Jan 30, 2019

Acting carefully but decisively to develop brand personas that feel real to today’s young consumers.



Culture of Proximity 2.0 is a docu-series produced by Velocity—Viacom’s in-house branded content studio—that includes insights about millennials and Gen Z which brands can use navigate the new cultural landscape.

This is the fourth in a four-part series. Explore more:


The Culture of Proximity has brought everyone closer together—including brands and customers. Just like any relationship, it’s based on communication, trust, and respect.

Diving deeper into an examination started in the first iteration of the series, The Culture of Proximity 2.0’s final segment explores the roles people expect brands to fill.

Velocity found young audiences want brands to fill a void that traditional institutions have left by participating in social and pop culture conversations. Its research guides marketers on how brands can best fulfill this new responsibility.

Consumers expect authenticity.

People have a higher standard of trust for brands than ever before.

The impact of crowd culture coupled with new parameters of authenticity have shaken the public trust in traditional institutions like government, journalism, and celebrity. As trust has dissipated, people turned to brands to fill the void. “We need to start rethinking our assumptions. What it means for something to be marketing vs. content? What does it mean for something to be advertising vs. advocacy?” said Kenyatta Cheese, the co-founder of social media and audience development agency Everything At Once. “Everything is up for grabs.”

While this transition places a heavy weight on the shoulders of brands in the new culture, it also presents a tremendous opportunity for connection. To accomplish that, marketers should aim brands to align with their identities in the actions and messages they choose—and to do so honestly.

Allow your brand to become more human.

Part of being authentic is establishing more intimacy with your audience. The Culture of Proximity 1.0 established that people expect brands to act more like people. And in this round of research, nearly half of respondents said they actually like it when brands have online personalities—like real people.

"I don't know when it started,” author, activist, and speaker Feminista Jones told Velocity, “but brands started getting sassy on social media."

But having a personality isn’t the only way we define authenticity, it’s also about action. Velocity identified two factors determining authenticity: Doing the right thing when no one is watching and ensuring what they say is what they do. Based on that rubric, most people don’t think brands are authentic. Velocity found that 70% of youth culture don’t think there is a brand getting authenticity right.

Communicate your brand’s values.

Young people increasingly want to know what their favorite brands think or plan to do in reaction to culturally significant moments. And they can assess that reaction almost instantaneously through social media.

Research shows young people have good reason to expect more. The scale of what they think can be accomplished online has risen significantly in recent years: 75% of teens, for example, believe the internet is more powerful than any government. According to Velocity’s research, brands can’t just sit on the sidelines anymore—only 1 out of 10 of its survey respondents think brands should do nothing when it comes to social issues. “When you know that company shares your values and your beliefs, it makes you feel like you are part of the group,” said Hannah, age 20.

Taking an activist stance comes with risk as well as reward. For example, consider the lawsuit outdoors retailer Patagonia lobbed at President Donald Trump over environmental issues. On one hand, it resulted in a federal committee calling the company a liar and Trump supporters spreading the hashtag #boycottpatagonia on Twitter. On the other hand, as GQ reported, “sales were 7 percent stronger the week of the statement than they were the previous week—which included Cyber Monday.”

More recently, Nike’s controversial ad “Just do it” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick led to outrage and brand boycotts, but also prompted a 31% increase in sales and caused the stock to trade at an all-time high. “These kinds of statements and brand partnerships make for a big impact on brand selling,” Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for retail at market research firm The NPD Group, told NBC News.

Being vulnerable is a good thing.

Brands won’t always be able to do or say the right thing—and that’s okay. Velocity found a brand couldn’t stay out of the online conversation even if it tried. The key is to choose which conversations to join, and to engage in two-way communication with consumers so that they understand your brand’s perspective and feel heard. As 21-year-old Jonathan put it, "I think it's a lot easier to sympathize or understand a company's point of view if you can figure out why it is that they have that point of view.”

In other words, being authentic doesn’t mean being infallible. As consumers—especially young consumers—expect brands to earn their trust, they want to grow and mature with them."I don't think it's that people don't trust brands,” said Abigail Posner, the head of strategy at Google's Brand Unit. “They just don't trust something that's not real, that's not human.”

Forming that intimate relationship with consumers is at the heart of the Culture of Proximity 2.0 study. It’s important marketers learn the language consumers use, transmit their messaging through the right influencers, and provide experiences that encourage consumers to feel connected.