Gen Z are prioritising self-care: Here’s what brands can learn

Research from UNiDAYS shows how students are turning to gaming to embrace escapism and wellness

Juandre Bekker

Industry Leader (Tech + Banking) UNiDAYS


Mental Health Awareness Week is taking place this week (May 15-21). It’s an opportunity to improve awareness and understanding of issues related to mental health and the steps we can take to improve how we talk about and support the mental health of everyone.

This includes the mental health of Gen Z, namely students. At a young age, they’ve dealt with their fair share of challenges, lockdowns, unprecedented economic uncertainty, the pressure of living away from home for the first time and keeping up with the pressures of academic life. So, it’s no wonder that research commissioned by UNiDAYS and mental health platform, Unmind, found that 72% of students are struggling with their mental health.

Thankfully, we have made strides forward culturally and socially in how we discuss our wellbeing. This means Gen Z is prioritising taking care of themselves - but their self-care solutions are not what you would think.

That solution? It might actually be video games! UNiDAYS 2023 Gaming Report found that 75% of Students are gaming (60% weekly!), with over 4 in 5 citing gaming as an act of wellness and self-care.

While this may come as a surprise to some, there are real benefits to gaming, rooted in critical areas of growth such as socialising and expression. I myself have been using online gaming as a way to relax and unwind since I was at university. There’s a lesson in here, with Gen Z’s love of gaming giving an opportunity for all brands, not just those in the gaming industry, to evaluate how their contributions can help consumers with their wellbeing.

The pull of gaming is in its offering of a break from the pressures of the ‘real world’ with the chance to immerse in outlandish settings and scenarios for a few hours.

Juandre Bekker, Industry Leader (Tech + Banking) at UNiDAYS

The value of escapism

From Animal Crossing to Zelda, the majority of students (66%) are gaming explicitly to escape and explore different universes. The pull of gaming is in its offering of a break from the pressures of the ‘real world’ with the chance to immerse in outlandish settings and scenarios for a few hours.  Ever since you could throw on some headphones and find new friends or meet old ones online, gamers have left their stresses and problems behind for a new exciting universe.

Brands can tap into this escapism either by entering those existing worlds and contributing to the gaming space or by creating and owning new areas for students to explore.

It doesn’t sound like an easy task, but you can make your marketing memorable by engaging with unconventional approaches and aligning your product with these virtual worlds.

The obvious (for a reason) example is Nike, which has a metaverse store called Nikeland, hosted on Roblox, which has received over 31.5 million visits so far. In their New York store, consumers can access an augmented reality experience which allows them to use a Snapchat feature to virtually dress in clothing from the Nikeland library.

These activations allow consumers to engage with their favourite brand from the comfort of their home, or with full control of which items they want access to, in their own spaces. Consumers are able to enjoy an experience that feels individual and personal to their preferences, with an element of fun that keeps them engaged.

Social over Solo

Beyond escaping life’s challenges, gaming can also offer an enriching social experience for gamers. Nearly a third (29%) of Gen Z look to the online community to build up their confidence and social skills. With the pandemic putting a halt to social interactions for an extended period, students turned to online gaming to communicate with their friends in a new way. Even with lockdowns now a distant memory, playing with friends online continues to be a valuable method of socialising for Gen Z.

Meaningful social interactions are essential to improving and protecting our mental health. In fact, connecting with others is the first step recommended by the NHS to improve mental health and wellbeing. Brands can meaningfully connect with Gen Z consumers by offering experiences that fuel social interaction and allow them to connect with friends old and new. With 77% of students cutting back on socialising because of the cost of living, offering a group discount for an activity provides students with an affordable option to meet friends and demonstrates the brand’s support, which is often much more accessible online.

Freedom of expression

While they value gaming with their friends and building connections, Gen Z still want to be recognised as the individuals they are. The ability to express themselves in these virtual realms is a key factor in their interest in gaming. The amazing revenue numbers from in-game sales at some of the world’s biggest game publishers easily demonstrate that.

Brands that champion expression, authenticity, and true representation will come out on top.

Juandre Bekker, Industry Leader (Tech + Banking) at UNiDAYS

For students who can’t express themselves confidently in real life, in-game features that offer personalisation are also offering a platform for self-expression and empowerment.  Nearly 2 in 3 student gamers are spending on extra in-game content, like customisable character ‘skins’ for added personalisation. It’s perhaps why over half (52%) feel more like themselves in online spaces than their real lives.

Brands that champion expression, authenticity, and true representation will come out on top. Whether it’s gender-neutral product lines, more diverse model casting, or vocal support of minority communities, brands that support the expression of all individuals will benefit from their loyalty.

And we know Gen Z rewards brands that show they value representation with investment. Fenty Beauty’s shakeup of the beauty industry over five years ago,  was praised for their ground-breaking product commitment to inclusivity. And over 80% of Gen Z were found to have an awareness and respect for Fenty Beauty, with 25% of Gen Z purchasing products from the brand.

What next?

The opportunity for brands to support students this Mental Health Awareness Week goes beyond just the short term. To build lifetime brand trust and loyalty brands must learn and adapt to Gen Z’s self-care practices and demonstrate their ability to provide support for student’s well-being beyond one activation. Understanding the factors that are drawing Gen Z to gaming is crucial for learning how and why the young consumer chooses to feel their best and where brands can be a part of that journey.

Guest Author

Juandre Bekker

Industry Leader (Tech + Banking) UNiDAYS


Juandre is the current Category Lead for Tech at UNiDAYS, focusing on strategic partnership growth and helping brands connect with global student populations. Previously Head of Online Strategy for Samsung Europe (Mobile – Direct to Consumer), setting commercial strategy and overseeing a team of digital transformation experts within ecommerce across multiple channels. Previously at Amazon, HP and Microsoft in roles across ecommerce, marketing and consulting.

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