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.

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. 

A multinational food company was looking to rejuvenat...