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Gen Z and Marketing

Many aren’t yet old enough to vote, but Gen Z consumers wield a mighty economic sword. Savvy brands are onto the reality that this new generation is becoming the developed world’s largest-ever generation of consumers. Market researchers have announced astonishingly high buying-power numbers for Gen Z — as in $143 billion in direct spending (according to January 2018 Barkley study), with another few hundred or so billion in influencer spending. In other words, Gen Zers have enormous influence over how their parents and peers spend money, more so than any previous generation. Gen Zers are also demanding different attributes from the brands they are willing to support, so it is essential to know how to market to them.

Who is Gen Z?

Most market researchers identify Gen Zers as the group born roughly between 1997 and 2012. Some researchers, including Barkley, prefer the name Pivotal Generation since it better defines how this generation is pivoting away from common attitudes and behaviors of the preceding Millennial Generation. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center study, they are also the most racially and ethnically diverse generation ever, with roughly 25% being Hispanic, 14% black, 6% Asian, 5% other, and only 52% white. In addition, a 2019 Barkley study found this generation is more interested in global trends and issues, connecting with others around the world via social media and apps like Skype.

Characteristics of Gen Z: The duality generation

Ironically, in some ways, Gen Zers have more in common with baby boomers and Generation X than millennials. Like these two older generations, the 2019 Barkley study found that Gen Zers tend to demonstrate more conservative views regarding personal responsibility, dependability, work ethic, finances, and independence. However, they are more liberal and open-minded than any previous generation regarding social issues such as human rights and race, gender, and LGBTQ equality (per the 2020 Pew Research study). So, while these young consumers hold “old-school” values such as financial independence, education, and personal responsibility, they also hold progressive, non-conformist beliefs — and they aren’t afraid to speak out against brands that fail to authentically support issues important to them.

Top things to know about marketing to Gen Z 

Gen Z grew up with Google and online apps and they’ve become masters at instantly sorting through the deluge of information they receive. They tune out traditional advertising. Marketing to them requires a different approach than previous generations, so understanding these following attributes will help you connect with them.

  1. Gen Z lives online. They have short attention spans, so your messages must be brief and catchy — short-form videos with music, visual effects, and overlays are king. The 2019 Berkley study also found that these young consumers also operate in FOMO (fear of missing out) mode, so using time-sensitive posts such as the Stories feature on Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook often engage them. They use each social media app differently, so your online messaging approach needs to fit each platform. For example, they tend to use YouTube for entertainment and product information, Twitter for news, Snapchat for creativity and communication, and Instagram to showcase their aspirations. Regardless of which platform you use, be respectful of their privacy and ask permission before you contact them or share their data.
  2. Gen Z needs opportunities for engagement and personalization. These young consumers want to tap, swipe, or click on something, so interactive features such as quick polls, questions, or contests in your social media advertising allow them to participate. Provide opportunities for feedback and respond quickly to positive and negative feedback. Having a rewards program to text or email instant discount codes and freebies is another way to connect. Best of all, provide opportunities for them to experience your brand in an experiential marketing campaign such as product sampling and pop-up events. Make your experience spontaneous and delightful so participants will naturally want to snap and share hashtagged selfies of their interactions with your brand. Last, allow them to contribute ideas for product design and co-creation.
  3. Gen Z values authenticity and uniqueness. Gen Z seeks brand-name products that make them feel unique and help them create individualized fashion styles. They are more accepting of non-traditional beauty ideals and prefer to see realistic portrayals from advertisers and celebrities, according to the 2019 Barkley study. To connect with them, avoid hiring paid actors or “perfect-looking” celebrities and instead work with micro-influencers on social media (someone with 1,000 to 100,000 followers). Another excellent strategy is to work with in-person influencers on college campuses, concerts, and extreme sports events.
  4. Gen Z cares about social responsibility and positive change. Gen Z cares deeply about racial, gender and LGBTQ equality, the 2019 Barkley study and many other studies have revealed. They will not hesitate to slaughter a brand on social media that embraces a cause inauthentically or refuses to take a stand against inequalities. Their global connectivity and instant online access to information have made them more aware of global, national, and local inequalities compared to previous generations. As consumers, Gen Z leverage that information when making decisions about which brands to support. If you haven’t already engaged in cause marketing (partnering with a nonprofit), it’s time to do so.
  5. Gen Z engages with brands they find ethical. Again, thanks to their ability to access information, these young consumers can often find out where, with what, and how things are made. If a company claims to be “green” or supports diversity but can’t transparently demonstrate its stated principles, Gen Z may turn its back. Gen Z sees a brand as a whole and doesn’t distinguish between owners, partners, distributors and suppliers. The takeaway here is that even if your brand behaves ethically, you could still lose Gen Z support if any link in your network appears not to do so.
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