StrategyPeople and skillsGen Z, cancel culture, and value shifts: how brands can thrive in 2021

Gen Z, cancel culture, and value shifts: how brands can thrive in 2021

With an estimated online shopping power of up to $143 billion, Gen Z consumers predominantly disengage with brands on the basis of ethics and poor digital experiences - here's a guide to help you decode their minds

30-second summary:

  • 2020 was about survival while 2021 is about survival paired with opportunities to expand
  • The ‘Cancel culture’ is real and a lot of brands need to focus on their digital customer experiences, trust, and being socially responsible
  • 75 percent of younger consumers believe that businesses should take greater responsibility and do more to create a better and fairer world for everyone
  • Gen Z is proving to be an increasingly powerful demographic that your brand needs to tap into
  • We condense various insights and help you decode the minds of Gen Z with personal comments from them and industry leaders

2021 has brought a tangible shift in values and needs amongst Gen Z consumers giving rise to the ‘cancel culture’ that poses a threat for brands. Gen Z, the consumers aged 18 to 24 are a group succeeding the Millennials and preceding Generation Alpha. Digital experience and values are two factors that will make or break brands in 2021 and beyond. Why? Individual studies by Sitecore and Halls & Partner found that the global coronavirus crisis, socio-economic and environmental disruptions, coupled with a series of political dislocations of 2020 have made Gen Z a conscious breed of buyers.

Businesses and brands are under significant pressure to not only adopt an equally conscious agenda but also to provide a diversification of strategies that align their products with the needs of Gen Z. For instance, The Value Shift Report documents that 75 percent of younger consumers believe that businesses should take greater responsibility and do more to create a better and fairer world for everyone. While the Sitecore study shows that nearly 37 percent of Gen Z consumers abandoned a purchase or shared a negative review about a bad digital experience.

The emergence of digital-first buying

Technology is undeniably at the center of this new battle for retailers, with growing pressures to deliver a digital and customer experience that simply delights and seamlessly engages consumers. Here are some interesting insights from Sitecore’s study:

  • Before the pandemic, almost a third (31 percent) of Gen Z had never purchased anything online
  • Since the coronavirus outbreak, 87 percent state that their online shopping skills have improved
  • 26 percent used a mobile device to make a purchase for the first time
  • 63 percent find online shopping is now more enjoyable than in-person
  • Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) identified as digital converts who want to keep buying almost everything online

This study highlights that brands can no longer ignore the power of effective, user-friendly digital experiences when it comes to Gen Z consumers and their shopping habits.

Gen Z: the young, restless, and hard to convert customers

Shopping is no longer a mere purchase, it has evolved into more of an experience – a digital purchase environment in which your consumer is involved and expects your brand to know their preferences. Gen Z is quick to jump brands for various reasons, proving that brand loyalty in 2021 is a myth. The customer journey is evolving as new habits form making customer experience optimization (CXO) the heart of business success. Here is why:

  • 63 percent of Gen Z have less patience with slow or poorly functioning websites
  • 37 percent of Gen Z customers either abandon a purchase or post a negative review due to poor digital experiences
  • An overwhelming majority, 83 percent of Gen Z have high expectations from online shopping and view it as brand interaction experiences vs transactions

To give you a real-time picture of Gen Z’s thoughts on online shopping experiences, we personally reached out, and here’s what they shared. Please note, the Gen Z folks wished to remain anonymous.

“The website’s interface definitely affects my decision to purchase an item. I often find that the more appealing the brand’s website is, the more I am drawn to it. Not to mention that a great interface makes it stand out from other businesses. I find it incredibly frustrating whenever the website is poorly functioning and slow.”

– Student at the University of Pennsylvania (22)

“Whenever I come across a slow check-out page or face technical issues on an ecommerce website, I simply do not proceed as I would suspect it to be unverified and unprofessional.”

– Translator/Activist, Qatar (24)

As brand loyalty has seemingly evaporated, there is no margin for error any longer from browsing through to delivery. 57 percent of people are less loyal to brands than before the pandemic. Brands must get it right or suffer economic and/or reputational consequences. In fact, 38 percent of shoppers only allow a brand a single second chance before switching to a competitor.

“Since the pandemic, I have found myself gravitating towards more and more independent brands, especially local ones on Instagram. It’s a great way to support the community.”

– Student at the University of Cambridge (22)

How brands can secure more wallet share in 2021

To secure the wallets of Gen Z, the ability to consistently create personalized, refreshing experiences is ever more critical. These are some key factors that can make your sales succeed in 2021:

  • Highly personalized experiences (71 percent expect it and three quarters want new and exciting experiences)
  • Mobile optimized websites and web apps (53 percent)
  • Remember shopping preferences (46 percent)
  • Personalize suggestions (43 percent)
  • Rewards for patronage (76 percent)

“Cumulative discounts would be a fantastic idea. The more you buy from a brand, the more your discount increases,”

– Student at the University of Cambridge (22)

Focus on winning trust

In Q1, 2021, Bluecore surveyed 522 US-based individuals aged 18+ and age played a crucial factor for brand trust. For example, Gen Z wouldn’t jump for offers like free shipping vs how boomers would. Do you see the difference in approaches here? If your brand has been strategizing based purely on Boomers, you’re practically using strategy that will repel your new-age consumers.

This is a view of how Gen Z stack factors that build trust:

  1. Price (66 percent)
  2. Reviews (60 percent)
  3. Brand values (43 percent)
  4. Company size (25 percent)
  5. Communication on how their data is used (16 percent)
  6. Company origin (15 percent)

stats on how brands can win the trust of Gen Z consumers

Gen Z are more conscious buyers and will hold brands accountable

Based on our personal conversations with Gen Z, they grew up in a time of global conflicts, and almost never experienced a world without war. There are multiple layers that unfold the answer to, “why Gen Z are more conscious buyers?”

“As a generation, we’ve collectively seen the most technology, witnessed our parents struggle during the great recession (2008), depletion of natural resources, and lots of social events that shaped our perception on things, like women’s rights, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, gay marriage legal ruling, police brutality, green deal, racism, and xenophobia.”

Says Automation Engineer, Bristol Myers Squibb, New York (24)

“We’ve seen a lot of tragedy and activism and want to hold people accountable especially big corporations.”

The Value Shift Report outlines a real shift in younger generations’ (18 to 34-year-olds) approach to shopping, particularly in the context of ethical issues. As sustainability becomes even more integral to how consumers wish to live their lives, brands are expected to demonstrate their role in this shared responsibility. 69 percent believe that protecting the environment and working together towards a more sustainable future is a top priority. The report also highlights how all generations want brands to take a stand about important issues impacting the world today but warns they will not tolerate bandwagon jumping.

“I don’t think it’s exclusive to Gen Z, but no company can allow itself to be socially unconscious these days. How involved in social or political causes you want to be is a different question, of course.

Where Gen Z sticks out is that they tend to be way more engaged in social activities and value causes more than previous generations, though there are exception to this generalization, of course. What successful companies like Nike or Patagonia show us is that consumers value companies that take a stance and realize their social responsibility.”

Says Kevin Indig, Director of SEO, Shopify and creator of the Growth Mindset podcast

New-age consumers expect companies to be consistent about issues they campaign for and will hold them accountable if they fail. Conversely, brands that campaign on an issue that really matters and create a difference in the world will be rewarded with positive market sentiment and even loyalty. Further, in line with COVID-19, consumers have adopted a more cautious, risk-free attitude to safety, health, and hygiene – another set of aspects that call for brands to be particular and watchful of their operations.

“Consumers have been trending in this direction for a while, but Gen Z is probably the most conscious of making sure that the brands they support also share their values.

If you’re demonstrating the values you claim to have—equality, sustainability, transparency, etc.—then you shouldn’t have any problems. What we call “cancel culture” is really just people and brands being held accountable for a mismatch between what they say, and what they do. If you claim to support one cause or movement but your actions show the opposite, that’s when you get into trouble.”

Says Melanie Deziel, Top 10 Women Marketers 2021, bestselling author, and Director of Content, Foundation Marketing

In conclusion

All these facts and figures resonate and echo the significance of adequately understanding Gen Z’s consumer psychology. With their exponential online shopping power, it becomes imperative for all brands and businesses to aptly study their audience and adopt an amalgamation of different approaches to ensure their consumer base increases across multiple dimensions and channels.


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