Marketing to Generation Z: Living a Teenage Dream

Some kids were born with silver spoons in their mouths. This group had smartphones in their hands.

Generation Z wants you to know that it’s okay to be weird. In fact, they’d prefer it if you were. 

The planet’s youngest generation, loosely defined as those born in or after 1995, respects individuality—the more unabashed and unapologetic, the better—above all characteristics. 

Which means the path to successful marketing, when it comes to the biggest and most culturally diverse generation the world has ever seen, hinges on how authentic and innately human your brand’s persona is. 

Alex and Ani donates 20% of sales of its Arrows of Friendship charm bangle ($38) to Best Buddies International.

The Real Deal

In several recent studies profiling teens and early 20-somethings by Wildness, a Los Angeles–based firm that educates brands on Gen Z, chief strategy officer Margaret Czeisler says the “weird is cool” refrain was universal among respondents. And brands, she says, need to embrace their weirdness—and their imperfections—to attract this hyper-connected demographic. 

“This generation not only embraces failure, they share it on Snapchat,” she explains. “This is the first generation to push against the world of filtered social media, which erases imperfections. For Gen Zers, what’s important is being unique and being recognized as their own person.”

It follows that brands marketing to Gen Z “need to experiment and be real,” she says. “That means taking risks.” And should you fall flat on your face? “This generation will forgive you if you fail.”

Watching their Gen X parents falter financially during the Great Recession undoubtedly influenced Gen Z’s warm embrace of the flawed. 

“Millennials have such nostalgia for their youth because everything was possible then—we were in a growth economic period,” says Melanie Shreffler, senior editorial director for the Cassandra Report, a consulting firm that studies youth culture. “When Generation Z came of age, the recession was hitting.” And, much like kids of the Great Depression, “they still have that frugality in them.” 

In stark contrast, millennials “had expectations they would walk into their dream jobs, where everyone got a trophy,” Czeisler says. “Generation Z doesn’t have those expectations.”

Gen Zers’ financial prudence means traditional brands will have to work harder to get their business. 

“Their upbringing has had a major impact on their overarching spending habits,” Shreffler says. “They know what it’s like to go without. They were hyper-aware of their family’s financial situation, and as a result they’re much more cautious consumers.” 

Harvard-bound first daughter Malia Obama

What’s for Resale?

Gen Z’s upbringing also plays a role in reshuffling a value hierarchy that’s basically been the same for several generations. In the most recent report from Wildness, millennials rated “independence” as their most important value, and “status and wealth” as their second. For Gen Zers, “status and wealth” didn’t even crack the top 20 list of their most important values. 

And “only 33 percent of Gen Zers think that shopping is interesting,” Shreffler says. “Even though millennials didn’t have money, they still thought window shopping was fun. Gen Z has an entirely different mentality.” For example, the report shows only 26 percent make impulse purchases on occasion.  

And when they do splurge, they’re often thinking about an item’s resale value at the time of purchase. Having grown up participating in the rapid hustle ’n’ flow of online commerce, they are the ultimate eBay-ers: “Instead of thinking about cost per use on a coat, they’re thinking about if they could sell it eventually at a profit.” 

Actress–singer–red carpet influencer Zendaya

Creative Class

Gen Z also has a different relationship with media and media consumption than any generation that came before it. They grew up coding websites and communicating through iPhones and social apps. Most teens and early 20-somethings also started shooting and sharing video and photography as grade-schoolers. 

Of 3,000 teens Wildness polled for a 2016 study on Gen Z, 27 percent reported that they create and share original videos on the Internet on a weekly basis. In comparison, “only 26 percent of all adults have ever done this—even once,” Czeisler says.

Gen Zers have been creating culture as they consume it, so they’re less reliant on outside sources for their entertainment. Still, as consumers of branded content, they’re voracious—but they expect to interact with the brands they buy from. Eighty-four percent of those polled in the Wildness study said they’d had some direct contact with a celebrity on social media. And they want that same level of engagement from brands, Czeisler says. “Responding to Gen Z is critically important for brands.”

Because they interact so frequently with companies and each other online, Gen Z is shifting our culture from kids being seen and not heard to teenagers “being the arbiters of culture—reviewing retailers, the phones we buy, the movies we see,” she adds.

Dallas Cowboys’ top NFL draft pick Ezekiel Elliott

Snapchat to It

Social media is where teens and 20-somethings hang out. The Cassandra Report found that the majority of teens interviewed checked the same social media channels in the same sequence every single morning. In descending order, their top networks were Snapchat, for check-ins with close friends; Instagram, for connecting with their wider circle; and Facebook, which has become “more of a utility for them—a place to see a post from a teacher or find out when soccer practice is,” Shreffler says.

Naturally, marketers should also be striving to meet Gen Zers on social media. According to the Wildness study, 78 percent said they prefer to hear from brands through social media—and, more specifically, through the lens of sponsored content (for example, a famous fashion blogger posting about a brand) or original branded content. But when it comes to old-school ads that don’t entertain beyond a pretty facade, “they hate,” Czeisler says.

Like millennials, this generation is more likely to -patronize brands that have an altruistic or charitable angle. According to the Cassandra Report, 78 percent of teenage Gen Zers think brands should be involved in social causes, and 73 -percent of teens are more likely to support a brand if it supports a social issue they care about.

Keying into the generation’s psyche isn’t just a good idea—it’s foundational for any small brand or business seeking longevity. In a few short years, its members will comprise roughly 4 in 10 consumers, and they will wield enormous buying power. As they age into this power, the tech-savvy generation will be less dependent on brands for their consumable goods than any other in modern history. 

“They’re going to make their own products and be -enormously successful at it,” Czeisler predicts. “If brands don’t listen to them, these guys will simply surpass traditional companies.” 


Marketing to Boomers: Why You Need the “Me” Generation
Marketing to Generation X: Get Lucky With the 13th Generation
Marketing to Millennials: Or Gen Y, As They’re Also Known


(Top: Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images; inset: Yunus Kaymaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Obama: Al Drago/Getty Images, Zendaya: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic; Elliott: Tom Lynn/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)