Gaining Access to Gen Z's Invite-Only Club

Generation Z, the “digital savvy since birth” younger siblings of Millennials, are quickly becoming a significant consumer audience for marketers, but the expected route to reach these consumers is not yielding the desired results. This demographic is expert at tuning out advertising and marketing messages. Brands continue to try to reach this coveted group with TV commercials, but these teens and younger millennials stream right around them. You would think digital ads might work, but if they are not completely real and relevant, forget it. This group will block them. And print? No way — they’re not even in the same room with a print version of anything.

These never-seen-before behaviors and expectations are forcing marketers to really throw out some old norms and to rethink and rewrite the rules of consumer engagement. This move isn’t a flip the switch, but a gradual shift and nuance in how to reach this audience. Getting invited into this close-knit “Next Generation Club” requires an approach that’s one part compelling and creative ideas and two parts unique access channels. We say, it’s okay to think like a brand, but you need to act like a human.



Gen Z (those born between 1998 and 2010) is a demographic that has never known a world before the internet and widespread use of mobile technologies. In fact, most of them grew up with five screens in the home and literally show distress when they are away from their phones for any period of time. They are skimmers, skimming through content and diving deeper when they are engaged or interested. The more personalized the better with this group. 

However, when it comes to brands marketing to the most digitally acute generation, digital (surprisingly) is not enough. Social platforms (Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook) are constantly adapting their tools and platforms to appeal to marketers’s brand initiatives. But, keep in mind this audience is also using various apps that we don’t necessarily think of as “social media” apps in a social function. Examples are gaming apps, and dating apps where it’s become less about dating and more about engagement with this group, because this is just another way to interact with each other. But despite these advancements, social media marketing alone isn’t making the grade either. 

To break through and become a part of the Next Generation’s lifestyle requires a physical spark that can then be fanned by digital. For example, the unicorn, the mythical horned horse, took center stage within social media in 2017. To capitalize on this trend, Starbucks launched its Unicorn Frappuccino last spring with a social media campaign on Facebook that drew 181K views. The social media campaign coupled with word-of-mouth publicity for the whimsical color-changing drink created a rabid fan base and the limited-time drink sold out in many Starbucks locations well before its official end date.  

While latching onto current trends and/or leveraging celebrities has always been a favorite idea of marketers for reaching the younger consumer, be careful, because they can see right through this approach. Like Millennials, Gen Zs appreciate genuine brand connections for building loyalty and trust. When brands make this meaningful effort, Gen Zs are more likely to advocate for these brands within their social networks and invite them into their special club. And yes, we’ve all seen the industry throw around terms like “genuine” and “authentic” brand connections, but here comes that word again — human. Brands need to be human. 

Southwest Airlines, popular with young travelers and known for connecting with customers, is frequently on social media where its shares photos and responds to customer concerns. Over the years, Southwest has utilized its social media listening center to gauge passenger satisfaction, especially during a crisis. In 2015, when 800 of its planes were grounded due to a technical glitch, Southwest responded to every complaint its passengers posted on social media and even dispatched employees to hand out pizza to stranded and hungry passengers at LAX. This kind of response, a human one, led to praise from many of its customers who shared this experience in their social networks and helped grow its customer loyalty base. 

Like anyone looking to be invited back, brands need to make it worth the Next Generation’s while by adding value to their experiences, providing entertainment, and connecting on an emotional level. They need to “hit a nerve” and then communicate and engage in the most well-meaning way. This requires deeper insights into where and how this group lives, works, and plays, and having deep insight into what they care about.

Although Gen Zs are a challenging demographic to reach, they aren’t impossible to break through. This group expects brands to be loyal to them, not vice versa. Those companies that take the time to truly understand their likes and dislikes and approach them in a sincere manner will have a leg up on the competition that continues to hang onto the old tried and true marketing techniques. By offering goods and/or social programs that appeal to Gen Z’s sensibilities, brands will build a following with this demographic that will pay dividends for them for decades to come.

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