The tech company’s strategy positions consumers as brand partners

Emily Ketchen of Lenovo and Shaina Zafar of JUV Consulting at Brandweek.

Emily Ketchen of Lenovo and Shaina Zafar of JUV Consulting at Brandweek.

Emily Ketchen knows that despite its reputation as a marketing-averse demographic, Gen Z is quick to advocate for the brands that align with their values—and any brand that is not prepared to both establish and prove a commitment to meaningful work will fall behind. 

Ketchen, Lenovo’s CMO and vp of international sales and the computing company’s Intelligent Device Group, sat down with Shaina Zafar, co-founder and CMO of Gen Z-focused agency JUV Consulting, to talk through making her company an attractive place to work while treating consumers like partners who have a real stake and voice in the company. As she put it, Gen Z “does not to be spoken at. It wants to be spoken with.” 

Ketchen looks for opportunities to weave social impact into Lenovo to both attract talent and expand its consumer base. These priorities manifest in internal work that keeps employees satisfied and external initiatives that she hopes will turn passive buyers into brand loyalists.

Meeting this new generation of consumers at the point of inspiration.

Celebrating generational passion 

Lenovo’s Work For Humankind initiative sends staff members to Chile’s Robinson Crusoe Island to boost its internet access, which allows communities to keep track of endangered wildlife. In 2022, the brand tapped Queen Latifah as the face of Evolve Small, an initiative that provides financial and technological support to minority- and women-owned small businesses.

For Humankind was a direct response to research around the future of work, according to Ketchen. Beyond debates on balancing in-person and office work, the priority among younger generations coming out of the pandemic was engaging in work that drives social change. 

“It’s not about throwing things into the ether that aren’t going to resonate,” said Ketchen, emphasizing the importance of creating a “porous brand” that internalizes consumer feedback and adapts to changing needs. “It’s a relationship, and you volley back and forth and you listen carefully.”

Zafar, whose Gen Z staff stresses the need to “talk to us, not about us,” emphasized that younger generations are not interested in being treated like guinea pigs—and if brands want to win them over, they must invest in a community-first strategy. She recognized Lenovo’s internalization of Gen Z’s personal interests in travel and work that extends beyond personal enjoyment and monetary gain. 

While Gen Z is dominating marketing conversations, Ketchen and Zafar also spoke to the importance of intergenerational connection. The core of every winning strategy, said Ketchen, is defining what the brand means for its employees and opening a discourse on opportunities for improvement.

“There is tension in intergenerational discussions, but I think that’s a good thing,” she said. “It’s in the tension [from which] comes the best integrated marketing.”

BCG’s Retail Influencer Network, The Z Suite, and WWD honor most influential ESG leaders.

From left to right, top to bottom, Shawn Outler, Saad Amer, Phoebe Gates, Harley Preston, Ziad Ahmed, Michelle Tarry, Kathleen McLaughlin, Tarang Amin. 

They are bold visionaries who walk the talk when it comes to developing, implementing and setting ESG goals. And when it comes to putting into practice ESG policies (either for their own companies or helping others), they are steadfast, pragmatic and committed to making the world a better place.

Meet the honorees of this year’s Most Influential ESG Leaders.

The list includes leaders from American Eagle Outfitters, e.l.f. Beauty, Gap Inc., Macy’s, and Tapestry, among many others. This year’s honors are presented by Berns Communications Group (BCG)’s Retail Influencer Network and The Z Suite, in collaboration with Women’s Wear Daily (WWD). This prestigious accolade honors senior-level executives and Gen Z leaders who have exhibited exceptional commitment to advancing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices within the retail, technology, and consumer industries.

When asked what it takes to create real change in the industry on the ESG front, Kathleen McLaughlin, Executive Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer at Walmart Inc. and President of the Walmart Foundation, began by explaining that in the long term, “successful companies take an expansive view of what it means to run a great business. They create ‘shared value’ — meaning they maximize the value of their business by addressing the most important needs of their stakeholders in innovative and effective ways.”

“When it comes to ESG, companies can: prioritize the issues at the intersection of stakeholder needs and business relevance; collaborate with others across sectors to rewire operations and supply chains to address issues in value-creating ways; and manage key initiatives as they would any other part of their business — setting ambitious goals, innovating to overcome challenges, holding people accountable for results, and disclosing progress as well as challenges,” McLaughlin said.

For e.l.f. Beauty, actionable steps to reach ESG goals require a certain type of leadership approach. Tarang Amin, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of e.l.f. Beauty, said, “Leading with positivity, inclusivity and accessibility achieves impactful ESG outcomes.”

“It starts with being purpose-led and representing the diverse community that we serve,” Amin explained. “We are one of only four publicly traded companies (out of 4,200) in the U.S. with a Board of Directors that is two-thirds women and one-third diverse. We strive to do the right thing for people, the planet, and our furry and finned friends. We lean into our superpowers of bringing premium quality products at accessible prices that are clean, vegan, cruelty free and Fair Trade-certified.”

Lauren Guthrie, Vice President of Global Talent and Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Action (IDEA) at the VF Corp., also noted that consumers are key, and that ESG, “is a powerful tool to drive corporate mobilization in support of the greatest challenges facing our planet and global societies. However, for us to drive towards real and sustained solutions, consumers need to continue to vote with their dollars and support companies who are not only talking about the work, but consistently demonstrating their commitment through action.”

The honorees of the Most Influential ESG Leaders list will be honored at the second annual Retail Influencer CEO Forum Featuring The Z Suite on September 12. The full-day, invitation-only summit at New York’s Crosby Street Hotel will unite Gen Z leaders and influencers with retail and brand executives to help the industry unlock the Gen Z consumer mindset.

This year, the forum’s programming will center on the theme of “Courageous Leadership Paving the Way for Real Change” and featured speakers will include CEOs, ZEOs and senior executives who are leading with conviction and connecting deeply with Gen Zers along the way.

“This forum is a unique opportunity to uncover what Gen Z truly values and how brand leaders are building strategies to meet them where they are,” said Stacy Berns, President and Founder of Berns Communications Group. “We believe that by bringing together these influential voices, we can drive positive change, foster innovation, and shape more sustainable, inclusive, and responsible business practices.”

The selected individuals have demonstrated exceptional leadership and dedication to driving positive change across environmental, social, and governance practices. Their innovative strategies and commitment to ESG principles have set new benchmarks for corporate responsibility within their respective sectors.

These leaders have been selected by a distinguished panel of experts from WWD, the Retail Influencer Network, The Z Suite, and The DealmakeHers for their outstanding contributions to fostering sustainable practices and making a significant impact on the ESG landscape.

ESG practices have gained paramount importance in the business world today. Organizations that prioritize environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and ethical governance are not only contributing positively to society but are also demonstrating resilience and a forward-looking approach. As consumers, investors, and stakeholders increasingly demand transparency and accountability, businesses that integrate ESG principles into their operations stand to build lasting trust and create a more sustainable future.

Here are the year’s most influential ESG leaders:

Keelin Evans, Vice President of Sustainability at Macy’s

Saad Amer, Founder and CEO of Justice Environment

Jake Bjorseth, CEO, Trndsttrs

Emily Gittins, CEO and Co-Founder, Archive

Serena Advani, Founder, Seadrop Skincare

Karly Gramlich, Founder and CEO, Upper District

Maya Penn, Founder and CEO, Maya’s Ideas LLC

Marci Zaroff, Founder and CEO, Ecofashion Corp.

Lisa Morales-Hellebo, CEO and Co-Founder, REFASHIOND OS

Mike Natenshon, Founder and CEO, Marine Layer

Suvi-Elina Enqvist, Head of Innovation, Marimekko

Kerry Docherty, Chief Impact Officer, Faherty

Kathleen McLaughlin, Executive Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, Walmart Inc.; President, Walmart Foundation, Walmart

William (Bill) Caldwell, Chief Development Officer, EDENS

Dafna Mizrahi, CEO, Curamia

Logan Duran, Vice President of ESG & Sustainability, Tapestry

Michelle Tarry, Vice President – Responsible Sourcing & Sustainability, American Eagle Outfitters (AEO)

James Reinhart, CEO, thredUP

Shawn Outler, Chief DEI Officer at Macy’s

Jane Mosbacher Morris, Founder and CEO, TO THE MARKET

Amy Shecter, Chief Executive Officer, Ever/Body

Harley Preston, Activist, Model, Marketer, Agent of Change

Nadya Okamoto, CEO and Co-founder, August

Amy Fisher, CEO, LOLA

Nicole Leinbach, Founder, Retail Minded

Bahja Johnson, Head of Equality and Belonging | Color Proud Council Co-Founder, Gap Inc.

Tarang Amin, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, e.l.f. Beauty

Lauren Guthrie, Vice President of Global Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Action, VF Corp.

Alice Kim, Founder and CEO, PerfectDD

Kristen Gonzalez, New York State Senator

Sophia Kianni

Phoebe Gates

Ziad Ahmed, JUV Consulting

Cara Smyth, Accenture

They’re the generation many of whose members don’t remember hip-hop before Drake, video before YouTube, or life without social media. Their oldest members were barely out of the womb when Taylor Swift scored her debut hit.

They’re Gen Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, and earlier this month, more than 30 marketers, creators and entrepreneurs in that age bracket presented at digital marketing agency JUV Consulting’s two-day ZCon event in Los Angeles, where the focus was on how brands can best reach these in-demand consumers.

“If you want to connect with Gen Z, if you want to talk so much about Gen Z, you have to talk to us,” JUV co-founder and CEO Ziad Ahmed said at the conference, noting how marketers have left Gen Z out of the creative process. “There are so many conversations about us that do not center our voices, and it’s time for that to be passé, and for that to be a part of the past.”

What came out of ZCon were several ways brands and marketers, not to mention advertising media, can reach Gen Z consumers with greater success – one of which was, perhaps surprisingly, moving away from social media, due to negative feelings about these platforms dating back to childhood, and the desire to develop communities in other mediums.

“How I approach [social] platforms now is that they’re a starting point,” Jules Terpak, a content creator, tells Ad Age. “It’s a starting point for ideas [and] connections, but you want to move those offline as much as possible. In the creator world, it’s like, is what you’ve built on the internet sustainable in real life if this platform goes away?”

Also mentioned was replacing an “always on” social media strategy, centered on frequent posting, with an “always there” approach focused on online community management, such as replying to comments and popping up in other users’ comments sections. At ZCon, Zaria Parvez, Social Media Coordinator for language-learning app Duolingo, noted that if social content isn’t rooted in what Gen Z consumers are hearing about, seeing and even taking part in while on social media, it doesn’t matter how often a brand posts content.

Addressing older marketers who may feel out of touch with Gen Z, Parvez stressed that age is less a factor in Gen Z staying on top of social media trends or hot topics, as opposed to how immersed they are in online culture. “I think there’s this emphasis that [older people] feel like they might be irrelevant or they’re not going to get it,” she said, “but honestly, it’s just a matter of being on the platforms and then connecting with the people who do get it and learning off of each other.”

One powerful way to reach Gen Z is with brands led by creators with whom they’re familiar, as in businesses owned by online influencers such as Mr. Beast and Emma Chamberlain. According to a report from The New Consumer and Coefficient Capital, more than half of Gen Z consumers consider it extremely or very important that a brand’s founder is someone they “trust or admire.” while 44% of said they prefer creator-founded brands to those without an influencer founder.

“There are so many brands that are coming up now because there’s more creators than ever [and] more celebrities than ever,” singer/actor Pragathi Guruprasad, who co-founded skincare brand Soma Ayurvedic, said at ZCon. “In terms of what you want out of a leader who’s building right now, intention and vision are so important.”

ZCon speakers also noted the need for marketers to do better at reaching a more diverse group of Gen Z consumers, often due to a lack of diversity among those brands’ creative teams, with the suggestion that marketing that could be interpreted as racist is often the result of “brands not having the right faces in the room.”

Brands should also take note of Gen Z’s increasing use of TikTok vs. Google as a search engine. At the conference, Sophia Dennis, founder and CEO of theater and film production studio Phace Media, suggested that search engines have “shifted into creator spaces,” and that search engine marketing may eventually shift to TikTok and other social platforms.