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Cynical attempts to align businesses with popular social causes are eroding trust in brands, with over half (59%) of young Brits thinking that most brand support for charitable causes and social issues isn’t genuine, and 15% seeing it as an attempt to avoid criticism.

The biggest surprise, perhaps, is that this is not a dealbreaker. Just 6% of 18-24-year olds would boycott a brand whose values don’t align with their own.

The UK-wide study by student marketing agency, Hype Collective, and experiential agency, The Park, explores how young Brits are responding to brand commentary on social issues and online propaganda.

According to the 'Generation Cynic?' report, young Brits are wising up to corporate self-interest and misinformation tactics online, with news stories and brand campaigns facing greater cynicism. Almost two-thirds (64%) of 18-24-year olds actively seek out a second source to verify stories shared by organisations on social media, while 40% do the same for news reported by the media.

Yet despite growing skepticism towards the motivations of brands supporting social causes or promoting content on social media, most Young Brits think brands should support whatever cause they choose.

  • Four-fifths (80%) of Young Brits think businesses should be free to give support to any case they want, regardless of whether this aligns with their core business offering

  • Over two-thirds (71%) of Young Brits think supporting causes is the right thing for brands to do – even if they are motivated to do it for commercial reasons or to avoid public criticism

  • Almost one in four (24%) Young Brits think raising awareness of causes is the most important thing brands can do - more than the number that said making donations (17%)

“Young Brits may accept commercial motivations as a ‘necessary evil’ in getting support for causes, but brands should not take this for granted,” says Simon Lucey, founder and managing director of Hype Collective. “Inauthentic brand activism and support for social causes can be damaging in the long-run. If public support for causes is not backed by significant actions, it’s meaningless. To win trust, brands must prove that their intentions are genuine and take action on causes that will drive real results.”

Transparency, authenticity and endorsement are key to earning trust. One in ten (11%) 18-24-year olds only trust online content if it is shared by someone they know, while 21% trust most things shared by peers on social media. However, almost three-quarters (72%) of young people are more likely to trust individuals and organisations that openly share their backstory and past failures.

“Trust is at an all-time low and young people simply don’t believe a lot of what brands have to say,” says Will Worsdell, co-founder & strategy director of The Park. “To be credible, brands must prove what they're about. Latching on to a trending topic or posting a hollow statement on social media doesn’t cut the mustard. Brands must prioritise actions over words. What you do matters more than what you say.”

The study by Hype Collective and The Park also examined whether support by creators and influencers for social causes can help to influence the actions and behaviour of young people.

  • Two-thirds (66%) of people aged 18-24 said they are more likely to support a cause that’s backed by an influencer they follow.

  • Yet almost one in three (30%) don’t care what influencers have to say about causes.

  • Over three-quarters (78%) of Young Brits would like influencers to discuss social issues and over two-thirds (71%) are interested to see influencers share knowledge and expertise on the topic.

Speaking honestly can help influencers build trust, whether that’s in revealing their mental health issues, discussing causes of importance to them, sharing failed attempts at producing creative work, or stories about their past. Interestingly, size is not important. When it comes to how many followers a creator or influencer has, the study found this does not appear to affect how much an influencer is or isn’t trusted.