How brands can understand and support University students

Identity, representation and brand building is essential for Gen Z

Alex Gallagher

Chief Strategy Officer UNiDAYS


It’s that time of year. Students across the country are starting a new chapter and returning to university as a new semester gets underway. 

This is a seminal moment for Gen Z students. For many, it is their first time away from home and their first taste of financial independence thanks to part-time jobs and government grants. They want to exercise this greater autonomy and spend their money where they want. 

Rather than saving for the start of term, students are spending in preparation for the year ahead. Our new Back to Campus report revealed that UK students are set to spend £3.26bn before arriving at university this year, with freshers spending 18% more than returning students. 

University is a pivotal time for students to explore their identity and learn who they are

Alex Gallagher, Chief Strategy Officer, UNiDAYS

With students increasing their spend for the third year in a row, this is a massive opportunity for brands. With Gen Z representing 40% of the total consumer base, it is crucial brands understand what matters to them, and how they can demonstrate support and earn their loyalty.  

Understanding identity 

Identity is important – this is particularly true for Gen Z. They are more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than past generations and are driving the movement to liberate society of conventional gender and sexuality norms.  

They expect brands to support, recognise and celebrate this. 

A 2022 survey of UNiDAYS panel of over 20 million verified students found 61% of Gen Z think mainstream fashion overlooks minority groups, including non-binary and trans people, and needs to be more inclusive. These beliefs are reflected in their purchasing decisions; 64% of Gen Z say they’ve bought clothing for themselves marked for the opposite gender. 

To earn Gen Z’s trust, brands must make them feel represented, in store and online. Having championed unisex designs and inclusive sizing within their Collusion range since 2018, ASOS are ahead of the pack. Other brands should be following suit.

University is a pivotal time for students to explore their identity and learn who they are. Brands that support this journey by celebrating all identities and giving students an outlet to express themselves will be recognised.  

Supporting their struggles

It hasn’t been a bright and breezy few years for Gen Z. They’re entering adulthood during a period of worldwide inflation and on the back of a global pandemic, so it’s not surprising that their mental health has been impacted.  

Recent UNiDAYS research found that despite wellbeing being a top long-term priority for three quarters of students, 72% state they struggle with their mental health at least once a week. 

The study, commissioned as part of our new partnership with mental health platform Unmind, also revealed that half of Gen Z (50%) say their stress or anxiety worsened overall throughout the pandemic. 

To resonate with Gen Z, brands must recognise these struggles and demonstrate support and advocacy where appropriate. Boohoo’s recent partnership with a neuropsychologist, creating a seven-day “self-love” plan demonstrated perfectly how a brand can empathise with their consumer audience within their sphere of influence. The plan, which helped customers learn how to break negative thought patterns and become their own biggest supporter, spoke directly to their demographic who were struggling with self-confidence. 

As this generation feels the unprecedented strain of completing their studies whilst living through such uncertain times, other brands have an opportunity to listen and support their audience. By tapping into key issues for Gen Z, brand engagements can have a major impact for individuals, helping them recognise they are not alone. 

Actions over words

But take this as a warning: words alone won’t cut it. It’s not enough to voice support for issues like minority representation or mental health advocacy, it must be backed by meaningful action. 

Gen Z consumers should not be taken as fools. They are often sceptical of brand motivations when it comes to inclusivity, with over half of those surveyed by us stating they come across as tokenistic.

Before supporting a cause, brands must undergo extensive reviews internally to ensure diversity and inclusion programmes are in place supporting minority employees in the workplace, and to eradicate any practices that could undermine even well-intentioned efforts. 

Gen Z have grown up with the internet and do their research. Empty gestures will be exposed and called out immediately, with any unethical practices brought to the attention of the public. 

Supporting the values that matter most to Gen Z means taking the time to point your focus inwards, understanding what your brand represents and what this support should look like. This can be hard work, but after earning their trust, Gen Z are a powerful ally. 

Supporting the apex consumer 

Understanding Gen Z isn’t easy, but they cannot be underestimated. They are the present and future core consumers for all brands, while their purchasing habits are also influencing the behaviour of Millennials and Generation X consumers.

As these apex consumers enter a new and exciting stage of their lives, brands must act fast to understand the values that matter most and empathise with the challenges they face. 

So, take the time to walk a mile in their shoes. What you learn could be a game changer!

Guest Author

Alex Gallagher

Chief Strategy Officer UNiDAYS


Alex Gallagher, Chief Strategy Officer of UNiDAYS, is a pioneering marketing leader whose creativity and insight puts the world’s biggest beauty, fashion, tech and wellness brands onto the radar of the elusive Gen Z population. A marketing and fintech specialist, he now leads the UNiDAYS Strategy, Product, Data & Insights teams, as well as being accountable for global company performance. Alex delivers tangible business value by delivering sales growth for partner brands leveraging bespoke creative data-driven campaigns, personalised UX and ecommerce strategies. UNiDAYS is the leading Student Affinity Network with a verified global audience of 22M in 115 markets. Alex joined UNiDAYS in 2016 and since 2018 their members have spent more than $5BN through the network. Alex is passionate about creating a people-first culture, he is a seasoned business leader with outstanding digital, brand-building, analytical marketing skills, who brings a proven track record of success within disruptive international B2B & B2C businesses. He nurtures and mentors talent wherever possible to create a best-in-class working environment internally and externally.

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