Social Commentary

Parallel-Path Marketing: How Brands Win Gen Z

Imagine you’re walking down the street on your way to dinner. Like every average human being in the history of time, you’re running a few minutes late. You’re wondering if you should come up with an excuse or just brazenly, unapologetically turn up late like the savage you wish you were. 

You turn a corner, and suddenly there’s dozens of people lining the sidewalk, each holding a sign, each shouting directly at you about a soda, a car, a cashmere hat (kind of cute tbh), a private jet service (really?), a class on how to concentrate (the irony) and lots of other stuff. Some of the signs are lovely and some of the people are beautiful and engaging – one actually compels you to pause and listen before you remember you’re late and hungry – but they are all ultimately impediments to the mission that you set out to accomplish: to get to dinner as close to on time as possible.

This is a metaphor for most advertising: impediments and distractions that line our path on our way to whatever it is we’re trying to do – drive to a cupcake shop, watch a TV show, search for how to slow down aging, stalk a crush on social media. Billboards, TV commercials, pre-rolls, sponsored posts and influencers are all relentlessly focused on taking your focus away from your chosen path in order to nestle into the junk drawer that is your memory or get you to impulse-buy a product or service.

You could call this perpendicular-path marketing: brands fire attention-seeking missiles at people trying to do something online, on TV or IRL and hope to divert them into a click, a watch, or a purchase. Advertisers have been doing this since the mid-19th centure, and they’ll continue to do this in some form or another until we’re all space dust.  

But a lot has changed in technology that’s making brands look for alternatives…

  • Streaming video has taken eyeballs away from advertising-subsidized television
  • iOS has made it harder to target mobile users
  • Google has made it far more expensive to target internet users
  • The harm that social networks do has started a brand exodus from social advertising

…all of which has driven up customer acquisition costs, lowered conversion rates and decreased brand loyalty.

A lot has also changed in culture.

Be it the pandemic or climate change or economic uncertainty or now war, people feel unsettled. Depression is on the rise, particularly among young people. Everything suddenly costs more. News is rife with random acts of violence and hatred. The suffering of all living things – people, animals, plants – seems more common and more palpable.

And yet $1.3 trillion dollars or more will be spent this year on advertising and marketing in ways that don’t solve any of the increasing variety and velocity of problems that makes life more challenging. This to me seems like the epitome of perpendicular-path marketing.

What if there were a way to invest advertising dollars into making the world better while still getting return on ad spend (ROAS)?

There is, and I call it parallel-path marketing.

I may have coined the term, but I didn’t invent the concept. You can see shades of parallel-path marketing in a brand sponsoring a party that’s actually fun or giving away products in a contextually relevant environment or underwriting cultural and sporting events. This kind of stuff is hard to track and measure, but we know it works. People like brands that do cool things.  

A brand backing fun and games is great, but there’s an entire generation – 40% of the global consumer base – that has less interest in fun and games than they have in changing the world. Gen Z is the most politically, socially, and environmentally vocal and active generation in history, and they want brands to help them change the world.

Some brands – like Patagonia – have done a superb job at this, partly because they’ve been doing it since they were born. But most brands struggle at purpose, and young people are quick to label most purpose-oriented efforts by brands greenwashing.

Brands that don’t have social and environmental action woven into their DNA often make the mistake of making big, flashy donations or paying superstars to talk about a company’s good deeds or buying media about their charitable efforts. Grand gestures are not how to win anyone – particularly Gen Z – unless you’re a character in a second-rate romcom and it’s 2006.

Smart brands make many small, impact-oriented gestures, and they do so in partnership with activists, organizers and experts who have dedicated their lives to solving a given social or environmental problem.

They let these people find a worthy and relevant cause and create educational messaging and choose a 501(c)3 to turn a donation into action. These brands understand that their many small, authentic gestures will start to add up to big change and more loyal customers.

Sometimes brands can do this with really great corporate social responsibility (CSR) people, but these professionals are hard to find, they usually don’t come equipped with an audience or a platform, and there is a very large chasm between CSR and marketing departments, which makes measuring the impact of, well, impact difficult.

We are bridging that gap with a platform that lets brands sponsor activists and lets brands benefit from the engagement activists generate around specific causes.

Everyone wins.

Activists, who usually have day jobs or are forced to moonlight as influencers, get to make a living creating educational content and leading communities to take constructive action. 501(c)3s raise more funds through corporate philanthropy, which is currently only 5% of giving. Brands get impressions, opt-ins, conversions and loyalty by doing good. The influence and action of young people is rewarded through donations by brands to relevant causes, which makes them feel better about the future.

Imagine how much good could be done if only 10% of the $1.3 trillion that’s spent on perpendicular-path marketing were redirected onto the path that young people are on to change the world?

If you’d like to find out, please reach out. We’re looking for our founding brand sponsors.

By adamjdevine

I'm a compass with an opinion.

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