Next Gen Culture

SCB Partners team up with Boiler Room Brand Labs to demonstrate how today’s prestige brands can successfully captivate young, cultural audiences

This summer, international music platform Boiler Room launched Boiler Room Brand Labs, an entity that helps brands to build and foster partnerships that are wishing to speak to the platform’s young and discerning audience. Using Brand Lab’s first major quantitative Gen Z survey, ‘Don’t You Know Gen Z’, SCB Partners and Boiler Room explore how premium and luxury brands can successfully appeal to this emerging audience of young, aspirational consumers.


Ever since Absolut vodka partnered with artist Andy Warhol in the mid-1980s, premium brands have had an on-going and ever-growing relationship with culture. While this kind of creative commissioning has always undergone rigorous standards, a new younger set of consumers are introducing a further set of requirements for branded culture, fueled by their values as audiences and individuals. This is Gen Z – the group set to come of age as consumers in the 2020s – who are already setting challenges for premium and luxury brands, as this report by SCB Partners and Boiler Room demonstrates.

Playing to these needs, winning their following and supporting culture, while challenging, can be achieved through a combination of factors. The recipe for success is equal parts integrity, consciousness and experience, and approaching each of these requires delicate, nuanced understanding of the subject at hand and the best means of executing the activity. Our report considers and explore these various factors, and provides an initial blueprint, through three over-arching rules, for how premium and luxury brands can go about their cultural activity in 2019 and beyond.


Rule 1: Integrity is integral

First thing’s first: supporting culture will at some point require direct investment. Around 61% of Gen Z would pay more for a brand that supports contemporary culture, according to the Brand Labs survey. Money certainly talks, but investing isn’t an excuse for brands to plaster their logos conspicuously on events and media. Nor should they only provide a fleeting glimpse of a culture project with no real commitment to the cause. Rather, cultural support should be rich with integrity, able to provide freedom for its artistic collaborators, and offer new, enlightening perspectives on a subject matter.

This is no doubt why culture documentaries are undergoing a renaissance in the new branded media landscape – a phenomenon being driven by Gen Z, with 54% of these viewers regularly watching such content, according to the Brand Labs survey. It should come as no surprise; among today’s battle for audience attention, slow-moving, theatrically shot and high budget documentaries – from Chef’s Table to American Factory – have become an important medium for exploring and discussing contemporary themes. Luxury brands are now throwing their hat into this ring. Fashion label Gucci, for instance, as part of its campaign on gender equality Chime for Change, has funded the film ‘The Future is Fluid’, which documents the life and perspectives of young individuals around the world who are embracing gender fluidity as part of their identity. Another collaboration instigated by the brand – this time with arts institution Frieze – is the short docu-series ‘Second Summer of Love’, which explores 1980s underground music, including Detroit techno and Italo disco. In both cases, Gucci is momentarily stepping away from its heritage steeped outlook and engaging in issues that are front of mind for younger audiences.


Above: ‘Second Summer of Love’ by Gucci


Australian beauty brand Aēsop has sponsored the post-production of the documentary film ‘The Proposal’, which considers the legacy of the renowned Mexican architect Luis Barragán, and is directed by conceptual artist Jill Magid. The documentary’s highly aesthetic subject helps to bolster the brand’s existing credentials in architecture, with Aēsop already renowned for its carefully commissioned, site-specific store designs – a roster of talent that now includes the interior studio operated by movie director Luca Guadagnino. And in that particular case, the brand builds authority by not only bridging both film and design mediums but doing so through in a curatorial manner that melds the disciplines together in an unexpected way.

In our experience-led economy, building a point-of-view in spatial design in this way is more pressing than ever. Now, retail is a setting for branded cultural acts, and is why high-end stores seem to have more in common with private galleries than places of merchandise. Making an impact since its Western arrival, Korean optical brand Gentle Monster has embraced such artistic ‘retail-tainment’, integrating installations – impressive for their colossal size – into its retail design. The designs are forthcoming, impacting the visitor’s visual experience, and provide an intriguing backdrop to the brand’s futuristic products, where merchandise is carefully intertwined with art.


Above: ‘The Proposal’ by Jill Magid


Clear to all these examples is the need for the commissioning brand to lean heavily on expertise at the right moments. Brands able to acknowledge their cultural shortcomings, and therefore quick to employ known, credible partners to do the necessary heavy lifting, are most likely to see success here. Consider how Italian fashion brand MSGM, while rich with cultural equity, still turned to local arts publication Mousse Magazine, and its editors Edoardo Bonaspetti and Stefano Cernuschi, when creating its new arts space Ordet. Describing itself as an ‘exhibition, research and production platform’, the space, which opened in May 2019, introduced a programme that includes exhibitions by prominent artists such as Danny McDonald and John Knight, and may not have achieved its level of depth without an expert-led commissioning framework.


Rule 2: Stand up, take a stance

Earlier this year, in an interview with Business of Fashion, Balenciaga CEO Cédric Charbit spoke of the need for ‘brand activism’ – that the commonly held luxury values of craftsmanship and creativity must now be packaged within an emotional purpose that speaks to greater societal issues. It’s a call to action that describes the substantial rethink currently taking place in the luxury industry as major brands adjust to the new generation of value-rich, socially-aware Gen Z consumers – a movement reflected in the Boiler Room audience, with as many as 70% saying they are willing to pay more for a sustainable product or service.

So pressing are these issues that many high-end brands are opting to put their differences aside momentarily and co-operate with one another. The Fashion Pact, launched by French President Emmanuel Macron, sees 150 fashion brands, from companies such as PVH and Kering, aim to achieve various sustainable targets in emissions, biodiversity and preserving the ocean. But this may still not be enough to adequately repair or even slow the damage. And in any case, many luxury companies are simply choosing to offset their footprints, bringing their carbon balance back into equilibrium, rather that resolve the real problem of their carbon-emitting production and supply-chains. And this matters to the audience: according to Brand Labs survey, as many as 81% of Gen Z agree that climate change is the number one issue facing the planet.

70% say they are willing to pay more for a sustainable product or service

Brands are therefore having to severely rethink their approach to business in order to appeal to Gen Z’s conscious standards and are taking inspiration from brands such as Mother of Pearl, which has revised its organisation to have minimal environmental impact. Sold on the newly launched sustainable department of luxury fashion retailer Net-A-Porter, Net Sustain, the brand has adopted an approach that ensures each aspect of its brand activity is as sustainable as possible. The brand is committed to organic materials and has a fully traceable supply chain that bypasses intermediate entities to focus on worker welfare. Moreover, it pledges to respect animal wellbeing (even a silkworm’s) and is striving to heavily cut its water consumption and carbon footprint. While the brand is vehemently aiming to be environmental, a crucial aspect to its approach is the tone adopted: the brand openly admits to not knowing all the answers. Instead, Mother of Pearl acknowledges that sustainability is an increasing problem that will continue to uncover new solutions (and challenges), and that, right now in 2019, all the brand can do is make its best attempt given all the information and technology at its disposal.

Cultural commissioning by brands additionally offers the chance to draw light on environmental issues, and conscious minded brands that also have a creative perspective are engaging in work that enlightens in both ways. According to Boiler Room, almost half (44%) of their Gen Z audience would consider switching to another brand if it supported social causes. New York-based fashion label Eileen Fisher is one example of a brand that has consolidated its brand mission with coherence and integrity. Earlier this year, the brand took part at Salone del Mobile in Milan with an art installation featuring unwanted garments that had been transformed into art pieces. Led by creative director Sigi Ahl, the exhibition aimed to raise awareness around fashion over-consumption, but more than that, it managed to convey an optimistic message by showing how creativity can help reshape and evolve our relationship to waste. As Eileen Fisher puts it: “We want to help the rest of the industry look at this problem in other ways and to do something creative and fun.”


Above: ‘Waste No More’ by Eileen Fisher


Retail, in being a cultural space itself, can equally be a place to engage with communities on these issues. Outerwear label Patagonia, no stranger to brand-standing (it has donated almost $90 million dollars to non-profit organisations over the last 35 years), recently opened a café called the Patagonia Action Works Café doing just this on London’s Broadway Market – a location famous for young, socially-considerate affluence. The space, which hosted environmental workshops and featured a lending library of environmentally themed books, gave a platform to local environmental organisations, enabling them to lead conversations on social change and provide a physical space to connect with the brand’s audience. Passers-by could drop in to discuss with activists, or take part in workshops on practical matters, such as protests or digital mobilisation strategies. As values around local identity see a revival in a globally connected world, brands have an opportunity to leverage their influence and create such grass-roots engagement.


Rule 3: Program with purpose

The ‘live’ experience continues to be crucial cultural touchpoint for Gen Z. And music in particular is the discipline capturing their attention, with 75% of the Gen Z Boiler Room audience attending music events at least monthly, and a further 61% attending at least two music festivals a year. But as we progress further into the experience-led era of brand communications, the stakes have inevitably raised for brands wishing for any of their events and programming to successfully stand out.

75% of the Gen Z Boiler Room audience attending music events at least monthly

The act of hosting brand events is therefore evolving from its superficial incarnation of free-drinks-and-music to an experience with depth, rigour and purpose. Prada is one luxury brand instigating events with high degrees of thoughtfulness and has chosen to do this by reviving the traditional ‘clubhouse’. Its Prada Mode events see an ephemeral members club temporarily manifest during key cultural events to host workshops, events and music under a greater cultural theme. Its latest took place at London’s fashion and arts space 180 The Strand during the city’s edition of Frieze art fair and saw Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates curate the space as part of his ‘Black Image Corporation’ project that explores black identity in contemporary culture through a number of disciplines. An exhibition space showcased photographs from Chicago-based Ebony and Jet magazines’ historic archives, creating the perfect setting for wider programming that featured black artists and their work through film screenings and talks, and provided an important physical focal point during the most important week in the city’s cultural calendar.

In addition to being multi-disciplinary, other high-end culture leaders are attaching their ‘live’ experience to passionate causes – the epitome of programming with purpose. Throughout the summer this year, luxury brand Mulberry organised free music events to celebrate perhaps the greatest of Great British institutions – the humble pub. The brand hosted, in a selection of London pubs, emerging London-based artists, including Rosie Lowe and Alan Power, who performed while complementary food and drinks were on offer to revellers. The events were conceived to breathe life back into the British boozer, which currently finds itself under threat (a quarter of pubs in the UK have shut down since 2001, according to The Guardian). The campaign, which offers both an intriguing high-low combination of premium brand activity within an egalitarian venue and plays neatly into the brand’s heritage positioning, responds to a younger audience’s requirements for community and societal good in addition to straight-up entertainment.


Above: ‘Pulling Pints’ by Mulberry


Also creating a temporary space for culture but doing so by focusing on the convivial benefits that dining offers, is the Negroni Talks by drinks brand Campari. During the past two editions of the London Festival of Architecture, the brand has partnered with Fourthspace, a London-based architecture studio, for the discussion series. Held at Ombra, a Venetian restaurant ran by Fourthspace, the talks are free to attend and feature a panel of international architects, and promote informal debate that explores architecture’s societal role. Keen to appeal to younger consumers’ desire for politically charged conversations, the Negroni Talks hark back to the traditions of salon culture, where debate forms an entertainment, and does so by leveraging the intimate, social aspects of traditional Italian food – not to mention several alcohol-rich, Campari-based cocktails.

With ‘experience’ marketing now being ubiquitous, the real opportunity for high-end brands lies in adding layers of depth, intrigue and meaning to any cultural endeavors. In other words, create a point of difference from other brands’ activities – we are talking about premium brands, after all – and create something compelling, with longevity and integrity, that grabs Gen Z’s attention and makes them stop and think.


Key learnings:

– Step away from launch party events that just offer free booze and a guest list. Ideas, concepts and contemporary themes are the new prerequisites for high-end brands hosting engaging events.

– Lean on expertise. Work with collaborators already involved and accomplished in supporting the specific culture and its scene. Not only do they lend credibility, they can additionally bring along their own audience for the ride.

– Culture is conscious. Culture and social consciousness are intertwined. Building a strong cultural position as a brand now requires a concerted effort to clean house of any damaging production.

– Get with the cause. With social and political ideas being front of mind for these young audiences, events that reflect specific contemporary issues, and do so with the right talent, topics and media, stand to get traction.

– Bring back the intimacy. Create an adequate space for people to come together, to discuss ideas and present commissioned work that embraces the very best of offline, in-person engagement and that offer an abrupt separation from their digital lives.