There is altogether too much written about Gen Z - and most of it is utter shit. Worse than shit, it is worryingly contradictory.
On the one hand they are painted as optimistic, career driven, environmental activists willing to make massive sacrifices (including foregoing sex, drugs and rock and roll) to get what they want or need. On the other - and apparently entirely antithetical - hand, they are terrified for the future - both economic and ecological and are awash with equal feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
So which Gen Z is the genuine one? Or are they both true? Or, is it possible that the reality is far more nuanced, complicated, and fluid than most researchers looking for a soundbite would let you believe? Probably. So, why not try to get a more honest understanding - from real, decent data.
To understand this tricksy audience we need to employ a more rigorous perspective, choosing not to jump on the bandwagon or make sweeping statements for the sake of a ‘marketable’ point of view we can pitch to clients eager for insight. In today’s sensationalist climate, we face three very real and distinct challenges in cutting through the industry nonsense and finding some truth:
We look at Gen Z through the biases of our own childhoods and adolescence. From hazy recollections to murkier shades, Gen Z is often tarred with the taint of our own personal and out of date narratives. We also, evidently, struggle to understand people who don’t think like us… doesn’t sound like us at all, does it?!
There’s a prevalent assumption that Gen Z are all the same - a homogenous group of individuals with similar desires and frustrations. In reality, they change substantially almost year on year, dependent on life events and developmental stages. A 14-year-old student from a working class area in London is going to have very different interests to a 23-year-old middle class doctor from Edinburgh.
Unscrupulous experts (and editors) swing data towards sensationalist headlines, producing click-bait with exceptionally shallow foundations. Data must be interrogated and interacted with, otherwise superficial conclusions are drawn hastily and irresponsibly.
Without addressing these issues at an industry level we’ll keep making the same mistakes, keep pushing the same poorly formed conclusions and keep sharing the same inaccurate ‘data’ points from shoddy ‘back-alley’ sources.
Digging into research from reputable sources, like the IPA and YouthSight’s report ‘Gen Z: Exile on Mainstream, is vital in our moving forward. We must approach the research with a desire to get to the truth - not just a headline.
How We Rebuild The Bridge
The one and only key to Gen Z marketing is genuine understanding. From here we can more accurately assess what it is they want from brands.
Well, many things, but for starters they want brands to support them in the causes and cultural moments they feel are important.
Brands - with their large marketing budgets and international fame, access to celebrities, mass influencers and broadcast media - have an unparalleled opportunity to really get behind the projects and topics that matter to Gen Z. Most notably in supporting them to action the change that the world needs. By sharing the responsibility of trying to change behaviours, brands are able to relieve anxiety amongst Gen Z-ers, who feel alone in giving a shit about the state of the earth.
However, there are a multitude of ways of achieving this. And it’s fraught with equal risk and reward.
Take Nike, for example; a brand that chose to celebrate amazing and inspirational people already changing the world - providing a global platform for their message and passions. This approach feels real. It feels authentic.
Yet Gillette, another global brand leader, attempted to depict how they should be living. With them supposedly being the heroes – or at least the ones inspiring them. A small difference from Nike’s offering, but a vitally important one.
Nike gave fame and recognition to those who deserve it, using their budget and social capital to push a progressive agenda. Gillette piggy-backed (and profited) from an already established movement, trying to take a little slice of credit for themselves.
The truth is, pushing an agenda purely to be able to say you’re pushing an agenda - be it social justice or financial, will be immediately discernible. Especially by as sceptical and questioning an audience as Gen Z.
If, on the other hand, we choose to employ the same standard of rigorous fairness, equality and celebration across the spectrum - not just to brag about it or include in our communications - then we’re set for a much smoother sail.
So, What Now?
While we spend the majority of our time trying to understand Gen Z, they spend theirs trying to understand us. Are we real, or at least authentic? Do we care about more than just turning a profit or do we do what we do for fame? Do we act, speak, create with integrity? Even in the face of resistance? It is these questions that ultimately decide whether Gen Z will spend their money on our products, ideas and creativity.
I just wonder who’ll suss out who first…
Recipe’s Dom Roe is planning director