Shekhar Badve

How a classic brand can stay relevant to Gen Z

Getting the attention of these 20-somethings is hard enough. But how do old, heritage brands still manage to appeal to the young? Learn from Dove, Adidas, Maybelline and Levi's.

The arrival of the millennial generation has changed the business landscape beyond recognition over the last 20 years. In 2018, the millennials formed the largest section of the working population worldwide.

To accommodate the needs of this generation, companies made several changes. They introduced the concept of remote working, flexible timings, non-hierarchical structures and the extensive use of technology. The same has happened on the branding front.

Brands had to adopt a completely different approach to communicate and connect with this well-informed generation. While most brands pulled up their socks and metamorphosed to accommodate the changes demanded to engage this generation, several others found it challenging to keep up with the millennials. Now, if you think millennials were difficult to deal with, here’s the update, an even more aggressive generation has just arrived - Gen Z.

Born after 1997, Gen Z is known to be independent, super-connected and pragmatic. Roger Casey, president of McDaniel College in Westminster, said, “Gen Z grew up in a dramatically different era. We’re just beginning to see transitions that are going to make them distinctly different from the younger people.”

Gen Z has lived their entire life in the era of mobile technology and has had access to social media for most of their lives. Therefore, brands will now have to change their approach, yet again, to stay relevant to this generation.

Bobby Calise, vice president of Ybrands, shed light on this subject: “In the past, brands may have considered playing it safe for fear of alienating its customer base. But in today’s social and political climate, not taking a risk is arguably riskier - when it comes to brands taking stands.”

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Shekhar Badve</p></div>

Shekhar Badve

Of course, taking a stand comes with its own risks. It’s tempting to succumb to the chaos of the market verse and take “cause of the day” positions. This will draw eyeballs and get attention. But the risk is that the brand will appear inauthentic and untrustworthy. Thus, brands need to pick stands that align with their core values and the purpose that drives them.

Of course, it is easier for new brands to take risks and change their marketing strategy to connect with Gen Z, because they have no baggage of past association. This is not the same for classic brands. They are well-known, their motivations and values are established, and they have been in the full glare of public opinion for years.

So, what can famous age-old brands do to stay relevant to this new generation? Let’s take a look at four brands that know how this is done.


It entered the market in 1955. It is sold in over 80 countries, and is used by men, women and babies. Despite having been in the market for over 60 years, Dove has succeeded in creating magic and attracting the newest generation of buyers, Gen Z. And, it has done it beautifully and uniquely.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Dove's campaign focused on 'real people'</p></div>

Dove's campaign focused on 'real people'

It released a new campaign addressing the unique struggles faced by adolescent girls. It has always focused on “real people”. By continuing to defy social conventions and unrealistic standards of beauty, Dove touched the hearts of Gen Z by making them feel like there’s more to them, than just superficial and unattainable ideals of looks.


Founded in 1949, Adidas has been a manufacturer of shoes, clothing and accessories for over 70 years. Despite the brand’s age, it is a Gen Z favourite. Its recent Stan Smith collection made it the favourite sneaker brand of Gen Z.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Adidas' logo</p></div>

Adidas' logo

Apart from its street style aesthetic, which appeals to Gen Z, Adidas has been a pro at marketing as well. Adidas used pop culture to attract its audience. Adidas partnered with UK grime artiste Stormzy to market its sportswear range. It promoted itself as a youth-centric brand, with an edge in design. The strong focus on sports continues, even as sports themselves adapt to the changing generations.


A survey revealed that Gen Z spend more on beauty, than apparel. And, when it comes to shopping for cosmetics, age-old brand Maybelline is a surprise favourite among Gen Z. Founded in 1915, Maybelline has been around for over 100 years. Yes, you heard it right - it’s been over a century since this cosmetic brand has been in the market.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Maybelline New York has been around for over 100 years</p></div>

Maybelline New York has been around for over 100 years

Apart from providing excellent quality at pocket-friendly rates, Maybelline attracted Gen Z by collaborating with influencers to ace its social engagement game. Maybelline appointed Gigi Hadid, a famous youth icon, to promote its products on social media. It talked to its audience where they lived their lives - online. The message is the same, but it’s delivered in a very current vocabulary.


Founded in 1853, Levi’s has been in the market for over 160 years. Levi’s is a perfect example of a brand that has accommodated Gen Z, but has also maintained its heritage brand. Recognising that the generation needed to be addressed differently, Levi’s went out of its way to engage with representatives of the generation.

For instance, it rolled out a flagship store dedicated to Gen Z in consultation with a German agency run by teenagers. In keeping with its age-old story of fashion with practical utility, the brand introduced variants of stretchable and athleisure pants. These products were appealing to Gen Z, but Levi’s also continued to manufacture its range of standby products. Well, this is how you get the best of both worlds!

The key takeaway from these brands and their youth-focused marketing campaigns, is how they all exhibit the free-spirited and break-free attitudes of Gen Z. This new generation does not accept stereotypes and has its arms open to diversity. But the cornerstone of their success is authenticity and staying true to what the brand represents.

Clearly, if brands want to attract this unique lot, they must shift their perspective and tell an old story in a new way.

(Shekhar Badve is the founder-director of the Pune-based Lokus Design. This design studio is one of the earliest members of afaqs! Marketplace

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