Gen Y and Z Demand Brands Live Up to Their Values, Spurring a Revolution in Cause Marketing

Most of the time when we talk about the dramatic changes taking place in marketing today, the conversation revolves around technology. Thanks to the digital revolution, everything is happening at breakneck speed, more data is being collected than any time in history, and our mobile devices make the experience ubiquitous.

Basically, everything is different everywhere and the changes just seem to keep coming faster. Naturally, a shift of that magnitude merits our continual attention.

“64-percent of all consumers are so-called Belief-Driven Buyers that will “choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on where it stands on the political or social issues they care about.”

What is sometimes forgotten, however, is the human element. Not only are tools changing, but so are we, and the clearest sign of where society is heading can be seen in the younger generations, specifically Generation Y, also known as the Millennials, and Generation Z.

Marketers and brands are paying close attention to these generations with good reason: Millennials will outnumber Baby Boomers for the first time in 2019, and Gen Z is rapidly gaining influence as well. That generation already accounts for $143 billion in spending power.

A Generation On A Mission

Generation Y and Z grew up under very different conditions than the Baby Boomers. They were raised to feel valued and protected, and their parents were highly involved in their lives and willing to let them voice their opinions.

They are also the first generations to come of age in a world that was always connected. The World Wide Web came online in 1991 and suddenly geographic boundaries weren’t quite as impenetrable as they once were. The people they communicated with in a chatroom or via email and instant message could just as easily have been next door or thousands of miles away. The online ecosystem was about personalities not territory.

“The goal is to connect with people at a level they rarely let brands in.”

That too has shaped their outlook. It has created a broader perception of what a community is. Their friends and love-ones weren’t just physical neighbors, they were like-minded individuals from everywhere and anywhere. The idea of only helping people in their own backyards is foreign to them. They have a globally-minded outlook.

Their prosocial upbringing, optimistic mindset, and digitally-augmented lifestyle has led some to criticize millennials as entitled or paint their goals as unrealistic. They claim Millennials and Gen Z expect the world to be handed to them, to be promoted before paying their dues, and for their lofty ideals to be realized without hard work. The truth, however, is quite different.

The younger generations do have high-minded values and strong opinions about their worth, but they are proving themselves more than willing to put their money and their time where their mouth is. Millennials have notably high rates of volunteerism and charitable giving, and they vote with their wallets, choosing to support causes and brands that do the same. Research by the Millennial Impact Report found that over half of Millennials give to charity and 46-percent volunteer.

Positive Corporate Values Help Inside and Out

More than just caring about issues of the day themselves, Gen Y and Z want the companies they do business with to care too. And the market is so rich with options that they have no shortage of alternatives if their current partners can’t fulfill that requirement.

Nearly three-quarters Gen Y and Z report a willingness to pay extra for products and services from companies with a social mission, and that attitude is indicative of larger trend: the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study found that 64-percent of all consumers are so-called Belief-Driven Buyers that will “choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on where it stands on the political or social issues they care about.”

But what exactly are the causes they care most about? According to a recent study, the top four priorities reported by Gen Z are:

  • Education
  • Jobs
  • Prejudice
  • Environmentalism

Gen Z is also putting its values into action. 60-percent claim to recycle regularly, 42-percent say they have educated their family and friends about their causes, and more than a quarter of respondents said they have boycotted a company over a cause issue in the last year.

“Internally relevant causes will improve organizational morale, and engaging in topics near and dear to your customers will prove that your conduct is as authentic as your stated principles.”

Corporate responsibility is also a big concern for Millennials, with an overwhelming majority stating that companies and brands have an obligation to help solve social problems. But only 28-percent thought they were doing enough. The companies whose cause marketing is resonating with them, however, are reaping major benefits. 69-percent said they simply have more trust in a brand after learning it is benefiting a cause they care about, and 62-percent said such activities made them more likely to transact with them.

That desire for thoughtful, proactive, mission-based brands doesn’t stop at the checkout counter. Millennials are also seeking employment with companies that wear their ethos on their sleeve and direct positive energy towards solving real world problems.

Those firms aren’t acting purely out of altruism; they are benefiting as well. Studies by the Carroll School of Management at Boston College have shown that companies that build a work culture that gives people both meaningful jobs and a consequential connection to the outside world retain top talent longer and have employees who express greater job satisfaction.

Which Brands Are Doing It Right

The brands that are winning in this area with Gen Y and Z right now include the NFL (which has several major social events on its calendar, notably devoting every October to Breast Cancer Awareness), Microsoft (for its K-12 STEM programs that have directly impacted many current Millennials), and McDonald’s (which has won acclaim for its HACER scholarship for Hispanic students as well as the long standing Ronald McDonald House Charities benefiting the health and well being of children).

Maker’s Mark bourbon delights in filling people with warm feelings and comfort with its quaffs, but for the 2015 Christmas season it decided to provide warmth of another kind. It’s #GetCozy campaign sent a truck around the country that accepted clothing donations for the homeless. One Warm Coat, a non-profit organization, distributed the contributions free of charge to people in need. Those who donated were thanked with hot chocolate, Maker’s Mark-styled gingerbread cookies, and an exclusive invitation to sampling events.

The Home Depot won praise for its partnership with KaBOOM, a non-profit organization that helps communities build playgrounds for children, for a three year, national program to build 1000 Playgrounds in 1000 Days. KaBOOM was created to combat the lack of physical play in today’s digitally-obsessed lifestyle and the associated problems of childhood obesity and fragmented communities. Home Depot, of course, is all about building things, so the partnership was entirely synergistic. Over the course of the initiative, nearly 100,000 Home Depot employees donated over 950,000 volunteer hours.

Authenticity is a differentiator. It’s why Tom’s Shoes, with its one-for-one model that gives a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair bought, will always have a leg up in cause marketing over another shoe company that merely rolls out a small cause marketing campaign every few years. Consumers can see that Tom’s is transparently proving its commitment to improving lives.

Patagonia, likewise, has made the fight against deforestation an essential part of its corporate mission, spearheading efforts to protect public lands from development. A powerful commitment like that will always earn more support and admiration than merely wearing a pink ribbon, donning a yellow bracelet, or adding red parenthesis to your product. It isn’t to say those causes aren’t worthwhile or do real good in the world, but consumers can tell who putting real skin in the game and who is less committed.


Cause marketing is clearly a growth sector today, with benefits for individuals and brands alike. The question then is, where should we start? Is it better to concentrate on doing good in our own backyard, focusing on areas and issues directly related to our particular operation, or should we find the place where we can do the most good, regardless of what the cause is?

The answer is, it doesn’t entirely matter. Good works are good works. Both will be welcomed and lauded. What is important is that the cause is aligned with either your corporate culture or the values of your audience, and ideally both. Internally relevant causes will improve organizational morale, and engaging in topics near and dear to your customers will prove that your conduct is as authentic as your stated principles.

Cause marketing is, at its core, emotional marketing. We are tapping into something deeper than mere wants and needs. Instead, the goal is to connect with people at a level they rarely let brands in. Our causes speak to our passions, our ethical standards, even our search for meaning. Successful cause marketing campaigns let audiences know that others share their convictions and inspire them to take similar action.

Generation Y and Z may be the catalyst for this trend right now, but the good it’s doing knows no demographic boundaries and only looks to spread further in the coming years.