If you thought Millennials cared about social causes, wait until you meet Gen Z.

Even though its oldest members can barely buy liquor legally, Gen Z, born 1995-2015, is defined by passion and drive. The newest generation to join the grown-ups' table showed up in droves for the 2018 midterm elections, spurred by a desire to reshape the world into a new and better place.

Companies that want to earn Gen Z's loyalty need to understand that memes and humor won't be enough. Young people see right through inauthentic corporate-speak. The latest research shows that only 5 percent of Gen Z members believe the media. They don't care about brands that pretend to speak their language -- they care about the state of the world around them. Businesses can either join the cause or get out of the way.

For Gen Z, purpose-based marketing is about more than just rhetoric. Research from DoSomething Strategic shows that young people are highly likely to buy from brands that support the same causes they do, and 40 percent have actually stopped buying from brands that stand against their beliefs.

To get young people to pay attention, brands have to choose a side. To get young people to pay for products and services, brands have to choose the right side. Marketers who feel caught in the crossfire can use these three tips to start an honest conversation with Gen Z:

1. Show respect through inclusive messaging.

According to Barnes & Noble College's research, college-aged members of Gen Z feel strongly that inclusivity -- for LGBTQ individuals, for people of all races, for immigrants, for women -- is nonnegotiable. "It's never been more important for brands to deliver inclusive messaging that authentically conveys acceptance and respect for all," says Lisa Malat, the company's Chief Operating Officer. 

Be clear in marketing messages that your brand welcomes people from all walks of life. Use examples and images of people who don't look and act like prototypical stock photo models. Internally, hire diverse teams of people and advertise your diversity initiatives to demonstrate to young audiences that you mean what you say.

Evaluate your campaigns through an objective lens to avoid falling prey to bias. Google, for instance, ran tests that discovered below-average rates of representation for people of color and older people in its ads. The tech giant is using those benchmarks to create more inclusive campaigns. Plus, it has instituted a training course to help its teams recruit from underrepresented groups for audience research and define a more inclusive target audience.

2. Invite your audience into activism programs.

Pick a cause that makes sense for your brand and develop your own activism initiative. Gen Z can smell disingenuous marketing from a mile away, but when a brand's actions align with the right values, young people reward that company with cooperation and loyalty.

According to MDR, a division of Dun & Bradstreet, 26 percent of Gen Zers already volunteer regularly, and the majority of these young people want to have a positive impact on the world. Nearly half of them volunteer once a month.

Get your audience involved with the cause to create a sense of ownership. The Allstate Foundation, in partnership with MDR, encourages teams of young people to compete for grant money by developing innovative solutions to social problems. Last year's winner, Closet2Closet, helps provide disadvantaged children with up-to-date clothing and other essentials. The Allstate Foundation's programming reaches about 5 million youth, and the brand has made it easy for its audience to make a difference.

3. Be the voice of reason on complicated topics.

Young people don't see the world in black and white like some of their elders. To earn the respect of young audiences, avoid oversimplifying complex issues in your campaigns.

In AT&T's Later Haters campaign, the telecom giant takes on cyberbullying, a big issue among teens. However, AT&T acknowledges that most bullies are not inherently evil, opening the door for onetime bullies to reflect on their own behaviors. The campaign includes partnerships with influencers like Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas and a variety of social media stars. AT&T even reached out on newer trending platforms like Wattpad (a fan fiction site) to reach younger audiences in less-crowded spaces.

To hook Gen Z audiences, don't bother with the kid gloves. These teens and 20-something might be young, but they know what they're about--and they're willing to put their money where their beliefs are. Acknowledge the ascension of Gen Z to the world stage, show young people that you're fighting the same fight they are, and adopt a no-nonsense attitude to back up your words with actions.

Published on: Dec 20, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.