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Ideas Media planning

Beyond the myths: a fresh look at Generation Z

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Clare Chapman

Gen Z values and their impact on attitudes to advertising

As occurs with every fresh cohort of potential new customers, sweeping statements about Generation Z abound. Observed trends based on small numbers of high profile actions dominate the narrative, painting a vivid portrait of an uber-woke generation of young adults defined by protest and a desire for change. Passionate environmentalists, committed activists; they’re all vegan, teetotal and gender-fluid. Or so the story goes. But can this really be true? Should we accept the perceived wisdom that there’s no point marketing to Gen Z unless your campaign communication is underpinned by a worthy cause?

We suspected not. Especially as the other popular narrative surrounding Gen Z points to a generation glued to their phones, obsessed with TikTok, fuelled and connected by silly fun. Hyper-creative and inexplicably filled with nostalgia for the 90s - a decade most didn’t even exist in - this alternative portrayal of Gen Z seems a million miles from the first. So could the truth possibly lie somewhere in between?

We set out to discover for ourselves, deploying a blend of qual and quant surveys and in-person (pre-coronavirus) focus groups. Our mission: to understand whether there really is a specific, defining quality of Gen Z. If so, what is it? And how should this understanding guide how we design and activate brand communications?

On beginning our fieldwork, we quickly realised that Gen Z are indeed a different breed, with significant implications for how we should communicate with them; our focus group subjects conveyed a raging need for independence and control, and a highly protective attitude towards ‘their’ spaces. We heard of drastic ad avoidance tactics in certain environments and extreme irritation with advertising that was deemed interruptive or irrelevant.

As standalone observations, nothing here seems surprising or new. Every new cohort of teens and young adults strives to assert their independence and difference from their elders. They kick back against the establishment, creating alternative ways of being, and adopting new ideas and technology. Media plays a vital role in this process, with identities created and expressed via choices of music, film and role models. Similarly, ad avoidance is a decades-old behaviour (Gen Z make tea when the ads come on TV, just like their grannies!)

What’s different this time is the technological context in which Gen Z are operating; the age-old truths described above have collided with a very modern phenomenon. When it comes to youthful expression, in Gen Z we have the first generation who take it for granted that they can wield absolute control over the content they consume and the identity they project to the world. Having never really known a life without the internet or smart phones, they're used to accessing whatever content they want, when and wherever they choose. Although Millennials (Gen Y) are often referred to as digital natives, this is inaccurate. Actually, they just adopted the new technologies - albeit very quickly and proficiently. The special thing about Gen Z is that they are the first generation of true digital natives.

In terms of what we see, therefore, as the defining feature of Gen Z: it’s as though they consider control of content consumption and self expression as a basic human right. Woe betide anyone who tries to come between them and the media they are trying to use!

GlobalWebIndex and other data sources reinforce this notion of a break between generations. While Millennial behaviours reached ‘peak digital’ thanks to their swift embrace of new technologies, Gen Z have outstripped them as the first group to think digital-first in response to almost any need.

This difference is also reflected in Gen Z’s more comprehensive use of social media platforms. The younger group are active across many more apps, employing them variously to suit their different needs (note that the December 2019 Comscore data shows relatively low penetration for TikTok, which exploded during lockdown). The comparison is particularly stark when we consider audio consumption, with IPA Touchpoints data showing us how Millennials prefer live radio while Gen Z are overwhelmingly biased toward streaming. The figures are approaching the inverse of one another, with Gen Z spending almost half the time listening to radio and double that with streaming than their closest cousins.

Our findings led us to establish five principles for engaging with Gen Z which, if followed, will maximise the chances of communicating successfully with them. Note that all our research was conducted in the UK although we strongly suspect our findings and the associated implications are transferable to other mature markets where the technological context mirrors that of the UK.

1. Don’t Interrupt

As previously mentioned, we encountered extraordinary levels of ad avoidance and received a thorough education on the tactics that Gen Z use to tackle ads which they consider interruptive. Their strongest objections were reserved for ads in streaming environments - the places where they most feel they should have control. Our quantitative survey validated what we heard in the focus groups, revealing that audio ads in streaming environments are four times more annoying to Gen Z than those on live radio. Our subjects would close down or restart their streaming apps in efforts to cheat ad-funded systems. Some would simply abandon their intended content consumption when confronted with an ad, and a large portion subscribed to premium, ad-free environments. This widespread monetary investment in ad avoidance was particularly unexpected, given Gen Z’s limited disposable income.

Fortunately, not all ads in all environments were considered interruptive. In-feed social ads were deemed okay, as were those in more traditional environments such as out of home and free commuter papers. Somewhat surprisingly, some ads were even warmly regarded, with those in the cinema being particularly successful at engaging and capturing attention.

2. Go Native

Whilst directing anger toward ads that get in their way, it’s important to note that Gen Z are not fundamentally anti-advertising: they often enjoy, are influenced by and respond positively to marketing communications. The trick in some of those more ‘controlled’ environments is to make the advertising feel seamless.

To this end we found that sponsorships, well-integrated promotions, product placement and activations such as podcast host reads could all meet with success. Love Island, for example, proved a particularly powerful sales vehicle, with one young woman admitting “the water bottle, the suitcase…I bought everything”. 

3. Be Authentic

Naturally, there is a watchout with regards to going native. As we have seen, Gen Z are extremely protective of ‘their’ environments and this extends to their communities too, where they are highly sensitive to interlopers. Gen Z want to feel at home, amongst peers and un-intruded upon by those who do not understand or speak their language - see the OK Boomer meme for further evidence of this.

This being the case, native communications must also feel authentic, and there’s specific guidance here for working with influencers. Eagle-eyed and attentive, Gen Z abandon all trust in celebrities who do endless commercial tie-ups and are clearly “just in it for the money”. The faces must be a natural fit with both the brand and the environment and definitely not look greedy.

4. Be Relevant & Helpful

Whilst good common sense when planning against any target audience, relevance and helpfulness are certainly worth highlighting in regard to Gen Z. They are, of course, incredibly savvy and understand the use of data to target ads. Furthermore, they are not just aware of it but expect it - even though they all agree it’s a bit “creepy”. While well-targeted ads can be welcomed and considered useful, interruptive ads are deemed to be even worse when they are not even relevant. The outrage of the teenager whose music streaming was repeatedly interrupted by ads for a garden centre (“Why would I want compost?”) neatly underlined this. On the contrary, Instagram ads promoting tour dates for a favoured artist were considered useful.

We should remember too that relevance is also a factor of context and mindset. For example, one young man described his journey to and from work: in the morning he listened live to TalkSport in order to set himself up for the day. Working in a male-dominated team he needed this daily dose of intel to prep for a day of office banter. On the way home, his time was his own. He was back in control and usually chose to listen to a podcast. Tapping in to these varied need states is another way to be relevant and even helpful to Gen Z.

5. Have a Good Sense of Humour and Great Taste in Music

One major myth we busted in the course of our research was that Gen Z are receptive only to advertising that speaks to a cause they support. In our qualitative survey we compared Gen Z to Millennials and found virtually no difference in what made ads memorable to them. In fact, “made me laugh” was by far the top answer for both groups, with “related to a cause I support” coming a distant fourth place in each case.

This indifference to cause-based marketing was borne out across our focus groups where humour and music repeatedly surfaced as being what Gen Z notice, warm to and remember from advertising. This chimes neatly with the rise of TikTok, whose unique combination of catchy tunes and silliness has captured Gen Z hearts, fuelling its huge success (we’ll take a closer look at this in Part 2 of this article, as we examine how lockdown changed Gen Z media behaviours).

As a final point, it’s worth noting that when Gen Z do recall a cause-based campaign, it’s most often because it had a negative impact. Those considering purpose-led communications must take great care over their tone of voice - Gen Z don’t like feeling lectured to - and ensure there is a clear, authentic link between the brand and their adopted cause.

In conclusion, we must understand that Gen Z, like all other cohorts, are a collection of individuals rather than an amorphous mass. They are definitely not all activists, creatives, exclusively digital or even necessarily liberal. But, it’s certainly safe to say that they all want to be respected and in control. They all want to see themselves authentically reflected in advertising. They all want to have a laugh. And they cannot resist a catchy hook.