Here's What Brands Can Do To Break Into Gen Z's Minds

Emily Bright

Who would have ever thought that being born between 1997 and 2012 would be some of the most fascinating minds to dive into and also one of the most mysterious. Growing up in a world of modern technology, social media, and constant societal changes, Gen Z undoubtedly determines the future of consumer culture, and understanding how they think is vital to successful branding.

Brands and marketers seem to be obsessed with Gen Z and how they interact with the world. Growing up in the era of social media presents uncharted waters, and brands are dying to know what goes on in these young adults' minds who grew up naturally tech-savvy. But being tech-savvy isn't Gen Z's only accomplishment. Gen Zers prove to be ambitious, competitive, socially and environmentally-conscious, passionate, and they want to see these characteristics echoed in the brands they support.

Marketers want to uncover how Gen Z follows trends, what values they align with, and how brands can assert themselves as the dominant choice in the industry. Yet, it seems that the market has fallen short with this task. Marketing Week wrote that Gen X markets are "struggling" to appeal to consumers under 25-years-old, highlighting the disconnect between older generations and the current Gen Z consumers. Often focusing on the negative stereotypes of Gen Z, marketers tend to miss the mark of finding an emotional connection with consumers, which is one of the best tactics for building a strong brand image. In reality, Gen Z just wants to support brands that help them shape their individual identities and self-image as well as making their purchases feel justified.

In February 2020, Adweek released a piece on which brands have made the best emotional connection to young consumers. Among the most successful are Xbox, Playstation, Spotify, Sephora, H&M, American Eagle, Vennmo, and Louis Vuitton. What do they all have in common? They each have a strong brand image, a signature style, an interactive and appealing nature, and an allure to technology (because let's face it, technology is a very big part of Gen Z.) When looking to appeal to Gen Z, use these brands' marketing strategies and strongly-formed brand intimacy as models.

Gen Z holding sign that reads

In 2018, Forbes released an article highlighting the ways to market to Gen Z, as told by the Forbes Communications Council. The main takeaways include telling the truth to consumers, working with influencers, start by knowing that you don't know anything, and providing digitally native experiences, among others. But what about the perspective from true Gen Z consumers themselves?

One undeniable fact holds true- transparency is key in retaining a Gen Z audience, especially a college-aged audience. Morality and truth are seamlessly incorporated into the buying habits of Gen Z and their inherent support of a brand. That's why The Spin spoke to other Gen Z college students to see what they value most in a brand, what kind of marketing tactics are effective, and what turns them off to a product.

Our biggest takeaway: marketers must appeal to Gen Z's shared ethics and values.

Ritika Chopra, a student at the University of Texas-Austin, says that a brand’s ethics are crucial to her and her decision on who to support. "Many of my consumer choices are influenced by whether or not the company acts with integrity, spanning from ethical sourcing, proper treatment of employees, and fulfillment of legal responsibilities. Going hand in hand with integrity, it is also important to me that a company partakes in corporate social responsibility. Most companies have a substantial platform to push positive change, and it's really important that brands recognize and act on this advantage. Especially in these challenging times, if a company chooses to turn a blind eye to the entire situation, I find it difficult to support their efforts. A brand that I support is not a brand that is purely driven by profitability."

Lizzie Schneider, a student at the University of Southern California, values brands that are environmentally friendly and socially conscious. "We want to support brands that align with our own ideals. We want to see brands who have a strong online presence support social justice causes, and we want them to intertwine this work with their products. If these brands stand strongly for valuable causes and have accessible pricing, design, and PR strategies, they are a brand worth reckoning with."

As a value stated earlier, Lauren Fialkow, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, looks for transparency in a brand. “I want to know exactly what I’ll receive when I buy merchandise from a brand. If a brand is transparent, I can trust that the brand has given me reason to buy their product as opposed to other products from homogeneous brands. I’ll also be more likely to recommend it to family and friends. I appreciate when I know everything about a brand from the start, even before I start making purchases. I like to buy from brands share similar values to me, and I definitely do not want to buy from a brand that has inherent biases towards certain groups of people or treats their employees poorly. I support brands that promote inclusivity and optimism, so if a brand is clear about their intent and message, I’ll find comfort in supporting it from the beginning."

Emily Bornstein, a student at the University of Southern California, wants to find brands that inspire and motivate her and strive to help causes that she supports in her daily life. "As humans, we are naturally attracted to people, products, and messages that understand us and the way we think. When I am looking to improve myself by cutting down on my animal-product consumption while also remaining nutritious and nourished, I seek out products that actively target consumers like me, emphasizing health, protein, energy, environmental sustainability, and anti-animal cruelty in their branding. These products would then seem to accomplish all of the food-related goals of my day. When a brand aligns with my values and seems as if they care about issues that I am passionate about, I feel that my voice is heard and represented."

Feryal Nawaz, a student at Syracuse University, looks to a brand's authenticity and recognition of its strengths and weaknesses when making purchases. A brand's accountability is often a good indicator of its morals. "For example, when SHEIN had sold a necklace on their website that resembled a Swastika, I immediately went to their Instagram page to see if they had responded and taken accountability. Posting a graphic saying “We’re sorry!” was not enough for an ex-customer like myself though, and the authenticity from the brand was not there. When brands receive negative feedback on their social media, making sure to interact with their customers is very important."

According to Gen Z, the use of social media must be stratetgic and efficient. Victoria Cattin, a student at the University of Florida-Gainesville, finds a brand’s virtual platform to be one of its most important aspects. "I truly value the websites’ layout and the ease of browsing in addition to the quality of the product. In today's world, social media is the best marketing tactic; a brand’s aesthetics and content creators strongly influence my shopping decisions, alongside a few influencers that I trust and consider reliable sources. For example, through social media, I have become more aware of the environmental impact that my fashion choices have. Since then, I try to find a balance between sustainability and fast fashion."

One of the biggest traps marketers can fall into is hopping on the bandwagon of becoming "trendy" in their branding. Take Black Lives Matter for example- this fight for justice has stirred one of the greatest and most widespread movements of the 21st century, and brands have used this opportunity to vocalize their morals and values, especially on social media platforms. However, many brands are being called out for hopping on the #BLM movement, viewing it as "trendy" without actually supporting the cause and associated organizations. Gen Z wants to see authentic support year-round and in the long run and not as a marketing ploy to follow a trend. The same could be said of Pride marketing.

Gen Z encourages marketers to take a true stance, to find a sense of morality within the consumer world, and to use their platforms and power to make a change in society. They want to see authenticity, a sense of a real and relatable moral compass in the brands they support.

Support these causes because you care about the rights you brand yourself on, and you'll see Gen Z supporting you all the way.