Young Adults Are Sharing Their Feelings About Brands, And We Should Listen

Posted by Michael Peroff | Jan 24, 2022 | 0 Comments

In 2020, the International Trademark Association (INTA) conducted a global survey of the views of young adults towards consumer brands.  Specifically, the survey contacted consumers between the ages of 18 and 39 (the “Gen Z” and “Millennial” generations) in 10 nations (Brazil, Chile, Colombia, India, Mexico, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, and the United Kingdom) and asked them about their views on brands in general and brand restriction legislation. 

The purpose of the survey was to gauge the viewpoints of today's young adults towards the effectiveness and efficacy of “brand restriction” legislation, which continues to be a growing trend by governments to take legislative action aimed at addressing public safety concerns stemming from product packaging.  According to the survey's methodology, INTA asked roughly 2,500 Gen Zers and 2,500 Millennials, roughly half of which were men and half were women, and slightly more parents vs. people with no children.  The results of the survey show increasing consumer awareness of the role of branding in connection with consumer products. 

There are 6 key findings from the survey: 1) Brands play a vital role in consumers' lives; 2) Visual branding elements provide consumers with key quality indicators; 3) Consumers often misjudge the reasons behind brand restrictions; 4) Brand restrictions may not have the long-term intended public policy outcome of changing consumer behavior; 5) Consumer support for brand restrictions is low, and brand restrictions cause them to worry; and 6) Brand restrictions are considered the least effective strategy to encourage people to make healthier choices. 

The survey produced a considerable amount of data on each of these findings, and each topic is broken down by country.  We do not endeavor to comment on all the findings here.  Rather, we focus this discussion on finding #2 - Visual branding elements provide consumers with key quality indicators.

To illustrate, if anyone remembers the 1982 Tylenol® scare, this finding probably resonates with you.  In 1982, it was discovered that an unknown number of Tylenol® pills were laced with potassium cyanide that killed several people in the Chicago suburbs.  The news of the tragedy created a firestorm because the #1 brand of over-the-counter pain medication contained poison.  Virtually everyone was familiar with Tylenol® even if you didn't use the non-prescription medicine. 

Within a few weeks after the initial poisonings, Tylenol's market share went from 35% to 8%.  It is a classic case study because it showed what can happen to a brand when something goes terribly wrong, and what a government can do to address it and prevent it from ever happening again.  As a result of the incident(s), the U.S. passed “the Tylenol bill” the following year, making it a federal offense to tamper with consumer products.

The survey's finding #2 states that “visual branding elements such as brand logos, colors and designs provide crucial information to consumers – they help them choose the right product by conveying a sense of quality, make shopping easy, and provide cues that a product can be trusted.”  Today, visual branding elements are even more important than ever to young people.  While the report does not explain, the most likely explanation is that Millennials and Gen Zers grew up in a world with computers, otherwise known as the Information Age.  As a result, they have been exposed to countless competing brands on virtually every kind of good or service since they were children.  Whether it is seeing a brand logo or other visual cues such as color scheme or packaging, young adults today are extremely likely to understand the concept of “branding”.

While it has always been important for consumer packaging to display the brand so that consumers identify and associate a product with its source, it is even more important in today's marketplace because young consumers are accustomed to purchasing nearly any kind of product without the need to visit a retail store.  Commercial activity today is increasingly conducted online, and that was true even prior to Covid in 2020. 

Therefore, it is now even more important for brands to have a distinctive “look” for their products (or services), because consumers are more frequently viewing them on a screen as opposed to an in-person interaction.  The days of “placing an ad in the paper” are now digitally done via Facebook, Instragram, Youtube, Tik Tok, etc., and Millennials and Gen Zers now readily expect to find any and every company or brand online through a website or social media, as well as an option to instantly make a purchase. 

As a result, brand owners need strong and distinctive branding that catch the limited attention span of a consumer that is likely scrolling through a Twitter feed or Facebook page or looking to buy some clothes from a website.  Effective visual branding elements needs to attract young consumers who are likely: a) not seeing the product in person; b) viewing many competing products at the same time on the internet; and c) expecting to make an immediate purchase.

As shown in the survey, the top 3 benefits of good visual branding are: 1) It indicates that the product is good quality; 2) They make shopping easy/They are attractive products; and 3) They are trustworthy/They are reliable.  One 35-year-old female Millennial commenter from the UK stated that “If you are shopping for a particular product then the visuals – logos and color specifically do allow you to identify products on the shelf  (or online) quickly,” while a 20-year-old male Gen Zer in India stated: “It is important for me that the product should be branded; I always purchase branded products. I never purchase non branded products because these products are not trustworthy.” (Emphasis in original) 

Further, when breaking it down by country, the results are even more telling.  In the United Kingdom, 34% of respondents said that they wanted to see more branding on packaging.  But when you compare that to the results in other countries, it shows that consumers in less developed economies would like to see more branded packaging, such as Thailand (58%) or Colombia (42%).  This may be because people in the UK virtually always see branded packaging and therefore don't focus on it as much whereas people in lesser developed countries want the reassurance that the product is good quality because many of the products available to them are not reliable and/or common from questionable sources.  

(As a sidenote, virtually every country where this survey was conducted showed that people focus more on price and health information than any visual branding elements, but that is a story for another time.)

In our view, perhaps the most insightful finding from INTA's survey is that 7 out of 10 adult consumers under the age of 39 trust brands globally, compared to only 4 in 10 who trust their government.  When it comes to who gets to make the decision about how to market a particular product, today's young adults are stating that they have far more faith and confidence that their consumer brands will be honest with them and provide a quality product. 

Given the state of world governance today, it is really no surprise that young people are relying on brands to provide superior policing on consumer products than their governments.  It is an unfortunate state of affairs whenever young people feel they cannot trust or rely on their government for their safety and security.

While no government is perfect, government remails the only institution capable of reigning in unsafe or dangerous products, such as when Tylenol® was laced with cyanide.  Some will argue that businesses do it better because the market incentivizes them to do so, but that is only true after the fact.  Further, a brand may be able to police its own products, but it has no power to stop any other brand from putting the public in danger.  If young adults today don't trust the government to protect them from harmful products, then consumers must rely on commercial businesses to ensure that their products' quality and safety. 

Some consumers feel that they are the responsible for making smart choices that protect them from harmful products, and not the responsibility of a brand or the government (another finding in the report).  But at the end of the day, there needs to be a balance of responsibility between consumers, brands and governments that share the responsibility of policing bad actors and bad activities.  No one entity can accomplish this important feat on its own. 

We recently attended an exceptional presentation at the most recent INTA conference in New York City.  Tony West, the Chief Legal Officer for Uber, gave an illuminating and inspiring presentation.  The theme was about how to address problematic and damaging brand issues.  He explained that when he was considering whether to accept the job offer in 2017, he studied all the different brand issues Uber was going through.  As many know, Uber was dealing with the fallout from a variety of significant problems that had substantially damaged the brand.  Mr. West was being hired, in large part, to help repair Uber's brand identity, in addition to dealing with all the legal issues the company faced.  

During his presentation, Mr. West cited the same INTA survey because he wanted to emphasize that young adults are trusting brands to do the right thing now more than ever.  After he accepted the position, Mr. West sought to recreate the brand's identity, starting with internal staff. His mantra was and continues to be: “Just do the right thing.  Period.”  He went on to explain that on his first day on the job, he discovered that Uber had failed to notify several state Attorneys General about certain statistics that Uber was required to report.  As a result, he had to immediately contact each one to explain the situation and worked closely with them to address the issue.

In addition, one of the things Uber started doing is offering free rides to polling places during the most recent U.S. election.  Uber also instituted a policy that assists women (and men) trying to get away from abusive partners by offering Uber rides at no cost.  Notice that these types of actions were not about ensuring the brand was more valuable or making more money.  It was about restoring trust with consumers that the Uber's brand was about more than simply offering convenient driving services.  It was about doing the right thing(s) that created positive leadership and trust with the public.  We credit Uber for choosing an exceptional leader that is willing to do the hard work of addressing legitimate concerns and demonstrating how effective brand management can be a company's greatest asset.

About the Author

Michael Peroff

Michael A. Peroff is an Associate Attorney in the Chicago office of Peroff Saunders, P.C. Michael earned his Bachelor Degree in History from Indiana University, with a particular focus on music history.


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