Does your brand understand Generation Z? 

Editor’s note: Edward Appleton is director global marketing, sales and communications, and Elisa Einhorn is project executive, at market research firm Happy Thinking People, Berlin.  

Gen Z is the subject of many current insight projects, with companies looking to understand their outlook and value systems. The ambition makes sense – to ensure that brands’ next generation recruitment efforts are on target.

And yes – from food and drink, fashion, media, health to their coping strategies in times of crises – this teenager mind-set is markedly different to Millennials.

Ultra-pragmatic. Action-oriented. Group-minded rather than individualistic… and more. You can read up on details in our reports via the Happy Thinking People website.

But increasingly we’ve notice something else – repeatedly, across categories and geographies.

The Gen Z lens

When we sub-segment the teenage audience, Gen Z consistently appears sharper, quicker at picking up and decoding commercial messaging than their older peers. They have a super-sensitive radar for marketing BS and are keenly attuned to all sorts of commercial green (or pink) washing.

They are not just digital natives; they are sustainability and diversity natives. Perhaps even marketing natives.

Their reactions seem to anticipate and even predict those of older generations – those who “get it” (sometimes) but are later to adapt.

Our hypothesis is that Gen Z are harbingers of a huge generational shift – perhaps deserving the word “tectonic” and a comparison to the 1960s and the Woodstock era – heralding in a whole new way of viewing things. This has operational consequences. By viewing things through the Gen Z lens, brands can get ahead of the curve in their positioning and messaging and avoid being left behind.

Here are three examples from recent projects that illustrate this hypothesis. 

Food brand looks to get “in with the kids” without alienating loyal customers

A multinational food company was looking to rejuvenate one of its core brands in Russia.

The brand was established, with a high-quality positioning, but was struggling to remain relevant to younger users.

They asked us to help. How could they modify the positioning to be more “in with the kids” without alienating current and loyal users?

We executed a series of digital workshops, concept labs in effect, focusing on two distinct audiences – one group of 18-to-24-year-olds, and the other 25-to-40-years-old (the latter all with families).

We explored their reactions to the current brand, its imagery, packaging and more, before exploring a series of concepts.

The reactions between groups were markedly different.

The Millennial group was accepting of the current positioning and imagery, rather unquestioning in their reactions to claims or proof statements.

The younger group – Gen Z – was by contrast highly critical, skeptical even. Their attitude was not trusting. Brands simply saying something wasn’t enough – they were looking for proof. 

Claims on support for animal welfare were met with precise questions. They wanted details. QR codes perhaps, so they can see for themselves where and how the cows are kept.

The same was true for claims on sourcing from local producers – which ones?

Imagery needed to hold up against an honesty test. So, when it came to claims on local sourcing, this case in Russia, the messaging can’t be accompanied by visuals using the Bavarian Alps. It’s not just misleading, it also triggers existing underlying skepticism – if this bit isn’t accurate, why should other aspects from the brand be true? Gen Z has a low tolerance threshold when it comes to honesty, and little time for cognitive dissonance.

Gen Z protesters

Zero-waste project discovers Gen Z behaviors, sensitivities 

We had a similar experience researching attitudes toward zero-waste shopping. A client wished to explore and understand specific barriers that existed among various audiences when trying to shop more sustainably – and ideally with zero waste.

As part of a one-week online insight community, we tasked a range of participants to go zero-waste shopping – no plastic at all; using their own containers and shopping bags; and ideally avoid carbon emissions on their trip to the shop.

The younger participants – students, and those just starting in their first jobs – were strict with themselves when fulfilling the task, committed to avoiding compromises as much as possible, despite having the smallest budgets.

They were also pragmatic, seeing zero waste as a monthly shopping occasion rather than a one-stop fulfil-all-my-needs approach.

They were serious about the task, but not in a particularly serious or down-beat manner. A few of the younger ones seemed to turn the challenge into an experience and uploaded videos of themselves getting on their bikes (even though most of them had cars!), using their empty glass containers and imagining foregoing trips to the fitness studio (too far without a car!) but being compensated by more time and exercise on the bike and being eco-conscience.

The older participants by contrast showed less underlying commitment, were more attracted/distracted by convenience benefits and more likely to be lured by spontaneous needs.

Who does the future belong to?

It’s clear that as lifestyles adjust to changes in income and family status, certain behaviors will modify – but some of the core beliefs will stick. We sense that much of the observed behaviors and sensitivities among Gen Z will be around for a while, even as they become the next 30+ generation.

Lifestyle brand finds authentic ways to grab Gen Z’s attention

Our third example relates to a positioning project for a lifestyle brand. We talked to Gen Z about all sorts of things – from brand messages, through product design right up to the retail experience.

The brand had previously set up new retail spaces to reflect what they expected to be key Gen Z retail engagement drivers – selfie spaces, an influencer strategy, extreme digitalization.

Although Gen Z admitted that some of these things worked, they were also very sensitive to what they sometimes saw as a superficial attempt to get their attention.

In the research we found that they were much more excited by the fundamental brand and product messages around sustainability, recycling and upcycling than just being accommodated with an eye-catching, brightly colored selfie wall.

Obviously for a lifestyle brand, design still plays a central role. But being able to anchor a design story in a meaningful purpose for the brand, meaningful co-operations and a higher degree of depth and authenticity when it comes to influencers increases engagement significantly … particularly as “Instagram-ability” and increasingly “TikTok-ability” have become ubiquitous.

A new rulebook for marketing to the “Yes, and” generation  

Gen Z looking at phones togetherOur observations as outlined above suggest a fundamental generational shift, meaning a whole new rulebook of mainstream marketing will need to be written soon… according to the Gospel of Gen Z.

Some thought-starters for brand owners:

  • Focus on 80% action, 20% talk. 
  • Include 100% purpose, authenticity, transparency, consistency and honesty. A PATCH acronym, perhaps?
  • Mind your language. Don’t exaggerate or use words like extremely and incredibly. Avoid overstatements without proof or substance.

There’s more.

Keeping it playful, cool is equally important. Gen Z isn’t deadly earnest – they want to be entertained, have a laugh … just differently.

They fully understand the principles of imagery and how images are created. They have learned from their own experiences on social media and the selfie-culture.

For brands: care is needed – and if in doubt, do more research, talk to Gen Z and don’t make assumptions. Gen Z could well be the new jury for all more sensitive, meaningful brand initiatives –saying quickly what others are only just picking up on.

Generation Z is the “Yes, and….” generation that becomes impatient with “Yes, BUT…” adults who theorize and discuss important issues rather than acting.

This article was first published in German in Planung & Analyse Issue 4/2021.