"For gen Z, your products almost need to be secondary. You have to support them in a way that means something."

When Stephanie Capuano’s sons hit their teens, she scoured the market for grooming products that were clean and chemical-free, but cool enough for them to agree to use. She drew a blank.

So armed with a track record in pharmaceutical PR as well as luxury fashion and travel, she decided to tackle the brief herself. The result is 31st State, a clean, natural eco-friendly brand that also delivers on style and aspiration.

Yet 31st State is a brand for generation Z in a truly holistic sense. Young people are the face of the brand and the voice that guides it. The have their hands on the creative reins and even help to shape strategy. Central to Stephanie’s vision is the desire to give this generation a genuine platform, and to make sure its voice is heard.

It’s this approach that led to Gen Z, The Corona Diaries, an open, global platform hosted by 31st State that allows gen Zers around the world to share their thoughts and feeling as they experience a profoundly life-changing event.

Wunderman Thompson Intelligence caught up with Stephanie in London, to hear how 31st State has built a unique relationship with generation Z, and what the brand has learned about the impact of the pandemic on its young audience.

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Stephanie Capuano with her children
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Tell us a little about 31st State.

The brand is inspired by California, where I’m from. It’s a place but it’s also a state of mind. It’s a way of thinking and it’s a way of doing things. I really wanted to bottle that mentality of California – that progressiveness – and bring that to a generation of teenagers that I felt were being underserved in the grooming market.

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31st State

How did you come to launch the brand?

The brand really came from a place of need; I had two teenage sons entering the grooming market. Here I was, feeding them the best organic food, taking the chemicals out of our household, getting them tutors and doing the best I could. Yet when it came to their grooming, there was nothing I could find on the market in the clean and natural space, that really worked for teenage boys. That was stylish and aspirational like they were and like the brands that they followed.

I set out to create a brand for them that really embodied the things I cared about. I didn’t want harmful chemicals in it, and I wanted it to be healthier.

When I started this, I could not tell you authentically what mattered to them. The first thing we did was to conduct focus groups with mothers and sons. We learned that mothers really wanted a healthier option, that was planet friendly. The boys didn’t necessarily care about the lack of chemicals, but they did care about the environmental footprint.

We had a cohort of 250 kids actually trying the products and giving us feedback. And now, all of our photography and our content is created by them. I think the big thing with us, why it feels different and really feels authentic, is that it is truly their voice, not a bunch of middle-aged marketers sitting in a room trying to figure it out. 

What has been the brand’s experience during the pandemic?

We were direct to consumer at the get go, so our operations were set up for that. It worked to our strengths because our infrastructure was there.

The good thing is we make something that is pandemic proof. People get acne no matter what, they need to take showers and body odor doesn’t stop. People kept buying it.

We saw that people were seeking things based on hygiene: what is antibacterial and what’s antiviral. It really worked to our strengths that we had really well made, naturally antibacterial products. Our digital sales have been really good through this. We’ve doubled our sales for the last three months, year on year, and that’s going from strength to strength.

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Gen Z, The Corona Diaries

How did The Corona Diaries came about?

More than anything we just wanted to understand how our cohort was feeling. We just blasted an email to a bunch of them and said “Can you share with us what you’re going through? We want to understand, and we want to give a platform to it.” So that was really the impetus of it, and we were so touched that so many kids wrote back.

We are trying to illuminate that. These kids are embarking on one of the most important times in our history. It’s a profound time for them, and they want to be heard. We as a brand have learned so much by just listening to them, but, importantly, you have to ask first and I think that’s where a lot of brands trip up.

What’s on gen Z’s mind right now?

One thing I kept hearing over and over is it’s coming back to voting, so that’s where we want to give voice. Between now and the November elections in America we’re definitely going to be supporting causes that support registering gen Z voters to vote for the first time and giving a platform to voting organizations.

I think when you’re working with a brand that’s for gen Z, your products almost need to be secondary. You have to support them in a way that means something to them, otherwise, you’ve lost them. They are such an astute cohort of people, unlike any other generation.

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Gen Z, The Corona Diaries
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What do the Diaries tell us about what gen Z cares about?

The things that I think are universal, no matter what socio-economic position you’re in, are climate change, wealth disparity, human rights and access to health care. These are things I kept seeing over and over again. And activism. They fundamentally believe that they will have to take on the ills that our generation of leaders has created.

Entrepreneurship is a really big thing. They are hustling, these kids. They were born, or were toddlers, around the time of 9/11 and then they were socialized during a recession. They saw their parents struggle financially, with employment and jobs and being able to save money. And now you have this, where these kids are entering adulthood during a recession. So there’s this great sense of entrepreneurship. Even my 14-year-old daughter has been selling clothes on Depop!

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31st State

It’s really interesting that they’re still really focused on the bigger issues, even in a time when their world has shrunk.

I think for them, it’s all interlinked. They see it all much more in connection than we did. They don’t see the coronavirus as one crisis that they’re living through. They see it very much related to climate change. They see it related to inequality in our society, and definitely to the government. They don’t see those things in silos. I think their wellbeing is directly related to the anxiety they feel about climate change, the anxiety they feel about inequality, the anxiety they feel about recession.

How do you think the mood has evolved throughout the pandemic? Have you sensed any kind of shift over time in how gen Z is feeling?

Despite all of this, they’re an optimistic generation, and they remain positive about the future, because I think they understand the power they wield as consumers and voters and future leaders. At the same time, they are really frustrated. They’re really done with this, you know. They’re very much like: “Well, we just have to fix it. Let’s get to the streets.” They’re out there and they’re protesting.

It’s why I stay true to this idea to let them dictate our content and our strategy. It’s such a risk, but I genuinely feel very inspired by them and what they stand for and they just need a platform. 

What do you find when they’re talking about their own future? How might this experience affect it?

Younger ones are talking about studying science and focusing more on innovation. For those entering the marketplace, I just think there’s general confusion and anxiety about what their jobs will even be.

Seeing their world the way it is right now, I wonder if it will inspire a generation of people that want to change society. If they see all these people that were our heroes during this, will they want to be those people themselves, or the people that fund those people?

The change in our society that we really need is coming from the private sector, not our government, and the kids definitely say that. They are super vocal about brands that are getting it right and wrong in their eyes. They respect brands like Patagonia where they have a leader who’s donating millions to the environment because the US is failing them on environmental policy. I wonder if that notion will inspire these kids.