Marketing Your Better-for-You Brand to Gen Z

07.15.19 / David Lemley

By 2020, Gen Z will represent 40% of all consumers. And if you think this cohort is just an extension of the millennials, think again. Gen Z kids and young adults are wired very differently, and that means brands need to engage them differently, too.

First, let’s do a quick rundown of the generational breakdowns:

  • Gen X (born from 1965–1980) are the children of the Baby Boomers; the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that Gen X would peak in population in 2018 with 65.8 million people. Gen X has the largest spending power of the generations, although it is the smallest of all the cohorts.
  • Millennials (born from 1981–1996) are expected in 2019 to overtake the Baby Boomer generation in size, reaching 73 million. 
  • Gen Z (born from 1997–2015) ranges in age from 5 to 22 (in 2019); in the U.S., there are 65 million Zers as of 2019. 

How Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z Differ

More to the point for BFY brands, these groups behave and buy in distinctive ways. 

Gen X has the largest spending power of the generations, although it is the smallest of all the cohorts. They’re also influenced by younger people — kids, coworkers, and very young grandchildren. As BFY consumers, they’re sandwiched between what we call conscious consumers and conscientious consumers: Their Baby Boomer parents were the original granola-eating hippies, and their millennial kids are chasing the latest food trends. Their preferences have prompted BFY brands to innovate new products; they’ve essentially made BFY mainstream. 

Millennials are the tastemaker cohort for the BFY category, and they’re pushing hard for brands to stand for something beyond product. At the same time, they’re flexitarians, not willing to sacrifice convenience and performance in the service of better-for (planet, people, etc.).

Gen Z is still trying to shape a generational identity — and they may never all march in lock step. Young adults just graduating from college at the top end, they haven’t yet started to exert their purchasing power, but boy will they. They expect brands to be better — it’s all they’ve known. They’re wired for tech, but they’re anxious about its influence. They’re conditioned to absorb information at a much more rapid rate than their older siblings and parents. In 2018, The New York Times dubbed this the Delta Generation, because it’s shaped by change and uncertainty. Gen Z is concerned about the world they’re inheriting but hopeful about making a difference; they’re diverse and accepting of diversity; they’re native to health and wellness because their parents and millennial siblings have normalized it. 

Marketing to Gen Z

Gen Z is a bit of a paradox: both open minded and risk averse, digitally native yet hungry for face-to-face interaction, eager to work hard and play hard simultaneously. They have both a higher level of social conscience and a higher level of stress. They envision themselves as the anti-millennials. To a Z, millennials (the oldest of them are 40) are old

Armed with a do-gooder mindset and a healthy embrace of diversity (race, gender, class, etc.), Zs seek brands with a cause. Because they’re worried about getting stuck with global problems their parents have created — like food insecurity and global warming — they’re hyper sensitive to the depth of a BFY brand’s mission. A brand can’t solve one problem even as it creates another. For example, a BFY brand like Toms shoes will have trouble with Gen Z, who think it’s not cool that the company’s “buy one, give one” position is displacing independent shoemakers in developing countries. 

Gen Z requires transparency and embraces citizen brands, but they have a nose for greenwashing. They’ve been taught to think independently — they’re the first generation educated as critical thinkers, not standardized test-takers — and they have access to tons of information. That said, they don’t need a brand to have a cause, but you have to be straight-up with whatever you are. 

For BFY brands seeking to capitalize on Gen Z’s growing influence, the key is to speak to these cohorts independently without alienating one of them. These demographic groups are all looking for information about the products they consider and choose, but they’re interested in slightly different aspects. Marketers should seek the common ground that’s of universal interest — the brand’s better-for proposition — be honest and transparent about it. 

Millennials are the tastemakers and Gen X are the spenders, but brands need to find ways to connect to Zs through tone and voice, through flavor profiles and ingredients. Targeting social media can help brands tailor their messaging: Gen Xers are the most avid Facebook users, millennials love Instagram, and Z is glued to YouTube. On social channels, Zs are drawn to realism — photos and videos that look honestly imperfect, not polished. 

Finally, Gen Z has unique shopping and buying patterns brands must recognize. While they’re mobile-first (they’re twice as likely to shop on their phones than millennials, who prefer online shopping via desktop), they actually prefer to shop in-store. They want to feel and try products in person to be sure they’re buying something of quality. They’re highly cost-conscious, having lived through the Great Recession. They seek meaningful experiences, whether that means special events in a retail store (like makeup classes at a beauty retailer) or enticing packaging (they’re way into unboxing videos on YouTube). 

We are now starting to see the impact of Gen Z: They have some purchasing power and they are adulting. Now’s the time for BFY brands to attract these loyal, optimistic, mission-minded young consumers.

Can you help you brand start planning for Gen Z? Let’s talk!

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