• Gen Z is now in a powerful position as buyers, and they are setting the expectation that brands address their vulnerabilities.
  • After growing up amid global crises from war to climate change, Gen Z is demanding trust.
  • The scrutiny that Gen Z brings to all purchasing decisions will have a lasting impact on brands.


The Edelman Trust Institute sat down with Bianca Brown, Senior Account Executive and a U.K. Ambassador to Edelman’s Gen Z Lab, to discuss findings about Gen Z in the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: The Collapse of the Purchase Funnel.

This interview has been edited for brevity & clarity.

ELLIE SMITH, EDELMAN TRUST INSTITUTE (ETI): The report found that consumers are feeling more vulnerable because of societal and personal threats, and they expect brands to respond to those vulnerabilities. What are the ways you are seeing Gen Z expect brands to stand up?

BIANCA BROWN: I think that Gen Z are in a really powerful space where they're entering into purchasing power and are realizing that where they spend their money is also where they spend their time. That is effective in pursuing protection for these vulnerabilities. Gen Z are not purchasing from or communicating positively with brands that are not demonstrating sustainable practices or have been exposed as practicing unsustainably. That's one example of ways that Gen Z are exercising that expectation of brands to respond to their vulnerabilities. Also, that expectation comes through in conversations online about brands amongst Gen Z – in their worries about whether employees are diverse, whether their marketing and their messaging is diverse. And when Gen Z see the messages that brands, companies, businesses, and entities are putting out that they don’t agree with, they're withdrawing.

ETI: Last year, our brand trust study found that Gen Z has a gravitational pull on other generations of consumers. This year, we again uncovered Gen Z’s influence over all generations. In your work, what have you noticed about Gen Z’s wider influence?

BB: In my work recently, I've noticed that the messaging and the language that Gen Z uses can definitely affect perceptions wider than their cohort – whether it's something as small as a brand or something as large as an aesthetic or core. I find that Gen Z are particularly adept at categorizing and labeling a certain type of person, a certain type of consumer. I think that is a really big indicator of Gen Z’s influence – how they can label and so acutely define these personas that not only describe who you are, but what you look like, what you buy, what products you use, what sort of brands and companies that you associate with. Those links being made and personas being created by Gen Z is one really interesting way that we see Gen Z having influence over brands and people who consume those brands.

ETI: Would you say that Gen Z is more perceptive than other generations?

BB: I'm not even sure if it's a perception thing. I wouldn't say they are more perceptive. Maybe it's about building a language to prescribe or define things that they observe and doing so in an entertaining or highly relatable way. It's more so the evolution from the relatability aspect of millennial communication, finding that they like brands that relate to them or are more nostalgic. How can we then put it into a trend, an aesthetic, a core and use that as an identifier of community?

Gen Z demand trust when they start operating and confronting issues as they grow older and become able to engage more directly.

ETI: Trust is increasingly more important to consumers – especially to Gen Z. Why do you think Gen Z is so concerned with trusting the brands they consume?

BB: The trust point is definitely in response to a variety of factors that can breed distrust amongst this cohort. They are particularly concerned with all of the global events that have happened to them as they were growing up. Whether it is environmental concerns and how that's affecting the way they see the world they live in, or it's political unrest in nations around the world that they're witnessing – I think all of these things, and the widening access to that information about really worrying and difficult circumstances, breeds distrust. And so they demand trust when they start operating and confronting these issues as they grow older and become able to engage more directly. I think that's why Gen Z trust is so important. We are now able to respond, so trust becomes a big part of what we do and how we respond.

ETI: Gen Z is also heightening expectations for brands to show their values. What are some of the ways you would advise brands to display their values in order to attract Gen Z and thereby attract all kinds of consumers?

BB: My specific practice is in digital communications. The online social space is one where Gen Z has had a really large share of attention and is also instrumental in the output. We recommend that brands listen to what people are saying their values are, who the people are who can embody those values, and how you can work with them – not in inauthentic ways that would mask or tokenize that person or personality. But how do you see what they are doing as an opinion leader lining up with your business objectives and your brand values? Picking the right people is so important because we can tell what you've told someone to say, and whether you're sharing a belief with a person. Gen Z are really perceptive in that sense and can tell when you're shoving a message in front of a person and telling them to read it, or whether you're saying, “Hey, we see you, we know you're a part of this community, you have these values, and we also share these values. Can you help us to communicate to your audience that we also share these values?” That's a great way to earn trust among Gen Z people.

ETI: This report also found that brands’ attempts to engage with consumers go wrong when they lack authenticity.

BB: I feel like even the word “authenticity” is slowly becoming a buzzword. You need to be authentic in your messaging and in your values. But we can see authenticity almost leaning into a struggle. I'm not sure if we have the solution for that yet. But our reminder is to listen, listen, listen. Always keep listening to what people are saying.

ETI: Gen Z clearly has some substantial influence over how all generations interact with and consume brands. What do you think Gen Z’s lasting impact on brands and buying will be?

BB: I hope that the real scrutiny that we bring to all purchase decisions and the real thorough investigation that we take part in when we're thinking about where we spend our time and where we spend our money will be of lasting impact, so that brands really think about, “What's going to be the response to this? If we release this product, if we talk about this product in this way, what will consumers think?” The significance of value, in all senses, is hopefully a lasting impact of Gen Z. Not just the idea of value for money, but also, how does this serve a community that I'm targeting? I hope that is the impact that Gen Z will have on brands.

In terms of buying, I think it's a really interesting one because we talk about how Gen Z has shifted commerce and how buying online has really changed the game. But on the flip side, I hope that people don't think that the in-person shopping experience and the physicality of it is changed too much because I don't think it's dead and I don't think Gen Z are trying to kill it. I hope that Gen Z had a lasting impact in, not eradicating, but revolutionizing in-person shopping experiences. I think they have the capability.

Bianca Brown, Senior Account Executive and a U.K. Ambassador to Edelman’s Gen Z Lab.

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