The Timeless Tale of Authenticity
by Zoe Grant
Whether selling software or sandals, long-established brands are at a loss for how to create meaningful relationships with Gen Z consumers. How do brands engage the generation that is attached to their communication devices, yet refuses to speak to another person on the phone? What do they talk about with those who are on track to become the best-educated generation yet, even while mentally checking out from their jobs? Despite these paradoxes, Gen Z’s desires are straightforward. There’s no need to revamp products or design budget-busting social media campaigns. The only thing legacy brands have to change is how they tell their brand story to this new market of consumers.
Traditional marketing tactics are not effective in converting Gen Z prospects into customers; this necessitates a deeper dive into what really resonates with them. In order to establish motive, it’s important to understand who this generation is and what drives their behaviors. Gen Z has grown up as digital natives. They have a keen ability to sniff out bullshit, be it fake news, cringe-worthy campaigns, or lazy, inauthentic marketing attempts. Gen Z also has great spending power: they will soon be the largest generation of consumers, accounting for up to $143 billion in direct spending. But for some legacy brands, engaging Gen Z is a tall order. How does a brand engage consumers who don’t respond to traditional marketing methods? Gen Z has never experienced a world before social media; they’ve already seen and ignored every social marketing tactic. Fortunately, there’s a secret weapon that any brand can wield to navigate all of these obstacles and consistently engage Gen Z: authenticity.
According to a BBMG and GlobeScan study on Gen Z consumers, brands can appear more authentic to a Gen Z audience by “standing up for Gen Z’s values and beliefs, viewing Gen Z as active co-creators to help shape conversations, standing up for those left out, acting as platforms for the personal journeys of Gen Z-ers, and speaking honestly about brand’s strategies and challenges.” For Gen Z (and most generations), aligning with a brand’s values establishes trust and relatability, which is crucial for Gen Z consumers; they are almost twice as likely as millennials to be converted by an influencer.
Gen Z loves influencers the way Baby Boomers love Facebook: a bond so inseparable it’s almost synonymous with the reputation of that generation. Using influencers is an effective tool because Gen Z responds enthusiastically to authenticity—when they can see a real person using real products in a real way—meaning that considerable value is placed on peer recommendations. 82 percent of Gen Z will buy from a brand after reading customer reviews prior to purchasing. When a recommendation comes from an influencer (over a TV commercial, for example), Gen Z feels like it’s a recommendation coming from someone who shares their own interests. By integrating authenticity into how a brand tells its story, even century-old legacy brands can successfully engage Gen Z.
It’s understandable that legacy brands may feel the need to participate in trends to appeal to the youngest generation of consumers, but when examining what makes people respond to brands, it’s clear that participating in trends is woefully ineffective. As the American Marketing Association points out, maintaining brand relevance in the case of legacy brands goes beyond convincing customers that they need your products—it’s about conveying the values of a brand using a medium that resonates with its audience. For long-standing brands with products that have stood the test of time, there’s often no need to change what a company is selling, but rather how they’re selling it. When it comes to Gen Z consumers, brands that come up with new ways to tell their original stories—regardless of how old that story may be—will overcome market trends and reach new audiences.
Levi Strauss & Co is a 170-year-old brand that has done an exceptional job of pivoting the approach, not the product. Levi’s brand story is anchored by its core values of empathy, courage, originality, and integrity, along with its mission statement: “To sustain responsible commercial success as a global marketing company of branded apparel.” For many, Levi’s is a brand that empowers its consumers to march to the beat of their own drum—especially given the juxtaposition of Levi’s recent “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign versus the 88 percent of American consumers who prefer shopping for fast fashion. Aptly named, the premise of this campaign encourages consumers to purchase Levi’s products as investments that they’ll have for years, instead of dropping their hard-earned cash on fast fashion garments that will only last for a few months. Jen Sey, the brand president, explained: “Ultimately, Levi’s denim is meant to be worn for generations, not seasons. So, we are also using this campaign to encourage consumers to be more intentional about their apparel choices: to wear each item longer, for example, to buy SecondHand, or to use our in-store Tailor Shops to extend the life of their garments.”
Despite the “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign launched in 2021, Levi’s has been on a quest for sustainability since 1991 when it developed Living Our Values, a guide that informs ethical production throughout the entirety of Levi’s supply chain. For over three decades, Levi’s has lived up to this code of conduct. The brand commissioned “a product life cycle study [that] showed that for one of its core products—Levi’s 501 Medium Stonewash jeans—37 percent of their climate impact and 23 percent of water consumption occurred during the consumer care phase.” Since then, Levi’s has been committed to positioning its jeans as a long-term investment in order to lessen the environmental impact of production. Similarly, Levi’s made a commitment to use more environmentally friendly materials such as reconstituted cotton, and “to [reduce] the amount of water [used] for manufacturing in areas of high water stress by 50 percent by 2025 against a 2018 baseline.” For the past 20 years, Levi’s has been operating in alignment with its brand story by embodying its mission statement and core values of empathy and integrity. Levi’s story is reflective of the authenticity Gen Z craves.
Authenticity alone may enable a brand to be in Gen Z’s good graces, but Levi’s capitalized on this demand with the strategic talent it enlisted to bolster the campaign. Emma Chamberlain, one of Gen Z’s breakout stars, is a Youtuber and influencer with a following of over ten million. Chamberlain’s career was built upon her unapologetic honesty and down-to-earth attitude; her transparency, vulnerability, and relatable problems drew Gen Z viewers to connect with her. Emma is also well-known for her propensity to thrift and buy secondhand clothing, citing that 90 percent of her wardrobe is vintage. Ultimately, Chamberlain was aligned with Levi’s brand story, which is why she was selected to participate in “Buy Better, Wear Longer.” As a result of this campaign, “the brand saw strong growth in average daily brand mentions across global social platforms and a significant lift in brand consideration and purchase intent after consumers engaged with the ad … Levi’s launched its global TikTok channel and generated more than 100 million views within its first six weeks on the app.”
Today, companies are expected to operate in accordance with their values. Levi’s didn’t need to generate new products or revert to flashy marketing schemes—all the brand had to change was how it delivered its story to a new generation of consumers. Everything Emma Chamberlain represents in the “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign is aligned with the brand that Levi’s has curated for decades. The only new approach was the use of a relatable storyteller. The success of this campaign presents legacy brands with an important lesson: “Sometimes brands can achieve new relevance by simply leveraging what they have already established, but with a renewed purpose.”
Sustainability has been an element of the brand’s mission statement for decades; by conveying that message through a Gen Z influencer, Levi’s was able to drive sales in a new market. Gen Z responds most enthusiastically to authenticity, especially if that messaging comes from somebody perceived as a trustworthy peer. When legacy brands are at a loss as to how to engage Gen Z, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel; take a page from Levi’s book and have a fellow Zoomer simply tell it like it is.
Zoe Grant is a brand storyteller at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.