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How to Be a Gen Z Brand

For years, brands have been laying the groundwork to win over Gen Z. Our experts discuss how your brand can better connect to this generation in a post-2020 era.
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How to Be a Gen Z Brand

For years, brands have been laying the groundwork to win over Gen Z — a generation that, even back in 2019, wielded up to $333B in influence. Today, Gen Z accounts for 40% of US consumers — and by 2026, Gen Zers will comprise the largest consumer base in the country, surpassing even Millennials. 

The problem is, unsurprisingly, 2020 disrupted a lot of the strategies brands had been leaning on to make inroads with Gen Z. Individuals in this generational cohort already had limited dollars, strong opinions, and lots of companies contending for their attention — and then came the pandemic, bringing with it an economic downturn, a string of natural disasters, and a nation-wide movement for racial justice. After such a tumultuous year, Gen Zers have only become more discerning and value-driven.

To find out what brands need to do to reach Gen Z in a post-2020 climate, we asked several of our experts for their advice. Read on to find out what they had to say, and where to go next with your Gen Z strategy. 

Be authentic. 

Authenticity is everything — that was the message we heard again and again. This generation is informed. They can see through the bullshit. If your marketing says one thing but your actions say another, they’ll find out and dismiss you.

Be genuinely authentic. Gen Z is savvy and discerning — they don’t want a brand that just pays lip service. To connect with Gen Z, brands need to take actions that demonstrate a true commitment to their customers.

For brands accustomed to modes of communication more attuned to the needs of Gen X or Millennials, the levels of transparency and candor expected by Gen Zers might seem almost radical — but it makes sense: this is a generation of digital natives. They’re coming of age at a time that presents a stark contrast; on the one hand, the cautious formulas of traditional media and entertainment; on the other, the freedom of the Internet.

Not to overplay the Instagram vs. TikTok dynamic, but there’s a reason the latter has become such a zeitgeist-defining platform for Gen Z in the same way the former became one for Millennials. It’s curation vs. controlled chaos. Polish vs. rawness. 

Gen Z is all about authenticity and seeing past the aspirational Instagram aesthetic. They like brands that are real and relatable and want to be able to engage with them in a real way.

Where to go from here: Make sure your brand purpose or promise doesn’t live in the stratosphere.

As one of our partners has said, “Can a shampoo brand change your life? I’m not so sure it can. But can a shampoo brand give you an amazing day because you feel confident your hair looks terrific? Yes, definitely.”

Overinflate the importance of your product or service, and Gen Z will know to stay away; instead, focus on creating a brand promise that you can truly deliver on — and craft deeply authentic messaging to convey that promise. 

Make an impact. 

In the same way Gen Zers will shun a brand they don’t perceive as honest and authentic, so too will they avoid one that talks up its commitment to a cause without taking real, meaningful action.

Gen Z likes brands that are actually making an impact, and not just talking about it through a mission statement or brand stories. They care about sustainability and social justice more than other generations.

While Millennials got to ease into the bombardment of information, opinions, and sales pitches brought on by the digital age, Gen Zers have known it their entire lives. Understandably, they’re also skeptical of what companies stand for. To earn loyalty from Gen Z, you have to make it clear why your brand is a force for good in the world, and not just an engine for profit.

Gen Zers want to align themselves with brands who speak and act ethically and equitably, who walk the walk as much as they talk the talk.

Where to go from here: Make sure your actions as a brand reflect what you stand for and the positive change you want to create. Then, ensure any communications around these efforts are designed to amplify your cause(s) and involve others — not just to brag. 

Create unforgettable experiences. 

Up to this point, we’ve discussed what you shouldn’t do, lest your brand be called out for insincerity or apathy. The good news is, connecting with Gen Z isn’t only about avoiding missteps — it’s also about creating genuinely engaging experiences.

The pandemic has accelerated a societal shift to valuing experiences over things, and this is especially true for Gen Z. In addition to being locked down like the rest of us, many Gen Zers missed out on key moments and milestones (like all of senior year, for instance).

How can your brand help bring excitement back into their lives? 

This generation is still young — the oldest have recently left college and the youngest are barely entering junior high. While they may be pragmatic, idealistic, and socially driven, they still crave engaging and unique experiences from brands. Connecting with Gen Z will require that brands keep sight of both these facts.

Where to go from here: Now is the time to stop asking, “What do I want people to think when they hear me talk,” and to start asking, “How do I want them to feel when they’re using my products?” Whatever you sell, the brand experience you provide should generate an emotional connection. That’s what matters to Gen Z.

About the author

Material is a leading global consumer intelligence and customer experience consultancy. Partnering with business leaders, we help tackle their most significant customer challenges to help them differentiate in the marketplace, build smarter, more connected experiences, and maximize value delivered to customers and society. Our unique customer intelligence engine is powered by analytics and behavioral science, fuels world-class design and enables the delivery of products and services to bring digital transformation to life.

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