Deconstructing Generation Z: Part Six

Blog: Consumer

— Heather Scott 

We’ve talked about millennials for nearly 20 years. Now, it’s time to start thinking about what or really who is next. Gen Z is stepping into the spotlight. Today, they represent 28 percent of the U.S. population (according to Iconoculture) and that number is growing rapidly: In four years, it will be a staggering 40 percent. Savvy brands are closely watching the way this group operates because soon — very soon — Gen Z will be highly influential in how we all behave and consume.

Over the past five weeks, we’ve shared some key insights about this growing generation and how they’re disrupting everything that came before them. In this final installation, we’ll discuss how brands can take it one step further and begin engaging with this audience. For part one, an introduction to Gen Z, click here. For part-two, digging into Gen Z’s spending power, click here. Part three touches on the independent entrepreneurial spirit of this generation; part four talks about how they’re digitally engrossed; and part five looks at their efforts to make a global impact.


So how the heck do brands tap into the power of this global, social and technological generation? While Gen Z continues to evolve, there are definitely some tactics that have proved to work — and others that completely turn off this sophisticated group.

“Empowered teens equal creative teens. If you want to connect with them, you better start thinking two steps ahead of them,” says Rob Wilson, WE vice president, Content Strategy.

So, what works?


Gen Z isn’t interested in anything formal or scripted. They want to see products from real people. They want to know the creators, writers and inventors because they respect what those people have to say, and enjoy the behind-the-scenes view — even if it’s not perfect. 

That means campaigns can’t push corporate messages; instead, they need to tell a story, share some personality and connect audiences to relatable spokespeople. It’s not enough to talk about the product — you have to show how it makes life far more enjoyable and satisfying. Brands that can do this will build trust and loyalty.

During the MTV VMAs, MTV set up Live Story on Snapchat, giving millions of people an up-close, exclusive look at the behind-the-scenes conversations and unscripted celebrity moments of the award show.  And it worked. The network received 12 million views on Snapchat — even more than the actual broadcast. 

So don’t fake it. Uncover the real stories behind your brand, employees and products. These stories will provoke and inspire your audiences to care.

Gen Zers want honesty and a behind-the-scenes view to learn new things authentically; bios and documentaries feel credible, almost immersive – allowing them to experience history, not just read about it in school.

And those stories become much more vibrant and legit to Gen Z when heard across multiple platforms – preferably with a social media element.

Take Kotex, which set up the world’s first period pop up shop in NYC. In addition to merchandise, the shop featured a video booth for visitors to tell their stories, sweet goodies and a DJ, sparking a cultural change in the way women and girls talk and give advice about a traditionally taboo topic.


For Gen Z, digital influencers like Bethany Mota, the Fine Brothers, Shawn Mendes and Jenna Marbles are the new celebs.Since they got their start without corporate sponsorships, these online personalities ooze approachable authenticity. As celebrity status becomes more democratic, Gen Z flocks to the down-to-earth experiences and interactions this new cadre delivers and represents. And if Gen Zers are turning to social influencers for life advice, comedic relief and how-tos, they’re most certainly counting on them for assistance with purchase decisions and mirroring their brand affinities.

Smartly tapping into these new influencers can be successful for brands. For example, PBteen applied this insight by partnering with AwesomenessTV and YouTube celeb Meg DeAngelis for its DIY video series, Revved Up Rooms — showing Gen Z its products’ potential for making teens’ spaces unique. DeAngelis gave viewers easy tips for editing and embellishing items to make them very individual.


Gen Z is well aware that an education doesn’t guarantee you’ll find a job. And they’ve seen ordinary kids become instant Insta/YouTube/Vine famous. So they think, “Why not me too?” They’re looking for ways to acquire work experience to help them establish their online/social media presence. Brands can capitalize on this by making Gen Zers brand ambassadors and content authors, and even asking for their feedback, advice or opinions. 

It’s simple. If you put the power in Gen Zers’ hands to make their own videos, give reactions to them and be the next activist or part of the movement, you’re giving them opportunities for self-expression and exploration and an opportunity to be heard. Brands can connect with Gen Z by listening to what’s on their minds and learning what they are interested in to earn their loyalty and affinity.


If you want to have an impact, you have to do more than say you share Gen Z’s values. You have to prove it. Gen Z wants to spend time with brands that share their same values, especially when it comes to social responsibility. They listen to brands that create emotional stories and demonstrate that what they’re doing today is helping the world.  Brands that can integrate social well-being into their business strategy will attract Gen Z as influencers, purchasers and even future employees. Talk about your ethical practices and purpose, and be honest about where your products are sourced and your supply chain.


Gen Zers are uber-researched value hunters. They expect to be able to try, play and experiment with products before they commit to buying anything. And if they believe in your product, they’ll tell their parents (and the world)! They can make or break a product because they have so much access to information. Be sure to do extensive research with them to make sure you meet their high quality standards before launching.

Their need to test-drive is a key reason unboxing videos on YouTube have become so popular. Not only can you see the product used in a real-world situation, but you get an unbiased, honest opinion, resulting in a go/no go from the tester. Unbox Therapy (4.3 million YouTube subscribers) is a perfect example of this, and brands clamor to work with it because a positive review of a single product can be seen by millions. But YouTube isn’t the only way. Brands can feed this Gen Z need both virtually (through augmented reality) and physically (through trial periods, sample offerings and pop-up shops).

Look at Staples, which tapped into the enterprising and resourceful spirit of this generation for the Designed By Students collection. For five weeks, the retailer worked directly with 48 students from two middle schools in Brooklyn and Atlanta. Teens participated in research, ideation and design that addressed their real school-day needs. The smart supplies made the bell in time for the 2015 back-to-school shopping season.

So there you have it — some insights into what will become the biggest, most influential generation in just a few years’ time, and how brands can help reach them. And as this generation moves into the limelight, we'll be there helping identify trends and tell stories that create impact and connections. Stay tuned.

A bit of background on the author, Heather Scott:

Heather Scott
What I do:
I read a room. I understand behavior. I process human nature, culture and values. More importantly, I don’t put relationships or brands first, I put people first. If programs that are based on insights, trends and strategies are your things, then I’m your gal. I’m a planner, not a Day Runner.

Why it’s important:
Do you believe in magic? Because a great idea is just a great idea. A strategy by itself doesn’t leave a lasting imprint. Insights and trends are fascinating, but not much more on their own. The integration of all three is where the magic happens.

The coolest thing I’ve done:
At Indiana University, I was the all-campus backgammon champion.


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