Whether you run a new or established small business, you must understand your target market to build an impactful brand. As time goes on, your target market may end up looking very different than what it did when you started. For instance, while you may have updated your brand just a decade or so ago to cater to millennials, a new market is on the horizon. The advertising agency blog Shots reports that by 2030, Gen Z will hold $3 trillion in spending power.
Looking to get a slice of that pie? You’ll need to understand how this generation differs from those before and how you can effectively market your brand strategy to them. Here, we explore who qualifies as Gen Z, why they matter as a marketing cohort and how to build a brand that resonates with this game-changing generation.
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Who is Gen Z?
As The CM Group “Marketing to Gen Z” report finds:
“Gen Z is emerging as the primary driver of our workforce and economy. And it’s in this new world that this bold yet grounded generation is positioned to redefine—well—just about everything.”
Why Gen Z matters
Gen Z is important because they will make up the majority of American consumers and will have the largest amount of spending power in the next seven years. They also demand a lot from the businesses that they work with or they buy from. Gen Z is disruptive, bringing about change and making an impact across the board. And they are also not limited by the local—they think on a global level.
What’s important to Gen Z?
What matters to Gen Z includes values like:
Inclusivity and diversity
As Pew Research Center finds, Gen Z comprises the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. This has led to a generation that tries to increasingly accommodate beyond the status quo.
As Roberta Katz, a senior research scholar at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, writes:
“A typical Gen Zer is a self-driver who deeply cares about others, strives for a diverse community, is highly collaborative and social, values flexibility, relevance, authenticity and non-hierarchical leadership, and, while dismayed about inherited issues like climate change, has a pragmatic attitude about the work that has to be done to address those issues.”
Authenticity and trust
While Gen Z obviously appreciates a pleasing aesthetic, brand message and attitude, actions speak louder than words. They want brands to be authentic. According to an EY report, 92% of Gen Z respondents indicated that being authentic to oneself is extremely or very important.
As Shachaf Rodberg, an analyst who is committed to educating and inspiring the Wix marketing team, explains:
“Since Gen Z has grown up with technology literally at their fingertips, they’ve become quite sophisticated and savvy customers. They have an almost superpower to detect bullsh*t”.
And if they don’t feel like your brand is authentic, it can be detrimental: According to Forrester data, “Gen Zers don’t hesitate to cancel brands when they sense a shallow veneer.” Canceling can be as small as a personal unfollow, hide, or block on social media—or as large as a mass boycott of a brand.
Eco-friendly and sustainable practices
In a survey conducted by creative consultancy Adolescent Content, 75% of Gen Z consumers said they wish to leave the planet in a better state than they got it. And they expect the brands and businesses they interact with to do so, too.
Speed and efficiency
Since Gen Z has grown up living and breathing technology, they have connected, communicated, dated, worked and shopped online for most of their lives. This constant dependence on technology, and steady demand for information, stimulation and instantaneous connection has both positive and negative implications:
As the CM Group report shares, “By contrast, this new generation is more practical and ambitious than emotional and idealistic. They’re focused on education and success, and they use technology to get what they want.”
While an entire generation’s sense of humor can’t be lumped into one category, Gen Z shares a distinct brand of humor. As Natalie Gabor writes, “When faced with this gloomy concoction of having too many things to deal with and not being old enough or having enough time to tackle them, Gen Z must turn to an alternative to completely throwing in the towel and succumbing to a life of misery and hopelessness: humor.”
There is something comforting, or at least assuring, about a shared experience, and for Gen Z, sometimes this collective laugh at a somewhat inside joke can be quite powerful.
As Shots further explains, “Gen Z has different priorities than Millennials and Gen X. Despite unprecedented generational diversity, there are core values that drive this generation as a whole; they want to create a more equitable society for not only themselves, but future generations.“
Because of this, marketers and brands must shift to a new mindset, as Gen Z demands digital authenticity from anyone they interact with. This means being genuine and maintaining a consistent voice and image throughout every single touchpoint, channel and customer interaction.
Where to find Gen Z
If you decide to try Gen Z branding for your business, you must understand the spaces and places that they frequent online. While many Gen Zers use a variety of media platforms, these tech-savvy consumers have clear expectations for the platforms they use.
For your messages to reach them, you not only need to be where they are, but also communicate in the way they’re used to on each platform. Each social platform has its own language, style, lingo, hashtags and visuals. Understanding each platform’s nuances is half of the battle, and it can be approached like learning a new language.
As Harvard Business Review shares, this is some of the spaces where brands are reaching Gen Z:
How to brand for Gen Z
While there is no one-size-fits all approach to reaching this new audience, you can start your branding journey by trying out some of these Gen Z approved marketing strategies:
Remember that regardless of which approach you try, always keep your brand purpose in the forefront when implementing Gen Z branding. Setting core brand values empowers your business to elevate brand consistency across all marketing, communications and sales channels.
01. Create inclusive experiences
Gen Z was born during the late 90s, or as B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore would call it, the rise of the “experience economy.” Rather than having their parents make the cake or organize home birthday parties, they spent $100 or more to “outsource” the entire event to a business that stages a memorable event, like Chuck E. Cheese’s. Additionally, for this cohort of the Instagram generation, life is a series of photo ops.
When marketing to Gen Z, try creating inclusive experiences to support your core product—while Millennials may have responded well to exclusive events that evoked the fear of missing out, you’ll better reach Gen Z if you offer spaces where everyone feels welcome and valued. While this can be as extravagant as an immersive activation, it can be as chill as simply offering more ways to interact with the brand. Meta found that 38% of Gen Z respondents said they’d enjoy receiving a brand’s recommended products through a quiz.
02. Experiment with video
When Gen Z wants to make dinner, they won’t Google a recipe and read a whole longform blog post. They’ll head to TikTok, their go-to search engine, where they can see an entire dish made in a few seconds. This generation never had to rewind—and maybe that’s why they prefer video content. According to Horowitz Research’s “State of Gen Z 2021” study, 78% of 13 to 24-year-olds stream TV content (TV shows, movies, sports) weekly, while 79% stream short-form content (short clips, user-generated content, video game live streams, videos on social media.)
When marketing to Gen Z, try creating video content that’s speedy and efficient in multiple ways. For example, you can get your new offerings in front of them with a quick, no-frills demo video—market research shows that 85% of Generation Z learns about new products on social media. Or you can jump on trends and ride the waves of Gen Z’s notable sharing culture. For example, Ocean Spray seized a viral TikTok moment when (now famous) Nathan Apodaca skateboarded home and on a whim recorded himself lip-syncing to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” while drinking his juice. Ocean Spray acted fast, riding the momentum and excitement of the video and created a TV advertisement for the Major League Baseball’s Playoffs that featured Apodaca’s video, along with copycat versions and the original recording. (Plus, to appeal to Gen Z’s trust, they gifted Apodaca a truck.)
Tip: While Gen Z treats their content as ephemeral, you can reach other audiences with the same content and get more return on your effort. Upload your short-form videos to your website and add some descriptive text to increase your chances that older generations will find it via Google.
03. Focus on social proof
Speaking of Gen Z’s sharing culture, friends of their friends are… also their friends. Gen Z’s community approach means that social proof is one of the most important ways to market to them. As Trust, a platform designed specifically for customer testimonials, shares, “Social proof offers a way to speak to Gen Z at their own level and reflect their needs.” Gen Z is less interested in what “experts” have to say, and more interested in hearing real experiences from their friends, social networks, microinfluencers or even other users.
When marketing to Gen Z, tap into already existing trust by partnering with influencers that carry similar values to your brand but have an audience you may not normally interact with. For example, Prada was looking to extend their brand awareness to Gen Z, so they collaborated with Cassius Hirst—a fingerboarding and sneaker art influencer, and also the son of legendary British artist Damien Hirst. This strategic and clever move from the luxury goods brand granted them access to Hirst’s audience and extended the social proof that Prada is still on trend as ever.
04. Engage in real time
While Millennials, Gen X and Boomers may be booking digital detoxes, Gen Z is still always on their phones. Not only are they always connected, they’re also pretty much down to interact whenever.
According to an Agora study, a whopping 90% of Gen Z use apps with interactive live video. Meta claims that Gen Zers want “personalized, direct contact with brands.” And as Bunny Kinney, editorial director at NOWNESS, shared in Dazed Media’s “2031: A Future World” report, “We’re wanting brands to behave more like humans, and in the future, brands will become humans. This will be an evolution of marketing whereby brands seek to build stronger relationships with their consumers.”
To Gen Z, talking to a person behind a brand in real time builds community, authenticity, and trust—not to mention a display of their speed and efficiency. By tapping into your audience’s mindset and frequenting the places they are, brands can find opportunities to meet consumers at the right time.
While this can be as large scale as livestream shopping on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, it can also be as small as interacting with a microniche. For example, designer Shirley Tang grew a following of 24,000 devotees on Depop by trading messages and commentary about her creations on the app using her authentic brand voice. When she grew frustrated with the 10 percent commission the app took from every transaction, she started her own Wix site Oriens—and that real-time investment paid off. Her audience, fueled by brand trust and loyalty, followed onto her own site.
While waiting around for Gen Z can be a surefire strategy—so can creating your own demand with strategically-timed product drops. London-based streetwear brand Corteiz “shut down the city” over its “Bolo exchange,” a unique event that encouraged the brand’s followers to swap jackets from corporate brands for Corteiz’s newest puffer jacket dubbed “the Bolo”. The company founder Clint broadcast the location on socials and supporters flocked to the site within minutes.
05. Have a sense of humor
Gen Z branding means meeting them where they are, speaking to them in their language and meeting their expectations. The gold standard for this type of marketing is Duolingo. The language-learning app relinquished total creative freedom of TikTok ads to Zaria Parvez, its Gen Z global social media manager. She basically went rogue, with content the internet has described as “unhinged.”
With some 4.7 million followers and counting, Duolingo’s TikTok bio aptly says, “just an owl tryna vibe,” and the content features a wide range of owl antics from the brand’s mascot Duo, along with videos featuring Dua Lipa as well as minion interns, a nod to the movement spearheaded by Gen Z fans.
Try to tap into a communal joke, quickly and efficiently. If you painstakingly create a meme only to post it two months after it was shared everywhere, then that can actually damage your brand, showing that you’re out of touch. (If you miss the mark, own up to it and try to authentically ride the wave of the punchline: A DeVries Global survey found that 84% of Gen Z respondents would forgive and support a brand that takes action and accountability.)
Just remember: one person’s sense of humor may not translate well to a wide audience, so create carefully. Humor must be inclusive, clever and relatable—and importantly not at the expense of a specific group.
By Kylie Goldstein
Content Marketer and Branding Expert