To win the hearts of young consumers, businesses need to put frontline workers first

Published March 18, 2021

The pandemic has hit frontline workers hard—and younger consumers are willing to put their money where their mouth is for brands that support those workers.

Young consumers—most notably Gen Z—are vocal when it comes to issues they care about.  Two billion strong globally, they’re a generation that empathizes with the underdog and values authenticity above all else. They’re not kids anymore, either. Many Gen Zers have already entered the workforce, and they have a collective buying power of $143 billion in the U.S. alone.

Millennials, whose collective global income is set to exceed $4 trillion by 2030, align their values closely with their (slightly) younger cohorts. The two generations combined are predicted to shape the future of retail.

As Gen X and baby boomers inch ever-closer to retirement, the new kids on the block will be the ones who sustain businesses in the future. Businesses need to show that they genuinely care about the issues these consumers care about—starting with the safety and wellness of frontline workers.

Young consumers buy from brands that prioritize employee support—and abandon the rest


Young consumers are sensitive to how brands take care of their frontline staff, and they back this up by either buying or boycotting.

Safety tops young buyers’ lists of concerns, spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a 2020 survey conducted by DoSomething Strategic, a social impact consultancy focused on young people, “75% of Gen Z respondents said the No. 1 action they wanted to see from brands was that they ensure employee and consumer safety.”

Both generations vehemently support fair wages as well. In the U.S., the hotly contested minimum wage continues to top headlines as the risk to frontline workers has steadily increased throughout the pandemic—and the significance is not lost on young consumers. DoSomething Strategic also reports “73% said they need to protect employees financially,” for example, through hazard pay or greater health coverage.

Millennials and Gen Zers support genuine social impact

Millennials and Gen Zers want to see brands taking responsible action, and they resent empty promises or opportunistic brand behavior. They’re highly responsive to “cause marketing"—the practice of businesses leveraging social responsibility to supplement marketing efforts—which shows how young consumers react to brands that use this strategy authentically. 

As Lucy Maguire with Vogue Business writes, "What positively resonated [with young consumers] were Covid-19 brand responses that encourage consumers to support local businesses or to ‘pay it forward’ with buy-one-donate-one schemes for healthcare workers." One such initiative is sustainable footwear brand Allbirds’ effort to donate shoes to frontline health workers while also giving customers the option to split the cost of an additional pair with the company as a donation. "While such charitable schemes are often tied up in brand marketing, the overall impression is positive among this generation," Maguire concluded.

Related: Digital transformation drives sustainable business practices in 2021

Young consumers are quick to call out brands that don’t “walk the talk”

The bottom line is that young consumers support businesses that follow through on their promises. PepsiCo’s “Stronger Together” campaign and building supply retailer Lowe’s appreciation for health workers are excellent examples. On the contrary, mega-corporations like Amazon have been under scrutiny for their failure to support frontline workers—putting their authenticity into question by young consumers.

Twenty-one-year-old student Marnie Breadin, speaking with Vogue Business, says, “I’ve been disappointed by certain companies like Amazon releasing statements of Covid-19 sympathy while refusing to supply their workers with appropriate PPE.” The brand has long faced skepticism for using “high wages” as an excuse to avoid improving workers’ conditions, too. “It’s made me rethink which companies I want to buy from after the crisis is over,” Breadin added, echoing the sentiments of many of her generational peers.

Millennials and Gen Zers care because they empathise with essential workers


Many young consumers have firsthand experience working in customer-facing essential roles, so they sympathise with how challenging it can be. This is why they’re so passionate about aligning their values with brands that respect frontline workers.

Because of the job scarcity during COVID, young people are more likely to accept employment that puts them at risk. The pandemic makes the situation more daunting for those who depend on jobs in restaurants, retail, banking, and other essential sectors. For frontline employees who found themselves out of a job during lockdown, returning to work as soon as possible was a necessity, and this meant putting themselves at greater risk to support academic pursuits, family, or themselves.

The camaraderie among young consumers—and their willingness to cut out irresponsible brands—becomes clear through publicized stories underlining the struggles of their peers.

For 19-year-old Jade Jackson, who worked in a clothing store to cover college expenses before losing her job due to COVID, the difficulties were overwhelming. Upon finding another job, she was faced with a greater possibility of COVID exposure, exacerbated by worries of putting her elderly grandmother, with whom she lived, at risk of infection. When speaking with National Geographic regarding her situation, Jackson said, “I would change my clothes in the car, then bring them inside and wash them every day ... after I took a shower to make sure I was clean, I could finally go and greet my sister and grandma.”

It’s unsurprising that young consumers are willing to stick up for their own, considering “younger workers make up 24% of employment in higher-risk industries,” according to a 2020 study by Pew Research. So, it’s absolutely fundamental for businesses—especially those in “essential” industries—to prioritize the needs of these workers in order to be embraced by growing generations of young consumers.

Genuine compassion builds brand loyalty among young consumers


Businesses shouldn’t be looking to make a quick sale; they should be looking to build long-lasting, value-driven relationships with their customers. Millennials and Gen Z have the money, the conscience, and the willingness to attach themselves to brands that align with what they consider important—making them the ideal customers for socially-conscious businesses that are in it for the long-run.

Remember: demonstrating compassion and awareness toward the workers who keep businesses operational will earn the respect—and business—of the newest generations of consumers.

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