February 12, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
When you think of Generation Z, what comes to mind? If you find yourself picturing a bunch of screen-addicted kids whose interests are limited to learning the latest TikTok dance, it’s well past time to update your vision of what is on track to be the largest and most economically powerful generation in American history.
Born between 1996 and 2012, the oldest Generation Z members are turning 25 this year. Gen Zers are the first true digital natives, they’re more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations, and they’re predicted to be the most educated generation to date. This is a generation that values individuality, mobilizes for a variety of causes, and tends to view consumption as a means of personal expression.
Gen Z members have been key in establishing value-led consumer trends and purchase decisions. This generation is driven to make a real impact on the issues that matter most to them — and they expect no less from the companies they buy from. For Gen Z, silence is complacency; they expect brands to take a stand on key social and policy issues.
While Gen Z already has an impressive spending power of $143 billion (which can be expanded to $600 billion, considering the influence they have on their parents’ spending), their earnings are set to hit $33 trillion by 2030, surpassing millennials’ spending power by the following year.
For brands who are looking to reach Gen Z, it’s critical to ditch the negative generational stereotypes in order to understand their real needs and interests. There’s no universal approach to successfully engaging with this large and lucrative market — but there are some all-too-common blunders that can easily be avoided.
(Temporary) Hype Distraction
Don’t waste time and effort trying to latch on to the latest Gen Z fad in order to appeal to this market. Brands who take this approach rarely get it right: Not only do young consumers see right through corporate trend bandwagoning, but by the time a campaign gets launched most audiences have moved on.
This advice can be extended to influencer partnerships as well. While there’s no doubt that big-name young influencers offer a tempting amount of star power, don’t get so caught up in those seemingly impressive audience numbers that you ignore fit in favor of followers. When evaluating potential Gen Z influencers for a sponsorship, it’s important to consider everything the creator has to offer. Their follower count is relevant, but so is their audience demographic — you want an influencer whose followers and your target audience are one and the same — their personality and style, their values, their aesthetic and their diversity.
If you need a reminder that mimicking popular memes and slang in order to appeal to younger audiences can backfire in a big way, there are innumerable examples of brands receiving backlash for exactly that practice. (Kia’s facepalm-inducing “Seasons Memeing” car campaign definitely comes to mind.)
Gen Z has a notoriously strong B.S. filter for today’s saturated media climate. If your marketing includes, say, a meme format from 2017, or a reference to your product as being “lit AF,” it’s a fairly strong indicator that you don’t really know what Gen Z is interested in — you’re just hoping that copying their trends will lend credibility to your brand.
One effective strategy for avoiding a cringe campaign is to partner with a Gen Z influencer who can genuinely speak to their generation’s values. Influencer marketing campaigns should never be about paying a creator to simply repeat company slogans and sales pitches. Instead, allow Gen Z to shape brand messaging with their own perspectives and opinions and share it in a way that’s relevant to their like-minded audiences.
Brand Messaging That’s Set in Stone
As Generation Z continues to come of age, this cohort is expected to shape the ways that we shop, buy food and do business. Gen Z has plenty of unique characteristics, but the one that makes them truly stand out is that they are the first truly digitally native generation: Gen Z grew up with smartphones, social media and the instant accessibility of information.
In other words, Gen Z’s reality is that the internet is the lens through which consumers view the world — a notion that’s also catching on with other generations, accelerated by increased media consumption habits sped along by COVID-19 and recent elections. Successful marketing for Gen Z won’t come from traditional advertisements, jazzy slogans, or even corporate statements: Tthis cohort demands personalization, transparency and authenticity.
You’re Not Listening to Your Target Audience
It’s hugely important for marketers to recognize that Gen Z exists on a continuum with plenty of individual variation. One of the best ways to identify and honor these differences is to actually engage in dialogue with Gen Z stakeholders, whether through social media engagement or connecting with influencers.
Brands who hire Gen Z influencers should view the partnership as more than having the right-age mouthpiece for a promotion for a deeper and more meaningful understanding of who they are and what they care about. Working with Gen Z creators can be an effective way to show a product to lots of young people, but more importantly, it’s an ongoing opportunity to join the conversation and build rewarding connections with this generation.
There’s no question that Generation Z is on its way to becoming the hottest consumer group for marketers to target. Understanding who they are and what they care about is absolutely key: Tactics will come and go, but the brands who figure out how to most authentically connect with Gen Z are the ones who will find true success.
Danielle Wiley is the CEO and founder of Sway Group, a content and influencer marketing agency founded in 2011. Ziad Ahmed is the CEO and founder of JUV Consulting, a Gen Z digital marketing agency founded in 2016. Sway Group partners with JUV on influencer programs with strong Gen Z targeting in order to ensure authentic Gen Z perspectives are represented from the start.
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