Skip to main content
By Liz Brody

Gen Z’s presence is hard to ignore. According to a Bloomberg analysis of United Nations data, and using 2000/2001 as the generational split, Gen Z nudged ahead of millennials in 2019 as the world’s largest demographic.

T oday, Gen Z equates to 40 percent of US consumers and have a buying power of up to $150 billion. By 2026, Gen Z will number 86 million US consumers. But what should really wake marketers up is the cultural shift this generation is ushering in.

Born after 1996, Gen Zers came of age with iPhones in their hands and social media as their schoolyard and have never known a world without the internet. Thanks to the pandemic, the rest of the world has been catching up to them at warp speed, says Eric Jones, VP of Corporate Marketing for WP Engine, the global managed WordPress hosting platform. “If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s taught us about having a virtual-first mentality in everything that we do.” 

Jones is so convinced of Gen Z’s importance as a key to effective marketing that he commissioned an annual survey by WP Engine in 2019 to understand how Gen Z thinks and acts. According to Jones, all marketers—not just those who are trying to reach Gen Z—need to fundamentally change the way they’ve been doing things to stay in the game. 

Don’t sell to them

This is the biggest shift marketers need to make, and it’s a bit of a hairpin turn. But get it right and it’s your ticket to Gen Z. “They don’t want to buy from a brand; they want to partner with it,” says Jones. “If a brand is too sales-y, it’s a dead turnoff. They want a relationship. They want honesty.” What does that look like? Not your classic ad.

 To start, think of interactivity, fun, video, and mobile phones—which 55 percent of Gen Z spends at least five hours a day on, according to the Center for Generational Kinetics.

Benoit Vatere founded Mammoth Media three years ago specifically to reach Gen Z. Its two main mobile apps have reached 80 million downloads so far and have completed successful native integrations for brands such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Skype, and Starbucks. Using the fiction-based, microstory-telling app Yarn, Mammoth Media partnered with Dunkin’ to launch an interactive campaign that targeted Gen Z by telling the story of a group of friends who were transformed into their costumes on Halloween night. On the app, you could follow the friends’ journey and help them choose paths along the way. “The Halloween story had the characters trying to navigate around in a fictitious town while crazy things were happening,” Vatere says. “And guess where they finally met? At a Dunkin’ Donuts.” On Wishbone, Mammoth’s polling app, they ran a campaign asking users to vote on the color of their favorite drink. One of the options was in a Starbucks cup, but Starbucks was not specifically named in the survey. “That’s how Gen Z likes it,” Vatere says. “If they see it in the story, they will remember the brand.”

Eric Jones also points to crowdsourcing initiatives like the one LEGO runs, which invites fans to vote on and submit ideas for new LEGO products, even compensating winners. Social media campaigns can be effective too. Axe, the fragrance company, launched the #PraiseUp campaign in response to young men’s struggles with stereotypes around masculinity. The campaign encouraged guys to post short videos of themselves giving positive shout-outs to people they knew. “Axe was only mentioned in the tags,” says Jones. “It caught on like wildfire.” 

Instead of the customer, focus on community

For Dahye Jung at Sid Lee, the creative agency behind #PraiseUp, that campaign tapped into a critical idea. “It wasn’t the brand taking center stage but rather [Axe] inviting the community to create content around an important discussion that was already happening,” says the strategy analyst. “Gen Z is all about communities. They think about their identities in terms of what communities [they] belong to—both in digital and [in] real life.” To reframe Sid Lee’s marketing around this concept, the agency launched an internal initiative called the Belong Project, which measures strength of communities and how brands might leverage attachment to them. “The aha moment we had was that brands have to take a chill pill,” says Jung. “They can’t just go into this community and be like, ‘Oh, let’s conquer this acquisition.’ They must be participants.”

A poster child for doing it right is Fenty Beauty, which joined Gen Z’s passion for inclusion and body positivity as America’s most diverse generation ever. “Of course they got a big push with Rihanna being the face of the brand,” says Jung. “But if you look at their social media and the way they engage with people, they’re not saying, ‘Buy this product.’ They’re saying like, ‘Hey, we love you for the way you are.’ And they just create the tools for this conversation to keep going on their platform.” The Fenty Beauty site has a feature called “You Did That” that showcases customers and how they created their beauty looks. And the Fenty Beauty House (it’s all virtual, for now) was created for beauty influencers to practice their makeup skills and share their results on social, specifically TikTok. “It’s like, bring your iPhone, make content, do what you want with it. So there’s a lot of trust involved,” says Jung. “It’s difficult for brands to do, but if they can let go of that control, their community will do it for them.”

Rethink celebrity 

Rihanna aside, fame is a tricky dance when it comes to selling to Gen Z. With many of them being YouTube stars and influencers themselves, Gen Zers are less wowed by Hollywood than previous generations. “Using George Clooney to sell your watch is not going to work unless he actually is known for wearing that watch and believing in it,” says Eric Jones. In fact, about 40 percent of Gen Zers aged 18 to 23 say their purchasing decisions are most influenced by social media, compared to 25 percent of millennials, according to McKinsey & Company. Ryan Detert, founder of the agency Influential, which matches influencers to brands, says, “It’s very much about niche. We work with people like David Dobrik—I call him the Tom Hanks of influencers [with 14 million followers]—and the Rock and Chrissy Teigen-type talent. But that’s a fraction of our business. There are so many campaigns where you want to find a hometown hero who runs the cul-de-sac in the Midwest to do a local activation for a brand like Dick’s Sporting Goods. For Gen Z, it’s really about driving that engagement on an authentic level that happens only in those kinds of smaller micro pockets of influencing.” 

You’ve got to hook GenZ immediately with something visually arresting, emotionally powerful, or totally different.

Act fast: the name of the game is speed

According to Forbes, researchers have clocked Gen Z’s attention span at eight seconds, which is a challenge for marketers. When you’re creating content, you’ve got to hook Gen Zers immediately with something visually arresting, emotionally powerful, or totally different. Otherwise, they’ll scroll.

A marketing team also has to be nimble and more plugged in than ever to the cultural chatter. Popeyes showed that if you can seize a fleeting moment, it can connect you forever with young customers. Bruno Cardinali, Popeyes head of marketing for North America, remembers it was 1:43 p.m. on August 19, 2019, when he got a message on WhatsApp. Chick-fil-A had tweeted a subtle put-down of Popeyes’ newly introduced chicken sandwich. Cardinali gathered his team on the fifth floor of the company’s Miami office to think of a retort. He also cued in his WhatsApp group, which had been set up to react to such things in real time. It had about 25 key people on it, including execs from Popeyes’ parent company, Restaurant Brands International (RBI); their attorneys; and creatives from their outside firms. 

In 15 minutes, they had a retort. PR blessed it. Legal approved it on the spot. And the team said, “Yeah, let’s fire it up.”

“Y’all good?” Popeyes posted. And Twitter exploded. 

Popeyes sold out of chicken sandwiches in eight days. And the brand’s sales growth soared that quarter—42.3 percent, compared with 6.3 percent the previous year. It was a massive success. 

Creating interactive fun for this tech-savvy demographic means marketing teams will have to start adding engineers, developers, data scientists, and, of course, Gen Zers.

Lead with fun, not information

Gen Z goes online for entertainment, the WP Engine survey found, unlike older generations who primarily go online to look for information. Creating interactive fun for this tech-savvy demographic means marketing teams will have to start adding engineers, developers, data scientists, and, of course, Gen Zers.

Burger King, a Gen Z favorite that’s also owned by RBI, discovered the power of technology in December 2018. The fast-food chain wanted more people to download its mobile app. “But we were late to the party,” says Fernando Machado, RBI’s global CMO. They needed a big idea. Working with advertising agency FCB New York, they came up with one, but it required geofencing not only their own 7,000-plus US restaurants but also all the 13,500-plus McDonald’s locations across the country.

Burger King decided to go for it and run the wild promotion called Whopper Detour. During the promotion, you could get a Whopper for a penny, but you had to order it (on the app, of course) from within 600 feet of a McDonald’s. Yes, they sent people to their giant archrival. “It was kind of funny. A bit crazy,” says Machado. “But we know that our fans love being part of a good joke.” Apparently, he was right. In just nine days, more than 1.5 million people downloaded the app, a 37.5 percent increase from before, which the company estimated would translate to customers spending an additional $15 million a year. And the geofencing continues to provide intelligence. “We know when people are going to a McDonald’s, and we know when they’re going to a Burger King,” says Machado. “Sometimes doing technology moon shots can help you develop capabilities that you haven’t even thought about.”

Authenticity is gold

All kinds of statistics show that this generation loves a brand that takes a stand. But Sid Lee’s Jung, who is almost a Zoomer herself, having been born in 1995, warns that if a stand is just for show, “Gen Z is like, ‘Bye.’” 

WP Engine’s Jones agrees. “This generation, more than any other,” he says, “has been surrounded by fake”—Photoshop, people merchandising themselves on social media, fake news, etc. “So their nose for that is pretty high. And almost as a course correction, authenticity really matters.”

Gen Z is also the generation most likely to report poor mental health, having grown up with factors such as the tragedies of school shootings and the climate crisis, according to research by the American Psychological Association. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic and anxiety-provoking 2020 elections. In general, Jung urges marketers to not think about a demographic but rather ask themselves, “Who is this human being we’re trying to speak to?” It’s a difficult time for everyone, she says. “But Gen Z, unfortunately, has been dealt with not the best cards. They have a very complicated future ahead. Marketers should ask, ‘How can our brand be an ally, a friend, a supporter to help this young human being tackle the problems they’re facing?’ That’s where a great campaign for any brand starts.” 

This article originally appeared in BEYOND PRINT as syndicated content and is subject to copyright protections. All rights reserved.