Gen Z and brands: A new dynamic

You’ve never known a world without the internet in your pocket. Information has never been more than a Google search away. Products are in-hand with just an Amazon order. Friends wait across the screen via WhatsApp while your life is laid out, carefully curated on Instagram.

Say hello to Generation Z and the new dynamic that brings together consumer and brand.

In case you don’t have a member of this generation living with you to remind you daily that “Facebook isn’t cool anymore,” you may be wondering who Gen Zers are.

The latest and greatest on the scene for marketers to passionately obsess over, the oldest member of this generation is 22 and the youngest is in elementary school. Many are still in the process of growing up, but certain patterns are already emerging (Ipsos offers an exhaustive view on this).

We know that as a whole they’re diverse, open and progressive. We know that they’re much more value-conscious and pragmatic than millennials (ouch). But the big, fat elephant in the room is the fact that these kids were born with high-speed internet connections clutched in their little fists.

Having a smartphone is now a mandatory milestone for this cohort. It’s no wonder that 96% are equipped with smartphones, allowing them to be connected an average of 3.5 hours a day.

It may be stating the obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway: When you spend half your life online and half in real life, it changes the way you interact with the world. And naturally the way you interact with brands.

Unconventional and increasingly popular American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has rapidly built a brand of radical transparency for herself by sharing Instagram updates from inside the American government. It’s plain to see that social media is already tearing down the traditional barriers around institutions.

This instantaneous and democratized flow of information means that brands too have to adopt a glass door policy. Advertise to a Gen Zer? Just a moment while they check you out on Amazon, YouTube and social media. In China, social network Weibo has sparked growth in online shopping, allowing users to buy from both brands and individuals, along with user opinions that guide their purchases.

By triangulating multiple data sources, these digital natives who are familiar with the perils of misinformation actively seek truth and authenticity. After all, brands to whom they entrust their money are surely accountable! Sonos embraced this new dynamic in its 2015 campaign, which urged viewers to google and discover for themselves its five-star reviews.

Access to information has led a huge power shift from brands to consumers, but information isn’t the only way in which technology has helped Gen Z flip the brand dynamic.

With the right filters and platforms, each and every person is now a brand of their own. JWT Intelligence reports that 63 percent of Gen Zers think of themselves as influencers, 48 percent as entrepreneurs and 31 percent as brands. Kantar found that they identify with their social media personas more than other generations, with 61 percent feeling that the things they post say a lot about who they are.

Gen Zers are in the pursuit of life, liberty and uniqueness. The Google report It’s Lit puts forth the idea that having a unique identity is the ultimate cool factor for this generation. Brands need to recognize that they’re being used to fluidly reflect aspects of Gen Zers’ values and nonbinary identities. Brands that help them shape and express their unique and authentic selves are cool—from access platforms like Netflix to brands like Aerie lingerie and Ben & Jerry’s that embody inclusive beliefs.

If brands believe in the mythical monster of the “decreasing attention span” they’ll be missing the boat. This generation does not lack the ability to focus. They simply do it on their own terms, the Gen Z way. Their superpower to beat information overload is their ability to swiftly determine at the speed of thought what has value and relevance for them.

So how do brands “talk Gen Z” without coming across as patronizing or, worse, fake?

Brands can look to partnerships. Clean & Clear partnered with Gen Zers to launch C&C, a stylish (and gender-neutral) line of personal care products. Adidas, on the other hand, keeps the hype alive by partnering with artists like Stormzy in the U.K.

Honestly, there’s no easy way forward from here. Brands must embrace this newly leveled playing field. Following the principle of show-don’t-tell, let Gen Z see and assess your brand’s authenticity of purpose while working with them to co-create and discover the value that your brand can offer them.

Take a deep breath and open up to Gen Z.