For even the most established brands, the time has come for a shift in audience engagement. Younger audiences aren’t as loyal as previous generations, and their expectations for brands have changed. A new study from McKinsey this spring found that half of Generation Z would leave even their favorite brand for a cheaper or higher-quality option, while 32% of Gen Z stopped using a brand in the last year for reasons such as a bad product or negative customer-service experience.
At the same time, younger generations are deeply committed to inclusivity and social impact, with new research showing that helping others is the number one priority for 12-to-15-year-olds in the United States, and over 60% of this cohort say they “want everyone to be treated the same.”
In a crowded digital environment where platforms are more fractured and audiences are more distracted than ever, how can brands and organizations authentically engage next-generation audiences? For experts I spoke to across different sectors, the answer was the same: to build brand loyalty with younger audiences, giving them an authentic opportunity to contribute.
Ziad Ahmed, 24, is the CEO and co-founder of JUV Consulting, a Generation Z company that works with clients to help them reach young people, and of Redefy, a youth-run nonprofit committed to furthering equality.
“What I tell all my clients,” Ahmed said, “is that there are a lot of companies and individuals talking about the power of young people right now. But I believe that instead of talking about young people, they should be talking to them, giving them real seats at the table, and providing them with legitimate agency and economic opportunity. It’s inspiring to see that happen more and more with our clients — from Coach to Unilever to IKEA.”
Coach recently introduced Coachtopia, a groundbreaking, sustainable brand made from recycled and repurposed materials, and built in collaboration with a community of diverse young people who help design and consult on the products. Since launch, the sub-brand has already sold out twice and has gotten praise everywhere from Highsnobiety to Vogue.
“The shift is happening now,” said Ahmed. “The young, historically excluded voices who are sparking social movements, championing emerging brands and driving the narrative are finally being treated as partners — and we are thrilled about it.”
Alison Moore, CEO of the nonprofit Comic Relief US, has made authentic engagement with younger audiences central to the organization’s strategy — and its future.
“Brands today have a choice: engage authentically with younger audiences, or fade away,” Moore said. “For Comic Relief US, empowering younger audiences isn’t just a tactic or an add-on — it’s fundamental to who we are.”
When many people think about Comic Relief US, the first thing that comes to mind is Red Nose Day. The well-known fundraiser began in 1988 in the UK, followed by a stateside launch in 2015. But Comic Relief US designed its newest campaign for the metaverse, as one of the first-ever online gaming “charitable worlds.”
To roll out Kids Relief, a year-round campaign focused entirely on youth, Comic Relief US CEO Alison Moore and her team turned to Roblox, which boasts over 52 million daily users — half under age 13 — as a platform for their Solarpunk Simulator gaming experience, boosted by a virtual concert from TikTok sensation BoyWithUke. Since its launch, the game has had over 4.5 million visits. The concert, which featured BoyWithUke performing through his avatar inside the Roblox platform, drew more than 2.1 million viewers.
Kids Relief is an extension of the organization’s strategy of prioritizing younger audiences as partners in their work, not just passive beneficiaries. In 2021, the organization launched a Youth Advisory Council, made up of eight young leaders from across the US and around the world who work alongside the organization’s grantmaking team to inform the organization’s grant portfolio. This portfolio includes a program called the Juntanza Fund, which provides grants to youth-led programs and changemakers.
“The old models have been completely upended,” said Moore. “So many brands are still treating younger audiences like customers and not partners, thinking only in terms of product launches and influencer campaigns. These one-way streets are dead ends for brands.”
Kevin Patel, 22, a youth activist focused on the climate movement who founded the organization OneUp Action, agrees — and believes the passion younger audiences have for social issues are transforming brand loyalty.
“Gen Z expects to be included and heard by brands, and those that prioritize authenticity and meaningful engagement will earn their loyalty and advocacy,” Patel said.
Patel is also part of a unique initiative from Ikea, the Ingka Young Leaders Forum, which is expanding the space for youth-led initiatives to meaningfully scrutinize and engage with Ikea’s sustainability commitments worldwide.
“Ikea’s Ingka Young Leaders Forum has fostered an exceptional partnership between young activists and Ingka Group leadership, pushing the boundaries of sustainability and transparency while addressing crucial challenges like circularity and supporting refugees in the supply chain,” Patel said. “More brands need to take note of what Ingka has done and implement this model to have younger voices.”
In my own work leading WIT – Whatever It Takes, where teens learn how to design, manage and measure a social enterprise, hundreds of young people have chosen to “do whatever it takes” to launch businesses and projects that prioritize a giveback model – from environmental non-profits like Native Del Mar to jewelry companies with a cause like Lulu’s Bracelets.
“Younger audiences are more than just another consumer base,” Moore said. “They’re the ultimate creators, driving what’s taking off online and transforming the social-media landscape. For any brand, the challenge today is how to tap their hope and creativity for good — for our organizations and the world.”