Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Stereotypes, influencers, and a guilty conscience: brands don’t understand Gen Z

By David Burgman, Managing director and co-founder, Raptor

Today’s brands spend enormous sums of money marketing their products and services to Generation Z. That’s because Gen Z holds a serious chunk of spending power – £300 billion, according to one recent estimate. That figure rises even more when you consider their future personal spending and influence on disposable family income.

Despite this, brands are failing to use those hefty marketing budgets to best effect. Many Gen Z-ers feel companies are out of touch with their motivations and culture. Based on a recent focus group I hosted with a collection of student ambassadors, it sounds like some are even pushing their target customers away.

Any brand that succeeds in cracking this problem will achieve a serious competitive advantage. Gen Z has money to spend, but they’re careful about where they spend it. Brands need to recognise where they’re going so wrong.

Nobody likes a try-hard

One of the principal outtakes from my recent focus group was that brands often try too hard when marketing to Gen Z audiences. In their eagerness to coax them into a purchase, they come across as awkward and cringeworthy. No matter what generation you’re in, this is never a good look.

Some of the Gen Z-ers in the group mentioned style and tone of language as an explicit example of this. They said brands often attempt to use Gen Z ‘lingo’ to connect with them, using colloquial language on OOH advertising or social media, but most often failing to hit the right notes.

It’s easy to see how this happens. Middle-aged marketing managers with a few executives only a few years out of university feel connected enough to speak to a young audience. But they fail to recognise how fast youth culture moves today. The buzzwords of yesterday adopt different meanings today (I discovered this myself with the word ‘peak’, which Gen Z-ers now apparently use to refer to bad things!)

Stereotypes abound

We marketers tend to like lumping people together in groups. That makes them more manageable and easier to understand – easier to market to. But that can also go wrong when we lump people into the wrong categories based on false assumptions.

My focus group pointed this out as another major mistake brands make when targeting them. Too often, they said, companies assume that Gen Z-ers all prescribe to one stereotyped culture: climate-conscious, sustainably-minded, and financially cautious. This can often lead to inauthentic influencer marketing when companies assume a certain product will interest the followers of a specific account without proper research.

Just like every other generation, Gen Z is divided into an array of different subcultures. These all relate to different interests, styles, motivations, and even emotions. Brands that conflate these subcultures in their advertising will not only waste their money, but may even damage potential relationships.

Pressure to conform

Linked to generational stereotypes relating to Gen Z’s ethical conscience, some of those in my focus group admitted to feeling pressured by brands to conform to specific behaviours. Advertising relating to sustainable clothing, for example, too often made them feel bad for purchasing in a specific way.

Guilt-tripping as a marketing tactic has never been a healthy approach. In many ways, Gen Z-ers have been unwilling to put up with some of the behaviours of previous generations. But brands must exercise caution in assuming how far they’re eager to push it. Those in my focus group expressed feeling closer to older generations than those generations realise.  Forcing them to act in specific ways will only lead to negative associations.

Gen-Z marketing participation

Two things became clear during my focus group experience: brands are disconnected from their Gen-Z audiences, but they can better connect with them by letting them participate. Hosting the focus group itself revealed an array of insights that would have led to quick improvements in any Gen Z-focussed marketing campaign.

There are, of course, other ways for brands to involve Gen Z-ers in their marketing. They could offer regular work experience and internship opportunities. And when they do that, ensure the aspiring marketers have the opportunity to provide insight and contribute. Have faith in them to complete creative tasks and participate in ideation sessions.

They can also hire student ambassadors directly from their target audiences. They’ll not only have the contacts and knowledge about their generation’s culture to market to their peers, they’ll be able to feed that insight back into their employer’s marketing team too. Almost half of all students consider careers in marketing. They’re eager for the opportunities to participate.

Marketing to Gen Z requires brands to take a simple step: involve them. Without doing so, they’ll only create more distance between themselves and the people they’re trying to connect with.