For Gen Z, their path to adulthood has been shaped by immense uncertainty, concern, and change — requiring them to be flexible and adaptable as they find their footing. As a group they can be seen as thoughtful or fickle, collaborative or self-obsessed, humorous or righteous. This ability to embrace contradiction defines their uniqueness as a generation, but can be a puzzle for marketers. As Gen Z amasses spending power, knowing what influences their decision-making and gains their loyalty can be difficult to pin down. Here are six notable ways to relate to Gen Z and provide them unquestionable value.
1. Have empathy for their reality. For Gen Z, their coming up has been challenged by a global pandemic, record inflation, and geopolitical conflict. From a young age, they have been navigating complex and mounting issues — the traditional hallmarks of adulthood like graduations, first jobs, and marriage have been undermined or delayed. A whopping 64% of Gen Z adults feel their life is not going as planned. In addition, from our OKRP Gen Z Power Panel we have seen that social media can make young consumers feel disenfranchised and disengaged. For marketers, understanding this context can help explain Gen Z’s unapologetic nature, cynical or absurd humor, and sometimes fickle consumer behavior. It’s brands that prioritize Gen Z’s need for greater control, comfort, and self-expression in our complicated world that are successful.
2. Check your relationship to them: Often we ask what is the role of the brand? As marketers, we can make this answer very complex and nuanced, but for Gen Z it is very simple. Gen Z is the main character of their story, not us. We should be authentic supporters of them. This includes having a perspective and personality, without being a “pick me” person in their life. Gen Z already seeks out brands like they would friends, celebrities or influencers. According to a recent Forbes survey, more than a third of Gen Z users follow brands they like on social media and approximately one-fourth follow brands from which they’re considering purchasing. Making realistic and relatable content for Gen Z as a friend would, rather than aspirational or generic themes, is how to build a relationship with them. Believe it or not, consumers even love to see the social media brand manager, intern, or founder behind the work! This realism helps ground and comfort Gen Z in a time of uncertainty — making it easier for them to connect with you.
3. Provide emotional value: Great value is maximizing consumer choices with emotional benefits. Specifically for Gen Z, they look for quality, aesthetics, and social capital in the brands they choose. These potential benefits are linked to their always-on, digital nature. This group seeks not only information and entertainment on social media, but also as an affirmation of who they are. What’s online and knowing what brands people are using helps Gen Z shape their own sense of identity. This can be both a positive, empowering journey of self-expression or the comparison to others can diminish their self-confidence. Gen Z will be the most loyal to brands that can give positive affirmation and help them authentically express themselves. For instance, Dove’s recent #turnyourback campaign fought the use of hyper-glam selfie filters and was an excellent extension of their brand platform around natural beauty. Their positive affirmation to consumers earned nearly 58.9M views on TikTok.
4. Give Gen Z space to play: Brands can give Gen Z something they crave in an unpredictable world — more power and more fun in their everyday life. When brands invite Gen Z to experience the brand on their terms or make it their own, it is an opportunity to drive top-of-mind awareness and relevance. Letting consumers into the brand can take the form of audio, video, or digital customizations and add-ons. For instance, OKRP’s viral “You Rule” campaign for Burger King centered around giving consumers more agency and abundance. The campaign’s infectious “Whopper Whopper” jingle was ripe for parody and remakes among old and new brand fans. The jingle not only made Burger King and their whoppers unforgettable, it garnered over a billion campaign impressions and 727K+ unique social mentions.
5. Embrace their warped sense of humor: Society has high expectations for Gen Z — to save the earth, drive social change, fight for gun regulation, deal with failing institutions — and it’s too much. The way Gen Z counterbalances their anxiety is through humor. In our Gen Z Power Panel, this audience acknowledged their generation’s humor is a bit warped and works as a coping mechanism. And as brand stewards, we must consider how to both shoulder Gen Z’s burden and give them an outlet for retreat to laugh and to have fun. In 2021, the “Eat a Swede” campaign from the Swedish Food Federation was a shocking example of Gen Z humor and a modern lesson in grabbing attention for important issues. In this faux-documentary, the industry group encouraged people to go cannibalistic and sample lab-grown human meat. Don’t worry, it was all a ruse to promote eco-friendly food production to heal the planet.
6. Communicate in real-time: Gen Z does not schedule and wait for their entertainment. They much prefer on-the-go viewing, consuming via social channels, or only watching highlights from games, shows, or events. Brands have permission and should feel encouraged to engage with young consumers in transactional, quick, low-cost ways to better fit Gen Z’s communication style and the culture of apps like TikTok, X, and Twitch. Make content that uses short-hand and inside jokes, not drawn out brand stories. Engagement and loyalty to brands can be built quickly with this approach. By using trend casting and embracing the fast, unpolished quality of TiKTok, OKRP helped increase consideration for Nerds Gummy Clusters, which is now one of the leading candies in the US.
Driving value for Gen Z comes down to understanding the context of how they’ve come to age and the humor, communication style, and their version of value that followed. Our challenge as brand stewards is to follow Gen Z’s lead and allow ourselves to be relatable, supportive, and real-time just like them.