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Gen Z: Time to Reappraise



Wunderman Thompson senior planner Eleanor Metcalfe looks at the complexity of connecting with the Gen Z audience

Gen Z: Time to Reappraise

From climate activists to TikTok influencers, there are clear Gen Z tropes emerging in culture. But data from Wunderman Thompson UK’s latest Covid-19 survey suggests that Gen Z are a more complex and contradictory group than any generation that’s gone before, defying simplified stereotypes. The complexity of this new demographic poses a challenge to brands who rely on broad-brush targeting – but also offers considerable opportunities to those brands who invest the time in identifying, understanding and communicating with particular segments of this diverse and unpredictable generation.

Their responses to lockdown reveal a complex and diverse group

Survey data on Gen Z’s response to Covid-19 shows that the group don’t conform to their stereotypical image in the media and popular culture. When asked about what they value more or less in their life as a result of the pandemic, a third of Gen Z respondents said they now place less store on their appearance than before lockdown. Almost half of them said they’ll miss having more time to themselves: more than any other age group. These stats defy the popular image of Gen Z as selfie-obsessed socialites, revealing the complexity that lies behind stereotypical expectations.

Of course, the creation of generational stereotypes has always relied on ignoring data that contradicts an easy story. But even compared to other age groups, Gen Z are particularly diverse in their attitudes to current events. On the one hand, they are the most likely to devalue traditional beliefs in light of Covid-19; but on the other hand, over a third of the cohort say they now value tradition more – numbers only matched by members of the Silent Generation, decades their senior. It’s an unusual contradiction for a group who are often praised for their rejection of traditional social classifications and mores.

Exploring other beliefs and attitudes shown by Gen Z reveals similar contradictions. They’re the age group that care most about having greater independence, and the age group that cares about it least. Over half of them say they place more importance on respect, while two-fifths say they value it less. And while the negative economic and social effects of Covid-19 on Gen Z have been well-documented, they are also the most optimistic about life once lockdown lifts.


Gen Z’s complexity poses a challenge to brand activity on social media

This divergence of attitudes – with fewer fence-sitters than older generations – reflects the formative influence on Gen Z of social media algorithms designed to categorise, divide and polarise. Young people are carving out increasingly niche spaces for themselves on social media, harnessing the power of hyper-specific hashtags and tailored algorithms to appeal to tightly-targeted interests or aesthetics.

This fragmentation of social media into disparate, niche communities poses a challenge to brands who use generic generational stereotyping to develop creative for mass social ad buys. Increasingly, Gen Z consumers expect brands to understand and cater to their specific interests and needs. For example, Moxi, a rollerskates brand, has seen sales skyrocket after the emergence in early 2020 of ‘roller-skating TikTok’ saw micro-influencers recommending the brand to thousands of engaged followers. 

Simply repurposing a national TV spot for Instagram Stories as a ‘Gen Z engagement strategy’ isn’t going to hold up in this new, hyper-personalised social landscape. Brands will need to invest time in understanding these Gen Z micro-communities: getting under the skin of their online behaviour will allow brands to join those communities authentically (either through influencers or their own campaigns), rather than broadcasting messages at a group who are incredibly attuned to disingenuity. The Washington Post and the US Open are good examples of unexpected brands whose investment in understanding TikTok trends and niches has won them success on the platform.

The choice for brands: adapt or disengage

With Gen Z more divided in their attitudes than any generation that’s come before, there’s a clear imperative for brands to be more adaptable in the way they position themselves to younger audiences: either focusing on specific sub-groups whose values and interests most align with the brand, or creating flexible brand platforms and campaigns which can accommodate widely varied attitudes. 

Failure to truly understand the nuances of this audience, and the platforms they immerse themselves in, will only see an acceleration of the trend that’s already visible on Depop of Gen Z deserting market stalwarts for brands you’ve never heard of – most likely started by Gen Z themselves. 

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Wunderman Thompson London, Tue, 06 Oct 2020 10:29:43 GMT