Case Study

Gen Z: Understanding Brand Activism & Social Causes


A major soft drink company was ready to bet big on their iced tea brand starting with a new campaign. The company wanted the campaign to revolve around a social issue but wasn’t sure which cause would resonate most with their target audience – Gen Z consumers.

To get inside the minds of these consumers, C+R developed an online qualitative approach centered around a discussion board. The research uncovered deep consumer insights and opportunity areas that aligned with the target consumers’ values.


What Makes an Effective Social Issue Campaign?

A soft drink company was interested in launching a new campaign focused on a social issue, but first needed to understand which causes were most important to Gen Z and would best align with their brand.

The company knew that one of the keys to their own success would be understanding the successes and failures of those that had gone before them; they wanted to understand why some brands are successful at creating campaigns that address social issues and others are not. Therefore, the company was eager to see examples of brands that had effectively addressed cultural moments or value territories important to Gen Z, and conversely, examples of brands that had attempted brand activism with this generation and missed the mark.


Understanding What Moves Gen Z Consumers

C+R has a wealth of institutional knowledge about Gen Z, including a body of research about the factors that have shaped this generation’s consumer behavior. Building on this foundation and leaning on Gen Z’s comfort with social media, C+R created an online discussion board for teens and young adults, utilizing a variety of text, photo, and video-based activities.

The result

Sincerity Is a Winning Strategy

Our research confirmed the importance of dedicating genuine time, effort, and money to social issues year-round to consistently build social activism into brand identity – essentially, showing consumers that you “walk the walk.” When actions are only part of a one-time initiative, Gen Z consumers tend to perceive them as insincere (a “publicity stunt”) and grow cynical towards the brand. Respondents were quick to point out examples of brands that failed to sincerely address specific social issues. Examples included brands that attempted to profit off serious issues, contradicted past stances, or were perceived as doing the bare minimum to appease the public. 

On the subject of sincerity, we found that, for this generation, the perception of lost profits, sacrifice, or working for the greater good significantly contributes to a brand’s authenticity. Another key finding: brands perceived as authentic and sincere have greater permission to speak on social issues.

Research also showed that at a baseline, these consumers had a positive perception of the company’s iced tea brand; most considered it a fun, creative, and caring brand that consistently promotes positive messages. Furthermore, Gen Z consumers associate the brand with positive traits like peace and kindness. Given this, participants indicated the brand had permission to play in a number of social territories that promote human rights and taking care of one another. Consumers considered alignment with these causes genuine, as they fit with the established brand identity and align with the brand’s past messaging campaigns. 

As a result of C+R’s research, the client was able to build on their current brand equity to develop creative activation ideas for a stand-out social issue campaign.

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