Not so long ago society feared young people. The media called them “hoodies” and “hooligans”. Corner shops even banned teenagers from entering in groups. Today, youths are ridiculed for their overwhelmingly realistic and sensible approach to life. Amie Knights explores how we got from there to here in just one generation, and what that means for marketers across the world.

Millennials are often described as entitled. As one of them, let me explain. We were born into a time of relative peace and prosperity, and were promised the world. Then, just as we were stepping into university and work, everything came crashing down – much like the economy. The events of 9/11 and the Great Recession tore up our aspirations and tossed them in the trash. We’re simply products of our times. Just like the new kids on the block, Generation Z, are products of theirs.

Our newest generation have been born into an economically and politically fractured world, that’s ever more digitized. These world-weary mobile natives aren’t out chugging cheap booze, making questionable decisions or sticking a finger up to the establishment like the punks and rockers before them though. No, their revolution is far quieter, and much more sensible. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, smoking and drinking is rapidly declining, along with teenage pregnancies and arrests. Why? Kate Nightingale, head consumer psychologist and founder at Style Psychology explains, “It is a natural fluctuation of generations and influence of the current uncertain worldwide circumstances. Since the world is uncertain, they have to regain their sense of control by taking charge of whatever they can in their lives.”

So how is this increasing pragmatism impacting youths as consumers? And how can you most meaningfully connect with them? With Generation Z alone estimated to account for 40% of all consumers by 2020, these are questions you can’t afford not to ask.  

“So many brands live day to day, and in a reactionary mode, rather than staying true to who they are and what impact they make in their customers’ lives. That time is finished.”

Kate Nightingale

Get real

In a world of post-truth politics and unsubstantiated media, young people increasingly see the world through cynicism-tinted glasses. They’re cautious of politics and nervous for the future. And they’ve got their sights set on brands too. An IMB report says, “Their focus is on quality and authenticity – not on marketing hype. After all, Gen Zers are growing up at a time when ‘alterative facts’ has become a newsworthy phrase, and their familiarity with technology means they’re not easily fooled.”

It’s said that this generation have the attention span of a gnat. But, speaking to Self Made Man, 19-year-old American marketing entrepreneur Connor Blakley said, “In reality all that is, is a really good BS meter. And we get that from living in a world where we have access to a constant stream of information and technology. We can figure out what we want to pay attention to very, very rapidly.”

To survive this generation’s scrupulous selection process, you’d better make the most of the eight seconds they’re willing to give you. And if you’re pedalling anything other than an authentic message that’s true to your brand, you may as well not bother. “Nothing less than an authentic brand with a stable and interesting identity will do,” says Nightingale. “So many brands live day to day in a reactionary mode, rather than staying true to who they are and what impact they make in their customers’ lives. That time is finished.”

“Since the world is uncertain, young people have to regain their sense of control by taking charge of whatever they can in their lives.”

Kate Nightingale

Sell the end game

The leisure sector doubled between 2011 and 2016, contributing about £200 billion to the UK economy, and Euromonitor predicts that global expenditure on the experience economy will reach $8.2 trillion by 2028. “Experiences are king”, the consultancy McKinsey stated last year in a report arguing that “in recent years, faced with the choice of buying a trendy designer jacket or a shiny new appliance or of attending a show, consumers increasingly opt for the show and, more broadly, for experiences with their friends and families”. 

However, while affiliation with the ‘experience economy’ is rife in Millennials, there’s evidence the scales may be tipping slightly when it comes to Gen Z. A Vision Critical report states that 60% of this generation would prefer a cool product over a cool experience, compared with 23% of Millennials. Teenagers may be resigned to the fact that they’ll never be able to afford a house, but this actually means they may be more willing to part with larger sums of cash for quality products. “I know I’ll probably never be able to buy a house, so I’d spend more money on something like a really good camera or phone,” Alice, 17 explains.

That said, it’s still experiential marketing that most appeals to them. “This is a benefit and results-driven group, so don’t sell the product to them,” Julie Sokley of Autodesk told Forbes. “Instead, sell the success they will achieve by using it. This sales approach lets you connect the dots for them. Plus, this puts you in the position to be viewed by the customer as an expert who truly understands their needs.” Generally, if you give them something worth talking about, they’ll happily do your marketing for you. 

Help them, help you

The digital world has created a truly connected generation. So much so that in his TedxHouston talk Jason Dorsey, co-founder of The Center for Generational Kinetics, says a young person in America today will end up having more in common with a young person in India, than with an adult in their own country. And with their fingers seemingly glued to their phone screens at all times, this phenomenon makes total sense. Generation Z doesn’t know a world without social media. And according to Adobe, they’re spending the majority of their waking hours (10.5 hours per day) engaging with it. There are obvious benefits to this. You know where to find them for starters. But as they insatiably like, share and review, if you lose one customer, you’re likely to lose a whole lot more.

The key to keeping up? Dialogue. Generation Z are being called ‘culture creators’, and for good reason. They want to have a say in brand narratives. A 2017 Adweek post suggests that “if Gen Z consumers help produce or create the message, they’ll be more responsive to it.” And Nightingale agrees: “The best way to adapt is to start asking your customers what they want and truly listen,” she says. “It is a really simple thing. We all want to be noticed and heard. Do this and you will already win a lot of hearts and wallets, and in the process gain invaluable insight.” 

“Rather than just thinking about transparency, this generation is demanding it. It is an absolute necessity. The brands who do it really authentically and well are the ones who will continue to win.”

— Kate Nightingale

Stand for something

When you start listening you’ll notice young people are incredibly vocal about social and environmental issues. When I was a teenager, righteousness was strictly the domain of hippies and science nerds. If you preached about the disappearing o-zone layer during a school assembly you’d be pelted with orange peel. Oh how things change. Today National Geographic has 90.2 million Instagram followers – putting them in the same rankings bracket as Beyoncé, and a whopping 60% want to change the world, according to Vision Critical. Lilly, 18, says, “It’s cool to care about the environment now. It would be great if brands were more open about this stuff so we know we’re making the best decisions.” And it’s not just the environment they’re worried about. Issues of gender fluidity, diversity and feminism are high up on their agendas too.

You can already see this generation’s consciousness starting to make an impact. In the last couple of years, the UK government called for companies to disclose their pay gap data, and beauty brands such as Method and Lush revealed the ingredients and processes of all their products. Even the online behemoth Amazon got on board the transparency bandwagon, offering tours of their fulfilment centres. More than just a fun day out, this was a response to questions about their treatment of warehouse employees. According to Nightingale, this sort of transparency will be increasingly mandatory. “Rather than just thinking about it, this generation is demanding it. It’s not an either or approach anymore. It is an absolute necessity. The brands who do it really authentically and well are the ones who will continue to win.”

Young people have been given a lot of gip for their ‘Generation Sensible’ moniker. One tweet in response to a BBC infographic about Gen Z read, “Generation sensible is worryingly conservative with a small c. Why we would celebrate people graduating ever earlier as glazed-eyed drones beats me.”

Ouch. But will their quiet rebellion, their tech savvy and their concern for the future change the world for the better? We’ll soon find out. 

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