Gen Zs have garnered distinction for being highly opinionated and proactive in the fight for social and environmental change, and they’re attracted to companies with strong core values and ethics that support these causes. In fact, 58 percent of Gen Z pick brands primarily based on their purpose, values and mission, according to research this year by PSFK.

A new wave of brands looking to reach these young consumers are doing more than incorporating sustainability practices, rallying behind social causes, and creating inclusive marketing campaigns. They’re inviting Gen Zs to take an active role in setting the agenda—and to put the issues that energize them at the heart of the conversation.

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American Eagle's Spring 2019 campaign shot by gen Z
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American Eagle, a retailer already building a reputation for its dedication to diversity and inclusivity in its campaigns and product lines, formed the AExME Council earlier this year, a cohort consisting entirely of Gen Zers. The group of nine men and women brings in a number of prominent voices in teen activism, including Delaney Tarr, the co-founder of March For Our Lives, mental health activist and founder of the Buddy Project Gabby Frost, and Saaneah Jamison, founder of dance fitness series Curvy Confidence. Each member is paired with an American Eagle “mentor”, and they meet about once a month to brainstorm new product and campaign ideas and messages, as well as discuss social responsibility efforts.

The council has resulted in a number of notable projects so far, including a denim recycling program and a partnership with One Tree Planted during Earth Day in response to the California wildfires. More recently, they partnered with Delivering Good to create a casualwear collection, designed by the council members, to raise money to support homeless and underprivileged youth. American Eagle’s spring campaign, meanwhile, consisted entirely of Gen Zers they recruited through social media, who photographed themselves to show off their unique style with iPhones and film cameras in their own environments for the series. Their goal was to “join forces” with Gen Zers by “amplifying the voices” of their customers, around half of which, according to Business of Fashion are between 7 and 22 years old.

“It’s important for kids in this generation to know not all big companies are the same,” Chad Kessler, global brand president of American Eagle told Bloomberg. “We are turning over a certain amount of control of the brand to this generation.”

Lego's Rebuild the World campaign featuring Simone Biles

Letting young people take charge was essentially the message in Lego’s September 2019 global Rebuild the World campaign, which invited their customers to use their imagination to develop what they want their communities to look like in the future. Its visionary ad, complete with live action, CGI and a series of separate billboard images, alludes to a reality that is addressing issues like climate change and gender inequality.

It’s these issues and more that are highlighted in Refinery29 x Target’s new Future Seekers series, which gives Gen Zs “inspiring activism, challenging the status quo, and unapologetically pursuing their ambitions with excellence” the stage. Their advertorial features essays on 19-year-old poet and climate justice advocate Kinsale Hueston, 17-year-old queer singer songwriter Tayahna Walcott, and 22-year-old Tatiana Glover, who champions body positivity through her size inclusive fashion brand Mahogany.

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Gen Z Girl Group
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Other prominent Gen Z voices have become brand ambassadors—and in the case of M. A. C.’s Viva Glam, the youngest. For M. A. C. Cosmetics 25th anniversary of a campaign dedicated to the fight against HIV/AIDS, Deja Foxx, an outspoken activist for women’s reproductive rights and the founder of Gen Z Girl Gang, was named ambassador alongside a crew of diverse young influencers for the brand’s iconic Viva Glam I lipstick. (See our trend report, Into Z Future, for more on Foxx).

Creators in the arts and entertainment worlds are experimenting with formats and experiences that allow audiences to be protagonists (see our reporting on VR film festivals at SXSW and Tribeca). Consumers want immersive experiences that are tactile and emotionally affecting—and they want a hand in shaping the story. Now brands are empowering this impulse and forming alliances with Gen Z, from grassroots fans to young entrepreneurs and activists, setting out an audacious vision for a future of branding and advertising that is more democratic, collaborative and transformative.

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