Hey, everyone, still getting used to the era of millennials? Wake up! It’s almost 2018 and there are some new kids in town.

Young people today are maybe more alert than ever to racial or social discrimination and injustice: they are, in short, “woke”. If brands want to stay relevant, they need to adapt this to this mentality. This new “genZ” (aged 16-24) – currently shaping the direction of society – is brand-savvy, and looking specifically for brands that help them raise their collective voice. This is the era of activism 2.0: vote with your money.

The smarter companies have noticed and are tapping into this development. Purpose-driven brands are born out of idealism: they observe an environmental or social issue and create a product or service that contributes to solving it. Attracting the conscious audience in the first instance, but not leaving the broad audience behind.

Tony Chocolonely first drew attention from both the conscious cool kids, because of their sense of purpose, and the wider audience because of the actual quality of the product and packaging. They are driven to help a large consumer sector change their consumer habits for the better, without them fully realising they are part of change.

The same goes for Patagonia. This brand has been around for years, attracting a very conscious and committed crowd. Its product has now become fashionable with the masses – but not everyone wearing the iconic t-shirt today is aware of the movement behind it.

Obviously most brands are not born out of idealism, so if they want to be seen as representing something more than a pure product, they need to go through a transformation. They need to clean up their own act and find a way to use the influence they have for the better. Nike, for example, has demonstrated how you can make a political statement by providing space to the oppressed, by starring the (in the US considered to be controversial) Colin Kaepernick in its new campaign: by some accounts gaining $6bn of value in the process

How to embrace this development as a media brand or consumer brand? This quote from the extensive GenZ research by Protein hits the nail right on the head: ‘They’re demanding that brands create spaces, platforms and mediums that champion the oppressed, not exploit their struggle’. GenZ, the most diverse generation ever, doesn’t want to be talked about or talked with, they want to be the ones talking.

Born and raised behind screens, this generation is not afraid to break out in collective outrage on topics that matter to them. Nobody is saved from social shaming, whether you are an individual or a brand. We have seen top brands such as Pepsi and H&M apologizing the to the public for mistakes in the ‘woke field’ proving that the power really is in hands of the consumer today.

Safer to do nothing? If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem — it’s a well-known saying. People and organizations who do not speak out against sexual violence in the #metoo discussion are called out for their lack of accountability. If you’re not woke as a brand, you’re not relevant

So, what should you do? Show that your brand knows that dialogue on these subjects is important, by facilitating the conversation. Even if you’re under fire, stop defending yourself and create space for new opinions to be able to learn.

And media brands? Entertaining media brands used to stay far, far away from news and opinion, partly because advertisers do not like to pick sides. But publishers begin to understand that by using more substance and going deeper into a story, they fit into the Zeitgeist more. The first brands are following. VICE launched the successful channel VICE News: news from the perception and experience of the target audience. Teen Vogue (Condé Nast) underwent a true transition, shifting from a focus on looks and celebrities to politics, feminism, identity and activism. On their website, the first category is now news and politics. The same publisher launched THEM, an activist platform by the LGBTQ-community, sponsored by Burberry as one of their launching partners.

Nerve-wracking? Terrifying! But if you don’t facilitate the conversation yourself, it will happen elsewhere. You’re taking true risks if you don’t do anything, because this generation controls where they get their inspiration from. And if it’s not out there, they will create it themselves. With or without you.

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