We’ve heard a lot about Millennials in past few years – what we like to eat (artisanal cheeses), how we like to shop (Amazon Prime), and how the high cost of rent in cities like San Francisco leads some of us to live in shipping containers. But Millennials’ time in the spotlight is ending soon because come the college graduating class of 2018 the next generation, named Generation Z which began in 1996, will begin entering the workforce.
It’s easy for many people to use Millennial as a blanket term for young people today, even when the oldest Millennials have grade-school children and the youngest millennials, like myself, now have student loans to pay off post-college. Even reporting on election data left out millennials aged 30-36 (and tacked on voters 18-20) just because it’s easier to think of us as the youngest generation, which we no longer are. But who is this next, newest generation? We at GLGW know that this generation will make up 40% of all consumers in the year 2020, and we’ll take you through the defining characteristics of Generation Z and how they will impact branding, marketing, and innovation in the years to come.
DIGITAL SAVVY VS. DIGITAL NATIVE
Though Millennials are famous for creating digital technology and social media, Generation Z was born into it, and the majority have never known a world without smartphones or Facebook. Some may argue that younger millennials my age are also digital natives, but I say there is something very different at play here. I remember the agonizingly slow dial-up connection times, the terror of incurring large surcharges for accidentally surfing the web on my flip phone, and my first exposure to a (very grainy) viral YouTube video. Most of Generation Z is accustomed to instant HD video streaming on iPhones just about anywhere in the country. As such, access to the internet, a privilege and a rare treat for most of my childhood, is as common as breathing for my younger Gen Z sister. The way my sister experiences the internet is so radically different from what I experienced growing up that it gives a whole new meaning to the term digital native. Where before I might have been considered a digital native for easily creating a brochure on Microsoft Publisher, a true digital native from Gen Z might effortlessly create websites, publish fan fiction, or have thousands of Instagram followers before he or she can legally drive.
It’s no surprise that, given the increased pace of technological change today, even the way that Millennials and Generation Z communicate and process information is very different. I grew up with Myspace, texting, and AOL instant messenger, all of which communicated primarily through text (if rofl and ttyl can be called as such). As such, the intricacies of text communication are a hallmark of being a Millennial. Today, youth communicate more and more with images, with emojis, GIFs, and Snapchat offering an entirely new way of conveying information. I struggle to understand the subtleties of Snapchat and its many company-sponsored filters, but my teenage sister, just six years younger than I am, is perfectly at ease with this new technology.
This change in how Generation Z processes and communicates information has a big impact on branding. While Facebook and Twitter may be the best places for millennials to come in contact with brand messaging, Generation Z will look to companies that use Instagram and Snapchat effectively to determine their brand loyalty. Images, not words, will be the best way to connect with Generation Z.
VALUE DIVERSITY VS. ARE DIVERSE
Like Millennials, Generation Z is more ethnically diverse than either Baby Boomers or Generation X. Though Millennials are thought to be the most diverse, with census estimates that 44.2% of those born from 1980 to 1995 are non-white, Generation Z is the first generation in the U.S. that is majority minority. In fact, most children born today in the U.S. are non-white, and those who consider themselves multiracial are growing fastest of all (multiracial youths have grown by 50% since 2000). Diversity isn’t just limited to race or ethnicity either. While 65% of Millennials identify as “exclusively heterosexual”, less than half of Generation Zfrom ages 13-21 identify the same way. Additionally, the conversation around diversity for their generation has expanded beyond ethnicity and sexuality to include disability, body norms, non-binary gender, socioeconomic status, and other categories that previously received little public attention.
Gen Z’s diversity contributes to deeply-held values that have direct business implications. For example, a declining percentage of youth buy products specific to their gender, preferring gender-neutral or unisex options. Companies that represent racial groups as distinct from one another could isolate multiracial Gen Z’s, who make up 1 in 10 of this generation. In order to better engage younger consumers, brands should work to show they value all forms of diversity in an authentic and novel way. One example of this is Louis Vuitton’s Spring Womenswear Campaign featuring Jaden Smith wearing a skirt, which isn’t so groundbreaking to those in younger generations that see gender as more fluid. Keep in mind that while not every individual young person today may share these same experiences or views on diversity, this generation as a whole represents a major shift in the way gender, race, and sexuality are perceived. The change in diversity in society may not always equal what we experience on a day-to-day basis where we live, but when taken as a whole the US is becoming a much more diverse place.
SEEK EXCLUSIVITY VS. VALUE INCLUSIVITY
The diversity of Generation Z also links to another widely shared value, inclusiveness. Millennials in popular culture have usually been shown to focus on exclusivity, rather than on inclusiveness. Growing up in the mid-2000s was peak “clique”, highlighted by the 2004 release of Mean Girls (which had groups named, somewhat insensitively, as “Cool Asians”, “Plastics”, etc.). In addition to cliques, Mean Girls was also attuned to how conspicuous consumption played out in high school (“She has two Fendi purses and a silver Lexus”). Teen movies since the 1990s, like Clueless and She’s All That, retained this focus on cliques, popularity, and exclusivity, where what you looked like and what you wore and bought reflected your place in the high school pecking order.
Today, Mean Girls-esque clique culture in schools is somewhat diminished in part because of the radically different way preteens and teens socialize today. Youth today are no longer limited by their location, and now have a plethora of social networks to choose from to express themselves and connect with others who may live far away from where someone goes to high school. Thus, the clothing brands that status-hungry millennials built up to showcase their clique-alignment, like Abercrombie & Fitch, have faced difficulties as the market for today’s youth has shifted away from teen apparel touting exclusivity. In fact, some preteens and teens today reject buying flashy products or sharing high-end experiences on social media that could potentially leave out less-privileged peers.
Brands that succeed in appealing to Gen Z’s preference for inclusiveness enable the individual to express their own unique persona, rather than defining the individual for them through their product. Apple, for example, has succeeded in showing how the iPhone can help people connect with those closest to them and to showcase their personality better than those using competing smartphones. In terms of clothing, many people in Generation Z see blending in as a way of standing out through a style known as “normcore,” which emphasizes comfortable and neutral styling. It may seem counterintuitive for a generation that is known for its individualism to gravitate toward normcore fashion, but personally I think that Generation Z is more nuanced in the ways in which they showcase their personas. An Instagram feed, showing the events, likes, and hobbies of a person, is a more holistic way of telling the world who they are than a pair of jeans would otherwise be on its own.
Companies have many ways in which they can better appeal to individualistic and inclusivity focused Gen Z, especially through social media. Older millennials were exposed to branding messages from storefronts or print and TV advertisements, which by their nature have limited time and space to show a brand’s main message. Today, the ease and frequency with which brands can communicate on Instagram and Snapchat allows them to better encompass the lifestyle and values of their brand in a cost-effective and more authentic way. Brands like ASOS, Nike, and GoPro share user-submitted posts, aspirational lifestyle photos, and can even incorporate other brands with similar target demographics to provide consumers a more comprehensive idea of what a brand is about while bringing in real consumers. The current growth of livestreaming is already generating new formats and strategies that blur lines between commercials and entertainment, like the MikMak app.
After looking at Generation Z’s digital and image orientation, diversity, and shared focus on inclusiveness, it’s apparent that some of their differences from Millennials warrant a different strategy for creating and branding products geared toward this youngest generation. There’s no doubt that Millennials changed the game by setting up new standards for work, marriage, and a growing concern for environmental sustainability. We at GLGW are excited to see how Gen Z will both create entirely new ways of looking at the world and how they’ll build off what changes Millennials already achieved.