Brands ‘On Fleek’: Understanding (And Working With) Gen Z

At this year’s Super Bowl, no ad generated more buzz than P&G’s powerful “Like A Girl” commercial, which reclaimed (and hash-tagged) the phrase “#LikeAGirl,” taking it from pejorative to a digital call to arms. It worked, generating over 400,000 social media mentions during the game, earning tweets from the likes of Gloria Steinem and Mia Hamm, and seeing over 55.8 million YouTube views.

From its socially inspired, gender barrier-breaking message to its built-in hashtag and multi-channel distribution, “Like A Girl” demonstrated what it takes to successfully utilize Gen Z’s values to create a viral campaign. Gen Z, the generation spanning those born from 1995 to the present, represents a quarter of the American population and $44 billion a year in disposable income.

While it’s easy to conflate these hyper-connected, smartphone-toting teens with Millennials, they are a breed unto themselves. Having never experienced a world without the internet, they are most conscious of the repercussions of their opinions, are social media natives, and multi-task across multiple screens. They’re also more diverse, less confined by gender norms, and more conscious about curating their identity than any other generation.

Brands looking to captivate Gen Z need to understand and champion this generation’s distinct world view. The good news? Gen Z is primed for collaboration. Their entrepreneurial spirit and preference for transparency, coupled with the rise of social media and crowdsourcing, means they are more inclined than previous generations to partner with brands in co-creating new experiences that meet their needs. They’re almost beginning to expect it.

And savvy brands are beginning to deliver. Coca-Cola’s 2014 “Share a Coke” campaign, for example, was a huge success that’s credited with lifting Coke sales. Personalizing Coke bottles with different names and roles (i.e. BFF), and activating social sharing, spoke directly to Gen Z precisely because it dovetailed with their values. This Valentine’s Day, Sour Patch Kids fueled Gen Z’s desire to engage with brands through hands-on experiences by tapping into a teen obsession: fan fiction. Writers from Wattpad, an online platform for authors, were invited to create Sour Patch-inspired romances, the best of which will be turned into a digital-social campaign for the brand. Gen Z are expert content creators and curators; forward-thinking brands are finding creative ways to feed this impulse.

Beyond marketing, a number of brands are beginning to think about what Gen Z’s preferences mean for the future. For example, Ford is adapting to a new reality: fewer teens are driving than ever before. In 2008 only 30% of 16 year olds had their licenses. Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s manager of global trends and “futuring” notes that for today’s teens, cars no longer symbolize independence and that means totally rethinking the value proposition. “Today I’d argue that the cellphone does that for our kids. And so we have to recognize that for companies, like Ford, to reach that younger consumer it’s not going to be about aspiration or status symbol. It’s going to be about a lifestyle accessory, a toolbox on wheels that allows them to stay connected to the things that are most important to them.” Some of Ford’s Gen Z-inspired innovations include: the Life360 app, which alerts your friends when you’re driving so they won’t text, a partnership with ZipCar, and research into self-driving cars.

When engaging with Gen Z, remember: they are fully aware that brands are collecting terabytes of data on them every day. Yet, this generation is willing to engage with brands that provide the seamless omni-channel experiences they are accustomed to, so long as their information is used to the customer’s benefit. And while there are whispers that the rise of ephemeral social networks like Snapchat is about reclaiming privacy, what this generation really craves — and what Snapchat delivers — are new, authentic experiences in real time. By meeting Gen Z on their terms, and on their turf, brands can design better experiences at every touchpoint.

So what’s a CEO or CMO to do when strategizing around today’s teens? The solution is threefold. Provide new experiences to remain relevant. Be savvy with big data to speak to their inclusive and tolerant natures and win their hearts. Plan for flexibility, no matter your company’s size, so you can move and pivot with this generation, stay mobile, and remain nimble.

This article was originally published in MediaPost.

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