Born in 1996, I’m either one of the last millennials or I’m among the first of Generation Z — there’s no official consensus. I identify as a millennial, but I am intrigued by the up-and-coming Gen Z.
What makes my generation different from theirs given that I’m only a few years (or months) older than them? Many people — and brands, governments and organizations — are asking that exact question.
Understanding what people value and what concerns them enables us to better connect and communicate. Experts for years analysed the Baby Boomers, Millennials and others — now, researchers and laypeople alike are analysing what makes Gen Z tick — how they think, communicate, and what inspires them to change or act.
For now, my question is at least partially unanswerable, as we still have a lot to learn about what it means to be a member of Gen Z.
Millennials, however, are often described by their propensity for wine, left-leaning sensibilities and love of social media, and are now comparatively easy to understand. Some have described Gen Z as just “millennials on steroids,” but that’s a reductive way of thinking about them. Many think about Gen Z primarily in terms of technology and their shortened attention span, but that’s an oversimplified approach as well. Gen Z is difficult to peg down, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying.
One thing we do know is that Gen Z seems to value sincerity. Data reported by CNBC shows that authenticity is an important value for Gen Z, with “67 percent of those surveyed agreeing that ‘being true to their values and beliefs makes a person cool.’” One of the biggest challenges in engaging with Gen Z will be determining how to appear “cool” and change the world while still remaining profitable.
The Gen Z preoccupation with authenticity — which has driven them away from traditional celebrities in favor of more intimate social media and YouTube influencers — makes them scrutinize the motives of large brands, presenting a challenge for today’s marketing and communications professionals.
Data shows that 89 percent of Gen Z “would rather buy from a company supporting social and environmental issues over one that does not.” However, if a company comes out in support of a cause that seems unrelated to their own mission and brand it can have the opposite effect — it comes across as a media play for public brownie points, ultimately damaging the brand reputation among a Gen Z audience. To show Gen Z your brand or identity is authentic, you first need to carefully define what that brand is. Only then can you align a cause with your brand’s mission, and be consistent in your support of both.
In order to convince Gen Z that you truly care about a cause you also have to be willing to invest in that cause — a commercial with uplifting themes but without substantive action behind it will agitate Gen Z into thinking your brand is capitalizing on issues without supporting change. This practice is known as “goodwashing.” The name is a nod to “greenwashing,” which refers to companies making unsubstantiated claims about valuing the environment.
Just as the younger generation idolizes social media influencers, they are also more receptive to brand messaging on social and mobile media platforms — content that is very much so still advertising, but does not look or feel like traditional ads. For Gen Z, print advertising and traditional commercials can feel inauthentic in the same way that hollywood celebrities seem unrelatable. The growing consumer base is shifting as Gen Z enters the fray; 58 percent of consumers are most amenable to brands taking a social or political stance on social media and only 25 percent feel that way about print advertising.
One company whose cause forms the basis of its marketing and branding, is TOMS. TOMS’ “One for One” branding strategy has allowed the company to grow from selling a single-style shoe to include sunglasses, at times coffee and a full-range of footwear. While the idea of giving away as much as you sell does not intuitively seem like a winning recipe for a profitable business, their philanthropic mission has propelled them forward for over a decade. Over the years, instead of shying away from their identity as a company with a cause, they have doubled down and recently adopted the relatively political goal of ending gun violence. While some businesses would worry this could prove too polarizing for their customers, TOMS continues to succeed.
As Gen Z grows up and has even more spending power this type of mission-first business and marketing communication approach will become evermore common and influential.
Gen Z might have been born with cell phones in their hands, but, as a generation, they shouldn’t be defined by their devices; they’re a diverse group of young people pushing for social change and greater authenticity — not just between people, but in our interactions with brands and organizations
Brands can begin to take steps to align themselves with the proclivities of Gen Z. However, we’ll have to see how Gen Z continues to evolve as they become adults and their proclivities and priorities grow up with them.