Don’t assume you know Gen Z

Following the release of our latest report, We Are Gen Z: Their Power and Their Paradox, on 9th May we hosted a panel of industry experts at our London HQ to discuss the most interesting findings for brands looking to connect to this powerful demographic. Our writer, Alice Doleman shares some of the key learnings from the event.

We Are Gen Z: Their Power and Their Paradox is a deep-dive into the unfiltered, unpolished lives of the “paradoxical generation”. To examine how the generation on the verge of entering the workforce might not be quite what you expect, our Chief Strategy Officer, Mobbie Nazir was joined by Boiler Room’s Chief Business Development Officer, Steven Appleyard and Media Strategy Director, Luke InnesAndrea Moore, Global Marketing Director for Dr Martens; Anastasia Nicholl, Brand Partnerships Manager EMEA at TikTok; and our Head of Research & Insight, Paul Greenwood.

Before delving into the panel discussion, Nazir and Appleyard walked us through the six main observations from both our ethnographic study and Boiler Room’s quant-based study:

1.Gen Z = generation fluid
This generation can’t be pigeonholed, they’ve seen the damage that can be done with moral tribalism and are consequently less likely to see things in black and white. When it comes to brands they want to see collaborations or activations that reflect their hybrid personalities. Think Pogba x Stormzy.

2. Gen Z want to know what you stand for
They want to see brands anchored to a clear purpose, much like they are. And they want to see this not only in your comms but in the company culture and how you treat your employees.

3. Gen Z are still drinking
Contradictory to popular belief, they are still engaging in the normal young adult behaviour, it just often takes place in closed private environments. The big question here is how brands can interface with this generation in these spaces.

4. Physical > ephemeral
This generation sees digital content as increasingly disposable and is instead placing value in the physical and in experiences. They hold on to physical objects and memories as a reminder of who they are.

5. Learn / unlearn
Gen Z could also be known as the DIY generation. Living through the age of ‘fake news’, they have sharpened their BS filters and have learned to seek out knowledge for themselves.

6. United & divided
They are seeking connection in smaller spaces, hence the rise in finstas where their “authentic selves” are shared with close and intimate circles. Authenticity is important to them. Influencers with large followings are more likely to dissuade Gen Z.

Did any of these observations surprise you? For me, (a Gen Z’er, coincidentally) it highlighted one important thing: When it comes to this generation, brands shouldn’t assume anything.

But what did our panellists take away from it? Nazir began the questioning. 

How can brands keep up with Gen Z’s growth mindset?
“By being themselves,” states Moore. “Your audience will call you out if you don’t,” responds Nazir. Nicholl takes this one step further, suggesting this generation are bored by “curated-ness”. She says we’re experiencing “feed fatigue”, otherwise explained as a backlash to the same perfect content being regurgitated day in and day out. The solution to which is a freedom to “create however they want”, or so she says.

And is such a freedom given to them on platforms like TikTok, questions Nazir. Nicholls thinks so. “TikTok has no pressure,” it’s an antidote to the anxiety around growing up online. Nazir points out that a person’s feeds for both TikTok and Instagram will look very different. “They can post content on the platform that they might feel self-conscious about posting elsewhere.”

How can influencer marketing be used to reflect the shift in attitudes towards platforms?
“People are bored of the fake”, says Moore, audiences want to see real stories and build meaningful connections. For Dr Martens it’s not just about wearing the boots or how many followers they have, it’s about who they are. Our panellists agreed. They see authenticity as a key way of unlocking the potential of Gen Z.

For Greenwood, the opportunity lies in influencers that have something to teach their audience. People are “following others because they are good at what they do, and this is usually a skill,” he explains. He suggests that in order to maximise reach and engagement in the future, micro-influencers could be pooled together into a skill-sharing network.

“It would certainly be harder work,” replies Nazir, but it isn’t impossible thanks to platforms like TikTok democratising the influencer landscape and providing the space for micro-influencers to flourish.

Finally, how should this play out on a global versus local scale?
Innes points out the importance of understanding your audience on a granular level, of respecting the diversity of your audience. Moore expands on this. “For Dr Martens, it’s important to connect people to their local heroes”, people who have a smaller but more engaged following and in whose judgement audiences trust. Greenwood expands, saying that “beyond the work, it’s about listening to all communities and figuring out what they’re saying”, then working backwards to see how we can engage with the issues that resonate with them.

There’s no denying that Gen Z is a powerful player in the cultural sphere. This generation isn’t shy about voicing its beliefs; both online and IRL. For brands looking to connect with them, this will mean championing their own authentic narratives, finding influencers that align with it, and not being afraid to stand up for a cause that fits with their core principles. For those brands that are brave, the results could be astonishing.

For more information on the results of our Gen Z study, you can download the full report here.