Four ways brands can engage Gen Z

Brands not willing to let Gen Z take the reins will be left behind, says Socialize's Anyce Nedir

Gen Z are a complex and fascinating generation. Young people spend half of their lives on screens and are one of the most tracked, studied, and analysed consumer groups. We are inundated with research and analysis telling us how young people are thinking, feeling, or behaving. More often than not, the picture painted is pretty bleak. For example, a recent piece of research claims that today’s young people are the loneliest generation, while another new survey suggests that almost half of Gen Z live with financial anxiety.

Yet despite the fact that they exist in a dystopian marketing goldfish bowl, where we can gather every data touch point, advertisers still don’t understand them. Connecting with Gen Z is the number one priority for an increasing number of brands, but most of them fail. According to a recent report, only 8% of Gen Z think that brands understand their generation.

No wonder the ‘Silence, brand’ meme was born to call out the endless performative brand efforts to appeal to the kids. We see you M&M’s.

To engage Gen Z, brands need to truly start listening to young people and learning how to add value to their lives. As we emerge from Covid, there are so many more ways to do this, with young people re-entering the world, socializing and working in person, and rediscovering their sense of self.

Yet, instead of embracing and aligning with Gen Z codes and values, brands are still operating according to outmoded marketing habits — such as creating TV ads, when TV is always the second screen after their iPhone. They continue to communicate on broadcast, rather than encouraging a two-way conversation.

Here are 4 ways you can engage Gen Z without being told to shut up:

Create a value exchange

In order for brands to get a step ahead of Gen Z, they need to keep on top of what’s motivating them and driving their passions. Brands must have a role that goes beyond just trying to sell products — something we at Socialize term “the value exchange value”. To do this, you need to first understand how this younger audience consumes content on social and what makes them engage with it; which takes a lot of listening, as those trends evolve on a daily basis.

One simple way to start, is to learn from young people within your organization and wider network. At Socialize we’ve created our own Gen Z unit, which collaborates through a group chat. Our younger employees can have discussions, debates and share links and posts on what resonates with them, connects with their values, and sparks their imagination. Only Gen Z get to be on that chat, and then share their learnings and insight with the rest of the team, and our clients.

Find a genuine brand purpose and commit to it

Brands must also remember that shopping and consuming are akin to activism for many young people. If young people are going to spend their money on a brand, they need that brand to align with their values. Sustainability, inclusivity, and employee rights are all issues close to the heart of Gen Z. They want brands to act on their stated purpose. The key is to be transparent and authentic. But too often, brands use sustainability or inclusivity as a marketing ploy, with the airline KLM becoming the latest in a long line of brands to face a backlash over green washing in its advertising.

Brands that fail to follow through with action face the wrath of a very vocal and highly mobilized force on social media. For example, a Chipotle outlet in Chicago recently received a public dressing down from TikToker Daniel Waterhouse (@liluzicrabgrass) after refusing him a cup of water.

His video criticising the brand got 8.6 million views. Reddit has even devoted a dedicated space to brands that have failed in their attempts to get young people on side, with badly conceived marketing tactics, such as clumsily dropping words like ‘bae’ or ‘on fleek’ into their comms.

Settle into a niche, that’s where all the kids are

Brands must also find their own distinct social proposition. Companies that have mastered this include Duolingo, which capitalized on the fact that people find its bird logo scary and created an entire character out of it, accumulating over 3m TikTok followers. Meanwhile, Scrub Daddy, the cleaning product company, created a viral account by ditching traditional comms entirely.

Accept that your brand isn’t about you anymore

Finally, brands need to let go. Gen Z won’t adapt to brand guidelines, brands must instead adapt to young consumers. Listen to their needs, embrace their values, drive tangible change, and above all, mean what you are saying and be consistent.

Brands that are not willing to let Gen Z take the reins will be left behind.

Anyce Nedir

Anyce has a multicultural profile (3 nationalities, 1 round the world trip, worked in Paris, Mexico, NYC, Barcelona and now Dubai). His deep curiosity for people and social behaviors is what led him to his passion for advertising and social media. 17+ years in digital and global network agencies (Y&R, BBDO, Havas) has allowed him to grow emblematic brands through awarded campaigns. He is now Managing director at Socialize, the Dubai office of We Are Social.

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