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Digital Transformation Brand Purpose Patagonia

Why NFL, Abercrombie and BuzzFeed rank among gen Z’s least favorite brands


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

November 8, 2021 | 9 min read

Exclusive data from Lucid finds that gen Zers have the poorest perception of brands that appear to lack or oppose the values they hold close. Experts weigh in on why altruism works – and the value of community-based marketing.

Blue thumbs down symbol with hand against pink and yellow background

Gen Zers are giving ESPN, Spirit Airlines and Abercrombie the thumbs-down

New exclusive data for The Drum from research technology platform Lucid indicates that, among top brands, gen Z consumers have the poorest perception of Abercrombie, BuzzFeed, ESPN, NFL, Tinder, Twitter, Spirit Airlines and others. Favorites include Adidas, Disney, Netflix, Nike, Snap, Nintendo and Spotify.

The study surveyed 1,000 US consumers aged 16-24 on their opinions on some 85 top brands in the tech, fashion, beauty, travel and media and entertainment sectors.

When asked to share their top two favorite brands overall, the majority of respondents named fashion and apparel or tech companies. Some of the most frequently cited were Nike, Shein, Jordan, Target, Vans, Gucci, Netflix, Converse and Samsung.

The data suggests that perceptions of certain brands are highly mixed among gen Zers. While 55% of respondents said they like or somewhat like Facebook, more than a quarter claimed they dislike the brand and many others said they have no opinion. Sentiment around Crocs followed a similar pattern, with just over half of gen Zers saying they see the brand favorably, and the remaining half torn between apathy and dislike.

So what does this distribution of sentiment say about marketing to gen Zers? How can brands establish meaningful connections with gen Z audiences and drive loyalty?

Balancing altruism and ego

According to Jake Bjorseth, founder and chief executive officer at gen Z marketing agency Trndsttrs – which counts McDonald’s, L’Oréal and The North Face among its clients – brands that succeed at capturing gen Z’s affinity are those that prioritize purpose and tap into how their audiences view themselves as individuals.

“Gen Z’s preferences are really driven by two main sources – they’re polar opposites, but they work together,” says Bjorseth, who himself is just 22 years old. “One is altruism: ‘Does this support a future world that I want to be a part of?’ – whether [the brand is speaking to] climate change, social justice or purpose.”

He says that many of the brands that fall into Lucid’s category of gen Z’s most-loved may be garnering positive sentiment in large part due to their ability to effectively communicate their values and purpose to audiences. The notion calls to mind some of the notable brand marketing efforts from the brands that Lucid’s respondents named as their favorites, from Nike’s iconic – and divisive – 2018 stunt with Colin Kaepernick to last year’s joint Netflix-Instagram mental health-focused series ‘Wanna Talk About It?’

Other experts are in agreement. “For brands to attract gen Zers, it’s all about having genuine and forward-thinking values, incorporating that within the company’s identity and mission, and then standing by those values when inevitably challenging situations arise,” says Bryant Lin, co-founder of NinetyEight, a gen Z-focused marketing agency and research firm. “Apple is a good example of this – they have never sacrificed the quality of their products, no matter the potential benefit. They’ve also stood by their stringent privacy protections for users.”

The second key factor, per Bjorseth? Ego. “[It’s] the question of: ‘Is this brand that I’m purchasing from a reflection of – or a part of – who I am and who I want to appear to be?’” He says that young people have always looked to fashion brands to tap into and build their sense of identity, but that today things are changing. Gen Z consumers look at every brand as an outlet by which to express who they are. “Whether you’re on Spotify or Apple Music is telling us ... who you are. Do you support the Apple monopoly? Or are you with the Spotify crew? You know, Adidas is in the top category [in Lucid’s data]. It’s ironic, because they’re number two in the sportswear category. They’re huge, but they’re not Nike. I think a lot of the Adidas popularity comes from the fact that it isn’t Nike, so it isn’t as common [and people identify with that].”

It’s easy to apply this framework to all of Lucid’s findings – Bjorseth says it seems “very obvious” why some brands scored lower on the affinity index among gen Zers. He suggests that Spirit Airlines, for instance, has a reputation for poor policy transparency with consumers, which turns off values-focused gen Zers in particular. More than 20% of respondents in Lucid’s survey said they weren’t fond of Epic Games, which Bjorseth implies could be due to the company’s recent antitrust scandal.

NinetyEight's Lim has a similar take: “Some of the brands in the least favorite category have had scandals, [including] Abercrombie and NFL, or lackluster customer experiences, [like] Spirit,” he says. “They have been centered around ... problems like athlete privilege, preference [for very thin] models, spammy clickbait. Ultimately, what ties the least favorite brands together is that they refuse to change or take accountability for their actions.”

The centrality of community

Ultimately, when companies build their brands around altruistic values and find ways to resonate with how their audiences see themselves, they’re well-positioned to curry favor among gen Zers. To take it to the next level is to garner true brand loyalty and brand evangelism. Achieving these ends requires a more concerted effort – a shift from traditional hit-you-over-the-head advertising to a community-focused approach, says Bjorseth. “The focus [has been] on social communication, building up a following online and working with influencers, which is great from a top-of-funnel, awareness perspective,” he says. “But where everything’s moving toward is more fragmentation of platforms and channels. It’s moving more toward community-oriented marketing, which is where we’re advising a lot of our clients to move toward. How can you build more of an active, loyal community?”

He points to ‘drop culture’ as a prime example. Pioneered by sneakerheads and broadly adopted by streetwear brands around the world, the strategy of creating hype around a special, timed release of new products or collections is gaining traction among major brands, with everyone from Instagram to Sprite hopping on the bandwagon. It could be argued, even, that the entire infrastructure of streamed television is now built around drop culture. Focusing on limited-time special release events often proves an effective means by which brands can foster interest and build communities of consumers with shared interests.

And the efficacy of community-focused marketing – especially among young audiences – is evidenced by a growing body of research. Just last week, creative agency Sid Lee released its annual Belong Index, which found that 83% of gen Zers feel that their community defines them as a person, and 94% say that their communities feed their emotions.

Sid Lee’s US chief executive officer Andy Bateman told The Drum: “[Brands are too often thinking about] my market, my position, what we uniquely own in the market. The whole language around brands and marketing has been ownership-based. The shift to make is: rather than consider this whole area in terms of ownership, consider it in terms of participation. What are you willing to do to engage? How are you going to participate? Are you being vulnerable and real? Are you being transparent and open? That’s a big shift and that’s hard to do. You have to accept that participating with millennials and gen Zers in their communities – not your communities – means you have to show up and be real, be open and potentially be the subject of their criticism as well as their support.”

Perception doesn’t equal purchase

It’s worth noting that some data from the 2021 Belong Index contrasts with Lucid’s new data: for instance, Sid Lee found that Patagonia was cited among gen Z’s top 10 most-liked brands. Lucid, on the other hand, found that more than 33% of gen Zers had either never heard of the brand or did not have strong enough opinions about it to be categorized as ‘liked’ or ‘strongly liked.’ The organizations were, of course, using different yardsticks by which to evaluate affinity. While Lucid used a basic sliding scale framework to assess opinions, Sid Lee says its data is measured using a proprietary framework that involves a 40-point ranking system used across four pillars.

In any case, Bjorseth cautions against making blanket generalizations based on sentiment data alone. “The problem ... is that you’re polling people about their favorite brands – you’re not backing that with where they’re actually purchasing [or where they spend] their time.” And he’s right: there may be significant mismatches between perception and actual engagement or purchasing habits.

As an example, Lucid found that Twitter was among gen Z’s least favorite brands, with more than 20% responding that they blatantly dislike the brand. Yet new data from Twitter indicates that nearly half of all tweets sent over the course of the year in the US came from users between the ages of 16-24.

Ultimately, brands whose aim it is to develop authentic connections with gen Z audiences would do well to home in on purpose and find innovative ways to build and engage in interest- and values-focused communities.

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