29 September 2023 15:05


How the popular media refers to Generation Z

Joline McGoldrick, vice president at Kantar Millward Brown, shares the agencies’ recent research to help marketers understand Gen Z

In 1989, writer Felicity Barringer wrote that older generations perceived upcoming Gen Xers as ‘a lost generation, an army of aging Bart Simpsons, possibly armed and dangerous.’ 

Some of the old-timer cynicism expressed in that New York Times article is clearly being revived in the way popular media has begun referring to Generation Z. This group of under 19s has been widely labelled as “screenagers” – ambling into adulthood phubbing (snubbing someone in favour of your mobile phone). 

We’ve spent the better part of a year studying Gen Z across 39 countries for AdReaction: Engaging Gen X, Y and Z and we think such cynicism is misplaced. True, Gen Z are spending a lot of time looking at screens but they are also a creative, self-aware and resilient generation deserving of not only the attention of brands but also their best efforts. 

Generations aren’t set in stone at birth nor are generational characteristics just a function of life stage. Instead, we all play a role in co-creating generations by shaping and making sense of the big moments we’re exposed to. We all have a part to play in driving and creating the secular trends (media, entertainment, popular culture, the products we buy and sell) that define this and every generation. 

And so, as with previous generations, Gen Z will unfold and reveal itself as it emerges into adulthood but marketers can be more in synch with and connected to them with some understanding of who they are and what they want.

So what do marketers need to know to relate to Gen Z and create better media, advertising and products to connect with them?

Demographics: Gen Z is estimated to number about 2 billion worldwide. In the US, they represent about a quarter of the population and by 2020, it is estimated they will make up 40% of all consumers. 

Formative influences: Many Gen Z-ers are the children of Gen X-ers (the smaller, less thought of, more realistic Breakfast Club generation), they’re more racially and ethnically diverse and more willing to blur lines and labels than previous generations. Older members of Gen Z were shaped by the financial crisis and the younger ones (let’s be honest) will be shaped by our ability (or inability) to get our political act together in the immediate future.

Media Behaviours: Gen Z quickly find the content they want. They’re accustomed to having information at their fingertips (58% will turn to Google for any query) and the music they want in their ears (43% are accustomed to always available digital music). Conversely, they also quickly move away from what they don’t want (instead of installing ad blockers, 69% of them physically shift away (look at another screen) from ads that they don’t want to see. 

Expectations: Gen Z want advertising that feeds their right brain – advertising that is funny (72% say that humour gives them a positive opinion of ads), with good music (58%) and a good story line (56%). When advertising delivers on this they’ll stay and pay attention. They’re less enamoured with some of the classic youth marketing techniques of celebrity (20%) or special effects (only 26% say this shapes their opinion). 

With all this in mind, what must brands do differently to connect with them?

First, brands must create campaigns that allow Gen Z consumers to co-create a shared brand experience. This group is hands on – they want to try it, take it apart and re-create it. Unlike millennials, Gen Z find hyper personalisation intrusive. Brands that let them vote for something to happen get a more positive reception (31% compared to 25% for Gen Y,) choose an option (28% compared to 25%) or take decisions (27% compared to 22%).

Second, brands need to let their target consumers look deeper inside the brand than ever before. Such openness will allow Gen Z to determine if they want a brand to be part of their lives. Although Gen Z place a great emphasis on personal privacy, they expect brands to be fully transparent. Such a strategy requires brands to share their story, their purpose and details about their production processes. This might involve owned messages but also strategic sponsored content opportunities. 

Finally, brands need to tell their stories in new ways. Traditional digital communication is too left brain, linear and factually based for this group. Gen Z seeks a digital experience that is more right brain with a focus on imagination through technologies such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, non-verbal immersive formats, music and stronger visual imagery.

Data sourced from MillwardBrown

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