Brands Dropped the Ball Marketing to Millennials, but There’s Still Hope for Gen Z

Opinion: Waiting until teen consumers are financially independent could be detrimental

In the past, marketers wanted to wait until teens were independent, but advertising to Gen Z is a chance to change that mindset. Getty Images
Headshot of Stacy Greco

Teen consumers have gone largely ignored and underserved by marketers, most of whom favored the “wait until they have money and independence” approach over the “engage early” mentality. The unfortunate truth for these marketers is that the millennial generation and their early access to devices, social media and the resulting influence from both became the first generation to consume early and often. By the time many brands came to this realization and were armed and prepared to engage, they were stuck in an endless game of catch-up or had missed the boat altogether.

Enter Gen Z, the digital-first generation whose influence and spending power is rapidly increasing and can’t be ignored. Currently influencing $600 billion in family spending, it is now that they are forming their opinions and truly learning about the brands with which their family and friends interact. This time, brands are well aware of the opportunity and won’t make the same mistake twice.

Gen Z wants brands to be more than what they sell and have an opinion on the issues that matter to them.

That said, this realization far from guarantees success for brands. While they understand they have to incorporate Gen Z in their marketing budgets, they can’t simply throw money their way to guarantee success. With more content, platforms and general noise than ever, engaging Gen Z presents a unique set of challenges. First and foremost, they value authenticity and connection over marketing gimmicks; engagement strategies must be smart, subtle and culturally relevant.

What can and should brands do to engage Gen Z and develop relationships that extend beyond adolescence and into early adulthood and beyond when they are making even larger spending decisions?

Be involved in the day’s conversation(s)

Gen Z’s voice is getting progressively louder. If brands want to connect with this key audience, they need to have a unique perspective on important issues and be prepared to contribute to the conversation where it makes sense or when prompted. Approach conversations with caution: If it’s not a natural fit or is counter to your overall voice, they will see right through you. Gen Z wants brands to be more than what they sell and have an opinion on the issues that matter to them. Brands need to make sure that when they do speak up, they offer a strong and authentic voice that contributes to, and doesn’t just comment on, the conversation.

Spend time where they spend their time

While millennials were the first generation significantly impacted at a young age by the digital economy, Gen Z has been immersed in technology and social media from day one. Their mobile devices have become an appendage, and they favor social networks like YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat over Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Brands need to be there and create specific content for each destination.

Don’t force it

Marketers must tailor their content by platform, being mindful that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Take, for example, video. From creative inception, the approach to scripting, casting and editing is done through the lens of its final platform destination (the voice, the layout, the use of voiceovers versus captions, etc.). Brands often don’t realize that content can’t be displayed just anywhere. If it was made for YouTube, it’s not necessarily going to belong on Instagram.

This sounds like a simple tip, but too often we get told to “just put it on your other socials, too,” with no mind to performance. There also remains a fairly lo-fi quality to some social platforms, and brands need to lean into that authenticity. And keep in mind that while platforms often establish best practices for marketers, you need to also ask yourself: Is it the best practice for reaching Gen Z on that platform?

Safe to say, Gen Z deserves a little respect for their immense power. And in order to give them the respect they deserve, avoid falling into generalizations and assumptions. Gen Z’s savvy makes them both an influential consumer and a perceptive one. Make sure your engagement strategy keeps up.

@stacy_greco Stacy Greco is vp of brand strategy at Sweety High.