The Basics of Marketing to Gen Z

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Everyone wants to market to Gen Z. They are, after all, the new generation of consumers — and already represent over $140 billion of spending power. But they’re a challenging group, those Gen Zers. They hold brands to high standards and you won’t find them in the traditional marketing channels.

In talking with Josh Richards and Griffin Johnson — creative directors of my new Gen Z focused marketing consultancy — I’ve gained a greater insight into this media-savvy generation.

Totaling some 68 million people, Gen Z (the oldest of which will turn 24 this year) makes up roughly 20% of the U.S. population. In 2020, the cohort of Gen Z and the generation that follows (dubbed Gen Alpha) became the new majority in the U.S. Like the millennials who came before them, 45% of Gen Zers say they are online almost constantly. But unlike millennials, most Zoomers cannot recall a time without smartphones and social media. The Zoomers are coming, and it’s time to reimagine how we market to this media-savvy group.

Why Traditional Marketing Doesn’t Work

The rise of smartphones means that Gen Z isn’t tied to the location of the television. They can watch whatever they want, whenever they want. Gen Zers can select from a wider variety of content at the swipe of a finger, much of it created by their own peer group. In order to cut through the noise, commercial interruptions need to be shorter to match the bite-sized nature of the content being consumed via social media.

In order to establish meaningful connections, brands need to have an even deeper understanding of how their target audience uses each platform than ever before. Ads should be both attention-grabbing and seamlessly fit into the type of content Gen Z is trying to consume on each app or site. This is where the influencer steps in.

Influencers Are Now the New Celebrities

Influencers have even greater appeal than yesterday’s celebrities. They are considered more relatable — making their promotions feel more like a friend giving you a recommendation than a hard sell. This unique mix of relatability and aspiration is highly powerful and has proven to resonate with young consumers. In fact, Gen Z is almost twice as likely as millennials to make a purchase based on a recommendation of an influencer.

One strategy that brands can implement now is to engage influencers who are digital natives, just like their audiences. Campaigns shouldn’t be celebrity endorsements dressed up in new packaging. While partnering with celebrity heavyweights — like Dwayne Johnson and Katy Perry, boasting 342 million and 338 million followers, respectively — can be good for brand awareness, the blisteringly high prices these celebrities charge can make achieving a positive ROI nearly impossible.

Instead, brands should look to activate influencers with highly engaged followers that share a natural affinity for their products or services. Though these influencers may have a smaller total number of followers, they tend to have a more authentic relationship with their audience, allowing them to punch above their weight when it comes to sales and conversions.

The Rolling Stone Culture Council is an invitation-only community for Influencers, Innovators and Creatives. Do I qualify?

What Actually Works

When it comes to marketing to Gen Z, some basic tenets will bolster your strategies.

• Trust is important. Gen Z consumers make purchasing decisions based on trust. Increasingly, they want to know what a brand stands for. The company has to be about more than making a profit.

• Let Gen Z speak to Gen Z. Whether you’re using an influencer or an agency, make sure the authentic Gen Z voice comes through loud and clear. Find people who speak — not mimic — the language.

• Instagram is not television. Social media is not the same as traditional advertising, and there are no opportunities for plug-and-play creative tactics. Marketing needs to be customized for the channel. So, you may want to rethink that TikTok ad you’re hoping to run on Instagram.

• Influencers matter. Influencers are what allow new products and services to disrupt the market and dominate the old guard. They act as the liaison between the brand and the customer, so take time to find relevant influencers.

• Communicate with precision. Gen Z is the most diverse generation in U.S. history, and when it comes to messaging, one size does not fit all. Use data intelligently to determine how to segment and communicate with the various groups.

Get Ready for Gen Z

Gen Z is a refreshingly savvy demographic. They usher in a new set of expectations for the companies they buy from. You must earn their trust, as they need to believe in your product as well as your purpose. Only then will Gen Z reward you with their business and their loyalty. They have some pretty high expectations, but we think it’s a change for the better.

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