Move over, Millennials – it’s Gen Z’s turn in the spotlight

gen z boys and girls books walking smiling

More and more, the generation our clients are interested in understanding is Gen Z – what matters to them, how best to connect via content and products, and what their expectations are towards brands and experiences. In 2017 alone, we spoke to over 50,000 Gen Zers across categories ranging from snacking to streaming and fashion to fan fiction – all of which gives us deep insight into this broad and still developing cohort.

We’ve been working with kids and young people over the last 20 years, defining Gen Z as those born between 1997 (an age break recently validated by Pew) and 2011, giving us a group ranging in age from 7 to 21 years old. Given the many developmental stages that take place within this age range, it is important to understand the significant differences that exist between younger and older Gen Zers while identifying the common macro forces that provide common threads across this cohort.

At the younger end of the cohort, Gen Zers are still going through the work of childhood, achieving personal growth as they age up through universal developmental stages like building a friendship circle, figuring out what their interests and talents are, practicing and developing skills, beginning to understand cause and effect, and understanding others’ POVs for the first time. Meanwhile, the oldest Gen Zers are leaning into early adulthood milestones, such as renting their first apartment and drinking their first legal drink – and in between, this cohort is going through multiple life-changing firsts, including their first phone, first love, first job, etc.

Common across Gen Z, these youngsters are developing their identities in a world where traditional social structures are losing stability (from less set career paths, to declining religiosity, to increasing skepticism toward established authorities). Filling this gap is an increasingly complex array of brands, products, and media that Gen Zers use to explore who they want to be, how they want to be perceived by the world, and how they can best achieve it. Aligning, adapting, and sharing branded (or brand-supported user generated) content gives young people a way to express a POV, establish allegiances, and evolve based on reactions from their peers and the wider world.

This Explore/Express cycle helps Gen Z construct, curate, and evolve their identities:

While the exact age cutoffs for any generational cohort will always be open to argument, the shared experiences and collective consciousness exhibited within generations provides much insight into their expectations regarding brands, content, and experiences. From our experience studying youth and tracking this generation from infancy, we have identified a number of macro factors critical to understand when addressing Gen Z.

  • Inheriting a World in Crisis – from living through the impact of the global financial crash and seeing their parents and older siblings struggle, to global warming, terrorism, and political instability, they live at a time when stability can’t be taken for granted.
  • Practiced Pragmatism – no rose-tinted glasses for today’s youth. This generation is financially savvy, looking to get the best bang for their buck and saving for a rainy day.
  • The Hustle is Real – from the Kardashians to Michelle Phan, this generation is growing up with a new set of entrepreneurial role models and a variety of platforms to help them achieve their goals. From actively monetizing their social media influence, to using tools like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, their expectations about work have been developed against the rise of the gig economy and the power of networks.
  • Mature & Mindful – in comparison to their older counterparts, we are seeing the rejection of some of the more hedonistic and rebellious aspects of teen life. Illegal alcohol and drug use is down, physical fights are down, teen pregnancy has dropped, and traditional dating is becoming a thing of the past.
  • Diversity is the New Normal – in the US alone, the Census Bureau predicts half of all under 18s will belong to a minority racial or ethnic group by 2020. At the same time, gender and sexuality are increasingly fluid with fewer kids self-identifying as straight only.

And last but by no means least, they are Mobile-First Media Omnivores. Beyond being digital natives, they are platform agnostic. From our work, we know the average age for children’s first smartphone ownership is decreasing, and the majority of Gen Zers spend most of their free time online, consuming content across more screens (e.g., smartphones, tablets, wearables, TV, laptops, gaming devices) than even Millennials. They move fluidly across platforms and channels, readily consume user generated content alongside professionally produced media, and expect brands to keep up, providing seamless digital interactions whenever and wherever they desire.


This new ecosystem means brands have to adapt and evolve to stay relevant:

  • From consumers to fans – we must move beyond the top-down construct of a passive consumer to account for today’s empowered, interconnected, demanding, and influential fans.
  • From macro to micro – mass-market macro content and products are easy to ignore for today’s consumers who are spoiled for choice; instead, they crave brands that super serve their niche in the long tail of micro audiences and needs.
  • From product to content – marketing and content are increasingly synonymous, and traditional product manufacturers must also be adept content creators and storytellers to build stronger connections with consumers.


Achieving that elusive Gen Z connection

From our work and experience with this cohort, we have identified five drives that brands can leverage to build Gen Z engagement. These drives have been seen consistently across the various categories and different Gen Z segments we’ve worked with.

  • Drive for personalization – how are you giving Gen Z the ability to make something truly theirs?
  • Drive to express themselves – how are you enabling Gen Z to use your brand and content in a way that can be communicated outwards as they construct their identity?
  • Drive to further causes they care about – how can your brand purpose authentically support the issues they care about?
  • Drive to have meaningful brand dialog – how can you incorporate feedback or foster authentic interactivity across the brand experience/content touch points that matter most?
  • Drive for instant gratification – how are you ensuring timely and seamless access, information, service, and engagement?

Is your brand set up to win with Gen Z? Successful brands consistently demonstrate several of the above benefits to drive connection and win the hearts, minds (and wallets) of the next generation. From Nike, to Fenty, to Teen Vogue – are you keeping pace with the brands and platforms that Gen Z is integrating into their worlds?


We’re happy to share more around our experience and understanding of Gen Z – Drop us a line here, and we’ll be in touch!

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