It’s back to school time for brands: three lessons every client looking to engage with young people should learn.

20 September 2023

By Mark Fawcett

It’s that time of year when any organisation involved with young people reflects on the end of one school year and the start of another. 

And with so much of our brand and social impact work disseminated with schools, We Are Futures is no exception.

Two interesting facts came out of our reflections. The first is that 80% of our client briefs last year had a strong social mobility or diversity element to them –up on the year before. The second is that the agency has brokered an enormous number of interactions between young people and brands through schools in the past twelve months; over 40,000 teacher and 2.6m+ young people interactions. We’ve done this by creating work for clients through our National School Partnership portal – 20 years old this year and the only one of its kind connecting companies and schools for social good.  

These facts may not seem immediately related but they underline a shift we’ve been seeing for some time. The most forward-thinking brands are already changing the way they talk to young people. Issues such as social mobility, diversity and fairness are new brand building blocks but sometimes it’s hard to communicate them through conventional marketing. Starting conversations in other ways, such as through educational material, however, allows companies to communicate in more nuanced ways.


Our 2023 Social Impact Barometer underlined this need. It analysed the social media comments of 85,000 16-24-year-olds around 100 leading brands and found that a company’s attitudes towards its staff, LGBTQ+ issues and mental health are increasingly seen as brand assets.

66% of Gen Z said they want brands to spend less money on TV, radio and digital campaigns and more on initiatives that have a ‘positive impact’. 57% said they hadn’t bought a product or service recently because of concerns about a brand’s sustainability. Young people see brands differently to older consumers and want different things from them.

So if it’s back to school time for brands as well as schools, what lessons can companies learn for the next year? Here are three things you can do to communicate better with young people in the next twelve months.

  1. ‘Story-do’ rather than ‘story-tell’. Because we all know the companies that have been accused of greenwashing or raising a rainbow flag without supporting the LGBTQ+ community. This is the first stage of any conversation we have with a client. We get under the skin of why they want to do something, work out how to do it and help define the outcomes. But because any strategy should be a win-win for the brand and society, we also look at how what they want to do links to their business needs.
  2. Don’t rely on advertising. The days when brands could guarantee ROI through TV commercials or social media influencers are waning. If young people want brands to make a ‘positive impact’ instead of just marketing to them, what does that mean for your company? Can you add brand value by becoming a better employer, supporting a community project or improving your sustainability? And if so, are you maximising the power of those things by communicating what you do?
  3. Invest in education, work and life-skills. Perhaps it’s the disruption caused by Covid or the devaluation of exam grades or cuts to schools and careers services. But young people are incredibly receptive to brands supporting their personal development. In our Baromteter,  96% of Gen Z wanted brands to provide training programmes in workplace or life skills. Putting educational material at the heart of initiatives on issues such as social impact, sustainability, diversity and STEM also works well.

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