How Brands Must Shift To Engage Generation Z

Francisco SerranoMay 7, 20195 min

The year 1997 was an eventful one in global history. From a 21-year-old Tiger Woods winning his first Masters and the landing of the Mars Pathfinder, to the tragic passing of Princess Diana and the birth of a cultural phenomenon known as Harry Potter, it really was a year to remember. For brands, 1997 is a year that should hold special significance in relation to 2019 and beyond. According to the Pew Research Center it is the first birth year of a new and elusive group of consumers: Generation Z.

While the elders of this generation are still young at just 22, they hold an influence beyond their years. It is no surprise that brands are starting to shift their gaze towards catering to this younger generation. Various reports are indicating that roughly 40 percent of consumer shopping in 2020 will be commanded by Gen Z members.

Despite holding such financial pull in today’s economy, many brand managers, content marketers and the like are still left asking one question: who is Gen Z really and how can I reach them? As with the generations that came before them, they cannot be described in brief. Considering how diverse this young generation is, it may be true now more than ever. In fact, nearly 50 percent of Gen Z members are not Caucasian.

Despite this generation being so diverse, higher education is a common denominator, with 43 percent living with parents with at least a bachelor’s degree and more than half (59 percent) pursuing higher learning themselves. Perhaps their heightened education level (along with growing up through the Great Recession) is why they are keeping a firmer grasp on their dollars, eschewing brand names and gas-guzzling SUVs for second hand threads and smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles which is fitting for a more socially and environmentally conscious generation.

The first truly mobile generation, 96 percent of Gen Z members own a smartphone, with the average teenager receiving their first smartphone at the age of 12. Being born into high speed internet instead of merely adopting it means Gen Z does not suffer waiting with an attention span of eight seconds. When something does grasp their attention, it is likely something visual as YouTube and Instagram are the most popular social platforms among this generation.

From the standpoint of brands and the teams that work on them, taking this information and creating something fruitful can be challenging. Oftentimes these efforts veer into inauthenticity, to the disdain of Gen Z members. In fact, there are online communities that thrive off sneering at brands trying and failing at appealing to the youth. A recent example is Chase Bank publishing a motivational tweet using a popular meme template, only to be rebuffed by various tweeters highlighting the incongruous nature of the tweet and the banks business practices.

Navigating the Gen Z minefield may seem more akin to codebreaking than marketing, but it is possible to reach them effectively. Axe, the line of men’s grooming products, found success with their #PraiseUp campaign. Nike’s Dream Crazy ad featuring Colin Kaepernick proved a boon to the Oregon-based brand despite controversy, as did Gillette’s We Believe advertisement condemning toxic masculinity.

In order to have a chance at success with this younger generation, brand and content marketers would do well to remember and take advantage of what makes Gen Z so unique. Let’s start with diversity.

With such a high percentage of Gen Z members being nonwhite, content creators must take care to be inclusive with their content. Shifting to the world of entertainment, 2018’s Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians and 2019’s Us and Captain Marvel is proving that success can be had while representing diversity across lines of race, ethnicity and sex.

This lesson translates to your brand too. It is best to showcase diversity in the same way Gen Z sees diversity. It’s the norm, not something that requires self-congratulation. Depicting diversity in an authentic way can pay dividends, especially while taking advantage of creating visual content for Instagram, Twitter and YouTube – the channels most visited by this generation. An ideal place to start for brand and content marketers is to look at the brand and see how diversity fits into messaging. However, it must be noted that many Gen Z members are looking for diversity in the teams that are working behind the scenes as well.

Diversity is part of a focus from Gen Z to largely interact with brands that they perceive to be socially responsible. While corporate social responsibility is not a new concept, it can no longer be relegated to a tab on the company website. With a generation looking to do their part to leave their planet better environmentally and socially than they found it, brands must mirror these values in their communications and behaviors.

Relating back to authenticity, it is important to be honest in the portrayal of your brand’s impact on the global community. Many members of Gen Z do not mind if a message is designed to sell if it promotes values that they find self-identifiable. If there is no perceived substance behind the message however, it can cause lasting damage to a brand’s reputation. Find out what your brand is doing to help the environment or donations made and present these efforts to your audience. Telling stories (especially through video) is the greatest way to engage and show Gen Z members what your brand is about behind the scenes. It’s all about values.

Sometimes the values Gen Z members espouse may be controversial, which is where messaging can get tricky for a brand. It is possible to remain neutral but straddling the fence does not endear the younger generation to brands. As referenced earlier, Nike and Gillette both released ads that drew a line in the sand demarcating where exactly they stood. What is the key here? Authenticity. If there is a movement that your brand can identify with that is a hot-button issue for Gen Z members then hone in and let them know. Ben & Jerry’s is a brand that does this well, evidenced by a recent tweet that went viral for highlighting racial injustice in incarceration rates for cannabis offenses.

Alienating members of other generations is a risk that brand and content marketers must ask themselves if they are willing to take. For some brands that are risk-averse the opportunity cost is too high. Yet if done right, there is $143 billion dollars in buying power and potential lifelong loyalty waiting.

The immense influence of Gen Z is not going away anytime soon. While disregarding Millennials and Baby Boomers in the pursuit of the new kids on the block can potentially be a fatal business mistake, it is important to understand their motivations to develop a strategic plan for the years to come.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Francisco Serrano, President and CEO of 121 Global Branding

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