating their values and purpose based on being good, authentic, and fun.

Have an awesome week!

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Publisher and Founder, Spinning Forward

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The pandemic has taught us that life is too short. You should just do whatever it is you desire to do. It’ll work out some way in the end.

Arounna Khounnoraj, Designer, Creator at Bookhou, Toronto