Why Gen Z Digging Into Your Brand’s Past Can Hurt You
Generation Z does not tolerate racism. Or at least 90% of them don’t, according to a survey conducted in the US by Business Insider in June. Considering that the ongoing wave of protests against police brutality and racial discrimination across the US has been largely headed by Gen Z, this should not be hard to believe.
Climate change, which had long been seen by Gen Z as the most pressing world issue, quite surprisingly now takes third place after being understandably surpassed by both the Covid-19 pandemic (now second) and racism (now in first place, as per recent polls).
Moreover, Gen Z are also digital natives meaning that no other online group knows how to react to digital campaigns as quickly as they do. And so with brands joining the anti-racist movement through solidarity social media posts or campaigns such as Blackout Tuesday, Gen Z will be the first denounce those they see as hypocritical.
Who are Gen Z and why are they so ready to react?
Generation Z are those born after 1996, which means that the oldest have recently turned 23 or are about to do so. Remember those strange noises computers made when connecting to the internet? Well, they do not. In fact, they barely remember the world without smartphones. Few of them have actually ever bought CDs, and most of Gen Z were able to use a computer from a very young age.
This is why they are called digital natives; the internet was here before them and they are used to accessing all kinds of information within seconds. Contrary to older generations, even Millennials, they did not rely exclusively on traditional sources of information (TV, radio, school, or their parents’ teachings) to learn about the world.
Instead, they were able to see the world from countless perspectives around the web, which is arguably the main reason why Gen Z is the most tolerant and open-minded generation yet. Being aware of the injustices that millions faced around the world from a young age made them more sensitive than their predecessors.
So now that racism is such a hotly debated issue and new accounts of racially-based police brutality emerge on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis, Gen Z has shown their rejection to this reality in ways that no other generation has done. They are, in fact, at the forefront of the BLM movement.
And just as they expect politicians to address and combat racism and police brutality, they expect companies, especially large ones, to also exercise the influence they have to raise awareness, call for justice, and press authorities to act. But what happens when the dark past of a company that now posts a photo of a black square on their social media networks comes to light?
Apologies are not enough to contain the fire
If a company’s history predates the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, or even the US Civil War and the abolition of slavery, it does not automatically mean that they have a record to be ashamed of. But when they do, and it becomes public, it leads to scrutiny and bad PR.
New York Life, the third largest insurance company in the US, was created in 1845. Its first year was not met with much success, so the company came up with a highly questionable solution: life insurance for slaves.
No, slaves did not benefit from this in any way. The plan was to find a way of compensating their owners in the event of a slave dying unexpectedly. For every deceased, they would receive three quarters of their value.
James De Payster Ogden, the company’s first President, was not completely sold on the idea as he considered it inhumane, but decided to go ahead nonetheless. It quickly proved to be successful across the southern states and life insurance for slaves went on to account for a third of the company’s total revenue.
Fast forward to the present and descendants of slaves who were ‘insured’ by New York Life have had to come to terms with what happened to their ancestors ever since those records became public. In order to get out of the PR crisis, the company has issued an apology. But for those on the opposite side, apologies are not enough compensation for the suffering of so many people.
Tiffany & Co. is another notorious case. During its early years, the company was financed by revenue from a cotton farm in Connecticut, whose workforce consisted entirely of slaves. And other major companies that have been scrutinised after uncovering their slavery-era records are: Brooks Brothers; Bank of America; Aetna; JP Morgan; Norfolk Southern Rail Road; and U.S.A. Today’s parent company, E.W. Scripps and Gannett.
In spite of the uncertainty brought by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the buying power and influence of Gen Z is set to grow. Companies simply cannot afford to lose their approval, especially considering that 70% of Gen Z are willing to boycott a company without a firm anti-racism and anti-slavery stance.
Proposed in-house or agency practices and policies have to be thoroughly analysed in order to avoid any negative scrutiny, before being published. Obviously, the past cannot be changed. But if a company faces a PR crisis as a result of an aspect of their dark past being uncovered, bold steps must be taken. Apologies will not suffice; actions such as genuine donations may need to be made and involvement with minority groups, namely the black community, has to be strengthened.