What Generation Z Wants

Millennials have been the focus of public obsession for years now, as brands plot the best ways to get them to buy their products and pundits blame them for causing the demise of everything from retail to brunch (no, really). But it’s time to start shifting focus from millennials to their younger counterparts: Generation Z.

There’s no consensus among marketers and demographers about the exact time span that the term “Generation Z” covers, but most agree that it refers to people born between 1996 and 2009. Gen Z currently makes up a quarter of the U.S. population, and they are projected to account for 40% of all consumers by 2020. While many of them are still too young for marketers to focus their advertising efforts on, for legal and ethical reasons, brands should be proactive in understanding what Gen Z wants, and how best to appeal to a generation that has never known life without the internet. 



The first thing to note about Gen Zers is that, well, they’ve never known life without the internet. That doesn’t just mean that they’re more comfortable navigating the online seas; it also means that they’ve had significant exposure to the types of advertising tactics that brands use online, and it doesn’t have the same effect on them as it might on Gens X or Y. In other words, they’re less likely to respond to an ad posted on social media or elsewhere. What, then, should brands do to reach this coveted demographic?

The answer is, be authentic. It might sound counterintuitive, but the best way for a brand to be authentic — and to portray this authenticity to its audience — is to take a back seat, and focus not on the product that’s being sold but on the people who will use the product. Most Gen Zers have what innovation consultant Jeremy Finch calls a “carefully tuned radar for being sold to”, as well as “a limited amount of time and energy to spend assessing whether something’s worth their time.” According to a report by ad agency Barkley and FutureCast, nearly 80% of Gen Zers interviewed preferred ads that “show real people in real situations,” with another 65% saying that they didn’t like advertisements “that make life look perfect.” 

One of the best ways to engage Gen Zers is to put them in the narrative — whether it’s encouraging them to share videos as part of a contest or challenge, or coming up with new and innovative filters to keep people playing around. This is one of the reasons Snapchat has been able to garner more Gen Z users than any other social platform. The other reason is that Snapchat as a platform encourages content creation — and relies on the massive amounts of content being created by users and brands to keep its users interested. It’s why we recommend that any brand looking to engage Gen Z using vertical video (for use on Snapchat, Instagram stories, etc.) should make sure to swap out their content regularly, no matter how good they think an ad is. 

As with millennials, Gen Zers live a large part of their lives in full view of social media. This means that they understand the importance of branding more than most; they realize that every tweet and Instagram post reflects on them in some way, and they take care to curate their image according to how they want to be seen.

One of the most interesting findings of the Barkley study is that one third of the group interviewed said that they would “rather be considered unique than real,” but at the same time, they expect their brands to portray themselves as authentically as possible. This tension between being unique and being real is one that Gen Zers are constantly grappling with, and it also represents a guiding theme of the Gen Z experience. 

So, what should brands keep in mind when reaching Gen Z? First of all, Gen Z doesn’t want aspirational messages — they want brands to be as real as possible, with warts and all. The internet has allowed individual Gen Zers to cultivate their personal identities, and encouraged them to find their own unique interests and dive as deep as they like.

However, as the Barkley study notes, those brands “that depict reality as it relates to teens today” will be the ones that Gen Zers will gravitate towards. They’ll also have to be willing to infuse their campaigns with a dose of social activism, embracing people of all different races, creeds, and sizes. Millennials may have caught many brands by surprise, but there’s no excuse this time around. When it comes to Generation Z, the teens are in the driver’s seat. 

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