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  • Writer's pictureJessica Foss-Howard

What brands need to know about mental health and marketing to Gen Z

Key Takeaways

  1. Gen Z customers, facing unprecedented stress levels, value mental health and expect brands to engage with their emotional needs in a sincere way.

  2. Partnering with outside organisations can help brands maintain relevance through participation, rather than just influence.

  3. It’s a fine line for brands and marketers to balance: social media is a main point of stress for young people while also being a main communication channel for brands.

In battling to attract the business of Gen Z customers, fashion brands are faced with the ways this generation of young people differs from their predecessors. Facing unprecedented stress levels and an estimated 40 per cent uptick in mortality compared with Gen Xers at the same age, young consumers value mental health, and expect brands to engage with their emotional needs in a sincere way.

Rates of depression, self-harm and suicide among Gen Z are on the rise according to a study published by the Journal of Adolescent Health, which notes that some of these rates doubled over the decade-long period that college students were assessed. The American Psychological Association notes that news of mass shootings, climate change and deportations are highly triggering and a contributing factor to a sense of collective anxiety that permeates Gen Z, while social media has promoted a culture of cyberbullying. According to a report from UNICEF, one in three young people will experience cyberbullying with the leading reason being appearance.

The shift in generational attention to mental health presents an opportunity for brands, which are at an advantage when they’re able to respond to customer values. By positioning itself as an ally by partnering with organisations and charities that speak to this customer group’s interests, brands can maintain relevance through participation, rather than simply influence.

In this Vogue Business report, brands’ efforts to insert themselves in a societal and generational shift that calls for sensitivity are evaluated. As Gen Z’s spending power increases, the next generation of consumers are making decisions based on their values, and have more than enough options to decide to spend their money with retailers they most connect with.

Brand campaigns evolve

The Gen Z-oriented online retailer, Boohoo, partnered with anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label to create a cause-centric video entitled “The Insta-Lie”, which exposes how the false perceptions of living “our best lives” on social media lowers other people’s self-esteem and actually deepens online addictions. British retailers including Sweaty Betty and River Island also partnered with the charity, with the latter launching the #LabelsAreForClothes campaign that enlisted the help of models of varying races, body types and abilities.

Sportswear giants typically focused on campaigns geared towards optimal physical performance are also turning inwards, too. In 2018, Adidas produced “Infinite Silence”, a short film from director Max Luz, which stars the British rapper and artist Kojey Radical speaking about depression, suicide and the importance of human connection. Last August, Nike released the In My Feels Air Max 270s, which were guest designed by therapist and self-described sneakerhead Liz Beecroft through Nike’s Cultivator programme and raised funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Mental health was incorporated into the shoe’s design with a reinterpreted wavy swish logo to reference the peaks and valleys of emotional lives.

The $180 shoes sold out in under 48 hours, a surprise to Beecroft, who wasn’t sure if the clout-chasing sneaker community would respond to messaging around mental health. The sneakers’ success indicated that mental health awareness resonates with customers.

Topshop collaborated with the UK suicide reduction organisation Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), for the Care Sewn In line that debuted on World Mental Health Day in 2019. The campaign included positive messaging on the piece in the form of a garment label, encouraging customers to open up about their wellbeing, according to Jason Griffiths, the group brand communications director for parent company Arcadia Group.

Learning before acting

It’s a shift mental health advocates have been waiting for. When Katrina Gay, the national director of strategic partnerships for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, assembled a slate of brands to partner with the organisation three years ago, she found that corporations were reluctant to sign on to anything associated with mental illness due to the sensitivity of the topic. She was able to find seven brands that would sign on, and has since managed to grow that number to more than 50 as brands have recognised that partnering with an outside organisation can help them navigate the subject in a way that will resonate with customers.

"There’s been a shift over the last three years. I like to think we were part of helping encourage that, but it was really more that we just happened to be there at the right time,” she says. In 2019, Kanye West designated funds from Adidas Yeezy pop-ups to NAMI. Partnering with the organisation allowed West to support mental illness initiatives while working with a group that could ensure the outreach was being done in a way that was genuine and supportive of people dealing with illness.

That’s something Gay believes brands could learn from before wading into this space. “They're all recognising, ‘I need someone to help be my partner, to guide me, to onboard me to this cause, to help me understand’.”

Several recent missteps have indicated that many brands haven’t been doing their due diligence in this area. In September, Gucci received backlash for sending models down the Spring/Summer 2020 runway in straightjackets. One model reportedly refused to walk in the show, while model Ayesha Tan Jones appeared with “mental health is not fashion” written on her displayed palms. Earlier in 2019, Burberry apologised for showing a sweatshirt with a noose design, which was considered both racially offensive and demeaning of the mentally ill.

Gay recommends brands seek out partners who know the space and can help them make more informed decisions.

In 2015, Kenneth Cole, whose brand had long engaged with social causes, put up a billboard that was seen by many as linking mental illness and gun violence. Gay was asked to be involved in planning a protest, but felt the misstep may have been made out of ignorance rather than cruelty. She called Cole and turned the ordeal into a learning experience. Cole took down the billboard, apologised and began an ongoing relationship with NAMI.

Whether brands’ efforts are a success or misfire, Gen Z is playing close attention to the ways they communicate their attitudes towards mental illness. It’s a fine line between pandering and catering to specific issues, and brands should be wary of the role social media — a main marketing channel for fashion — plays in this generation’s struggle with mental health. Leading UK charity YoungMinds says social media can help exacerbate existing mental health issues, while a survey by Origins, Hill Holliday’s in-house research arm, found that 34 per cent of Gen Z respondents quit social media in response to how it made them feel.

This priority will only increase and continue to shape the market and offers an opportunity for brands to truly connect with a powerful customer base that will comprise an estimated 40 per cent of consumers this year. “Gen Z has no filter around what their struggles are. They have a more unfiltered view and they now are a new demographic that brands are targeting. In addition to brands wanting to appeal to their demographic or their target market, we know youth are the bellwethers. Youth appeal goes up, it doesn't always come down.”

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