At first glance, it looks like one of the unlikelier consumer trends of 2020: a 100-year French cookware brand suddenly coveted by teens and twenty-somethings the world over.
But there it is. Twenty-five million have so far viewed the ‘#lecreuset’ tag on TikTok, watching a 17-year-old proudly display bubbling mac n’ cheese in their cast-iron cooking pots, or sweeping the lens of their smartphone slowly across a bright coloured ‘gang’ of Le Creusets.
This old-is-new-again phenomenon also fits into a broader pattern of consumer behavior among Gen Z and Gen Alpha. When it comes to brands, the younger generations have very different attitudes from those who came before them.
While baby boomers, and even millennials, were often blind followers of big brand names - the Adidas joggers, the Louis Vuitton handbag or the Hunter wellies - the younger generations of shoppers have taken a different view. Both more discerning and more sceptical, they choose brands based on what the brands say about them, their values and their lifestyle, rather than simply for the name on a small square of material.
"It's become less and less about the logo,” agrees Timothy Armoo, CEO and co-founder of Gen Z marketing agency Fanbytes. "While in the past, young people gravitated towards name brands - because the rise of social media led to young people using brands as status symbols - now, young people are going the other way and actually going more towards a minimalist style.”
There are lots of reasons for this, he believes. Partly, it’s a reflection of what success looks like in 2020, exemplified by the ultra-minimalist, brand-free style of the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey despite their billions in the bank. Partly, it’s a way of pushing back against convention, which ironically is a rite of passage for every generation.
“I think because of social media, anyone can open their Instagram and see someone from China who is flexing, see someone from LA who’s flexing. The world has now become a place where actually not being as flamboyant and not being as 'look at me' is a way of almost subverting against the norm, and subverting against the way that we live our lives,” Armoo said.
There are also pragmatic reasons, such as the fact that globalisation “has led to a proliferation of counterfeit branded goods flooding the market” and devaluing their status, he said.
In China, those born after the 1990s haven’t grown up in the collectivist culture of their parents in which foreign brands in particular had a strong “pull factor,” adds Adrian Tan, general manager and executive strategy director at Interbrand Shanghai. Instead, they’re far more individualistic and see brands as a way to signal their own values and lifestyle choices.
“They are constantly seeking out brands that match their values or often enough, express an individualistic personality trait that can be seen as unique. Less loyal to brands, they are constantly seeking out new ones that not only fit with their lifestyle choices, but also help them become what they deem to be better versions of themselves.”
The number of post-90s internet users reached 362 million in July 2020 in China, surpassing the post-80s generation to become the main driving force of the mobile internet and consumption, according to data from QuestMobile, a research firm.
According to a survey of international Gen Z-ers by IBM, 66% prioritized quality when it came to choosing which brands to buy, 65% wanted real value for money, 46% cared deeply what their friends thought, and 45% looked for brands that took social responsibility seriously. It takes much more than a legacy brand to make its way into their digital shopping trolleys, in other words.
But if this is bad news for the international brands that relied solely on selling a coveted brand name, it has also created new opportunities for smaller, niche brands that trade off quality, purpose, and uniqueness.
In few industries is this shift more apparent in North America than in beauty. Where once the industry was dominated by a handful of high-profile names, we’re now seeing the emergence of companies that have built their business off the back of their rejection of charging top dollar for fancy branding. Take The Ordinary, a Canadian skincare brand that uses a simple, white design on packs, swaps vague, marketing language for straightforward lists of active ingredients and sells those ingredients for a fraction of the market average. Only seven years after it first launched the range, the company has a cult following and has inspired a brace of similar, stripped-back beauty brands that sell directly to consumers.
In the UK and Europe, these younger generations are also demanding that brands deliver on values, ethics and a sense of justice. BrewDog, the Scottish craft brewery behind Punk IPA, has attracted legions of loyal customers in part thanks to its fearless outspokenness on everything from politics, to climate change and social justice movements.
In China, meanwhile, the changing attitudes toward branding have opened the doors for manufacturers that traditionally relied on exports to carve out their own domestic niches. In May, robot vacuum manufacturer Jiaweishi worked with Pinduoduo to grow its domestic sales by 55% using the consumer-to-manufacturer (“C2M”) model, while cookware manufacturer Zhejiang Sanhe Kitchenware Co, which has collaborated with the likes of Le Creuset in the past, doubled its domestic sales by partnering with Pinduoduo on its New Brand initiative in 2018. Pinduoduo has helped to promote these high-quality, but lesser-known factory brands to its users via factory livestreams and behind-the-scenes tours.
Ultimately, “these generations are seeking brands with a deeper meaning, that can offer a unique story that they can share with their peers, and have a strong, clear purpose that aligns with their values,” said Tan.
For smaller brands with a clear sense of purpose, the shift in attitudes may provide the breakthrough moment to win over Gen Z and Gen Alpha. And who knows? They may even find themselves trending on TikTok.