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Most of Generation Z can’t yet legally operate a car. Born between 1992 and 2010, some can’t even use shoulder strap seatbelts yet. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t actively shaping perceptions about products and brands. Nearly half of teens who use the Internet buy things online, more than four in five will use social networks this year, and 96% of U.S. teens ages 12 to 17 will use the Internet at least monthly. Generation Z is the most disruptive generation in modern history. Instead of waiting for ideas to filter through the generations that came before, Generation Z-ers are tastemakers — often before they’re out of elementary school. Social media has demolished all barriers to communicating about brands and products. If you can write, you can share, and Generation Z is all about sharing. Take Silly Bandz, the inexpensive, animal-shaped rubber bands worn as bracelets. The trend first took hold among nine and ten-year-olds, but before long, fashion models were wearing them on runways, and Moms wore them to soccer practices. How can you connect with this generation and, more importantly, capture their limited attention to create loyal brand advocacy? Here are three things companies can do to succeed with Generation Z.
1. Generation Z is Not Brand Loyal Companies that expect Generation Z to be loyal based on a carefully crafted brand image and marketing message will find that their effort is wasted. Generation Z simply doesn’t buy it. Instead, the product itself is what’s important, regardless of marketing campaigns. For instance, as recently as four or five years ago, you could walk down a Generation Y high school hallway and find the “popular” girls dressed head-to-toe in Abercrombie & Fitch, the “preppy” girls in American Eagle Outfitters, and the Goth girls in Hot Topic. Not the case in a Generation Z high school hallway — they categorically reject “badge brands.” Here, you will see a girl in the boots she saw Jessica Alba wearing on TMZ, a basic tank from Target, and a hand-made sweater a good friend scored from Etsy.
2. The Age of the Curator With their mass adoption of iPods, Generation Y reduced the currency of music from the album down to the song. Generation Z is doing the same with every other purchasing decision. The result — what you see them wearing, watching, and reading — is their own curated version of the world. There is no hiding from Generation Z. They are extreme curators, sharing and panning everything from movies to books to clothes (and eventually, cars, home furnishings and health care plans). Take the case of two movies that opened in the summer of 2009. Year One starred Jack Black and Michael Cera, and the marketing was basically: “Hey, it’s Jack Black and the guy from Juno. You’re gonna love it.” Then there was Paranormal Activity, which built its reputation at one film festival after another, until it was finally released in 13 college towns. Fans in other cities were then allowed to vote on where the movie should go next. Eventually the film was released nationwide, and after grossing $193 million on an original shooting budget of just $15,000, it’s become one of the most profitable movies of all-time. Year One got terrible reviews upon its debut and made just $62 million, barely recouping production costs. To Generation Z, platform and production value are irrelevant. They judge each product and piece of content on its own merits.
3. Enhance and Enable Curation What does Generation Z care about? Finding and sharing the best stuff in the world. They aren’t just consumers, they are curators. They not only discover brands and products but they evaluate them with brilliant objectivity, sift through them, and share the results. Please a Generation Z-er with your particular product or service and you’ll earn your biggest supporter. As a result, marketers need to make it easy to share what their Gen Z customers love. From Facebook “Likes” to branded tweets to Polyvore’s brand expression collages, it’s never been easier to share your opinion online. Don’t stifle conversation, nor attempt to control conversation about your products — encourage it. There will be bad along with the good, but it will be authentic. This transparency will ultimately contribute to the long term success of your brand. Regardless, promoting an “open brand” ethos will lead to better informed and more passionate curators. Ready or not, Generation Z is here, and they are the future. I, for one, am thrilled to have a front-row seat as we watch them change the world before our very eyes.
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