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Gen Z’s Unlikely Evolution: How To Reach This Changing Generation

They’re among the savviest consumers marketers have had to contend with. They have a combined spending power of over $144 billion and can influence over $600 billion in annual spending by other demographics. They have high ethical values and standards and expect the brands they interact with to align with their politics (or risk losing their business—forever).

You can’t find them in conventional marketing channels—they’re just not there. They are online—45% say “almost constantly.” At 65 million strong, they are a demographic that can’t be ignored or patronized: as of 2020, they comprise a full 40% of all consumers in the US.

Introducing Gen Z

Five years ago, Gen Z was painted as the most authentic and genuine generation in recent American memory. Is that entirely possible in an age of Instagram stories and bite-sized, rapid-paced content on various social media platforms? Are the Gen Zers as real as they say?

The youngest Gen Zers don’t remember a time without the internet or instant access to it in the form of always-connected smartphones, and they’ve grown up with social media. Call them Gen Zers, zoomers, the 15th American Generation since the Mayflower, or children and young adults born between 1997 and 2012. They’re the reason marketers need to reimagine and rework how to connect with this media-inured and sophisticated group.

That $600 billion in annual spending they influence? That’s their parents, who make purchases based on their recommendations. Granted, the youngest of the Gen Zers is only nine, but the oldest will be 25 this year. They want to change the world—seriously. Over 60% want a job with serious social or societal impact.

Conventional Marketing? Canceled

Gen Z grew up with more access to media and news than previous generations, and traditional marketing has no power over them. They’re armed with smartphones and have no need for television advertising, print marketing, or direct mail. They have almost no exposure to radio advertising—most of their music and podcast listening is done on various streaming platforms.

They can listen to or watch virtually any recorded media produced at any time in human history and can switch between sources in the blink of an eye. They prefer media created by their peers and have no patience for commercial advertisement.

Blame it on their attention span if you will, but social media has formed their consumption habits. If an advertiser has any chance of connecting with Gen Z, it’s through shorter, concise, and punchy advertisements designed for smaller screens and shorter periods.

Advertising targeting Gen Z must take into account their nimble attention span and their lack of patience for being advertised to—most Gen Zers, more than Millennials or Gen X that preceded them, find ads intrusive and disruptive.

A brand that wants to engage with this demographic in a meaningful and productive way must be aware not only of the media but of the message as well. The most diverse generation in American history, Gen Z consumers expect to know more about a brand’s sustainability or social justice efforts—and expect transparency and sincerity.

In fact, Gen Z is more likely to flex its considerable spending power based on a very 21st-century take on word of mouth marketing—the influencer.

Influencer Dynamics: Not Your Parent’s Celebrities

Influencers aren’t exactly celebrities. It’s not that they aren’t famous or wealthy—in fact, a “micro-influencer” with fewer than 50,000 followers can earn six figures per year just by posting content that is useful or interesting to their followers.

It’s about authenticity and a quality of being relatable—“just like me,” except for the pampered lifestyle and fabulous holiday destinations. Gen Z influencers may be fabulous, but not fake—insincerity or crass commercial appeal is guaranteed to make this group of consumers unfollow.

The Power of Gen Z: Word of Mouth

Influencer word of mouth is seen not as marketing, but more as a recommendation, and successful influencers tend to promote brands seen as high-quality by this group.

It’s not all about vacation pics or Instagram stories posted “from the club,” either. More so than previous generations, Gen Z looks to their idols to be socially conscious and vocal about injustice, climate change, and other concerns traditionally on the left of the American political spectrum.

Brands that want to market to this group successfully must either find a niche within it—not all Gen Zers are the same, after all—or examine their mission statements to see how to align with what’s current. The most successful marketing campaign a brand could launch could arguably be more in line with social welfare or environmentally aware efforts or initiatives.

What’s good for society and the planet ultimately may be good for a company’s bottom line. If a brand manages to gain the attention of a respected influencer, that person’s followers are nearly twice as likely to purchase a recommended product or engage with a recommended brand than the generation that preceded them.

Gen Z Marketing: What Works

Brands hoping to connect with this demographic need to seek out the opportunity to do so in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Instead, seek out influencers that are similar to your product’s target consumers and engage with them organically.

Influencers who have an established affinity for the goods or services you sell can more successfully represent them to their followers than big-budget advertising campaigns or celebrity endorsements.

They’re savvy, sophisticated, and have expectations unlike any other generation in American history. They need to believe a brand is sincere, trustworthy, and aligned to a higher purpose to connect with it meaningfully.

To market successfully to Gen Z, keep in mind that your purpose is as important as your product—perhaps more so. Find the right mix of authentic and aligned, and this demographic will reward you and your brand with their commerce and the kind of consumer loyalty not seen since the middle of the last century.

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