Brands Need to Keep Gen Z's Changing Priorities in Mind or Risk Isolating Them as an Audience

Friendship and a sense of community are immensely important

Driving relevance means driving growth. Join global brands and industry thought leaders at Brandweek, Sept. 11–14 in Miami, for actionable takeaways to better your marketing. 50% off passes ends April 10.

Like the many generations of teens that came before them, Gen Z are social creatures. Developing friendships and building a community outside the family ecosystem is, and likely always will be, as important to the survival of any teen as the food they eat or air they breathe. But what may be less well understood are the astonishing changes that have occurred over the last three years in what friendship and community mean to Gen Z, the emotional rewards they now seek from these relationships or the doors these new emotional realities open for brands, social media platforms or content producers.

By way of background, when we began mapping Gen Z’s emotional landscape 10 years ago, teens’ feelings on friendship and community were a pretty simple affair. “My friends” was a single passion point defined by a need for acceptance, a hunger for popularity and an insatiable desire for fun. The mad stampede by teens for hundreds of followers on Facebook (whether you really knew them or not) and the mass promotion of their personal brands through a constant outpouring of posts and likes were highly visible manifestations of this.

Then along came 2016, a year defined by unprecedented new levels of fear, anxiety, isolation and uncertainty that quite literally turned Gen Z teens and their millennial/Gen Z parents’ emotional landscape upside-down. In the blink of a generational eye, Gen Z’s definition of friendship and community went from a single passion point grounded in fun to multiple passion points and a new primacy on building “relationships based on trust with a chosen few.”

Here is what Gen Z’s notion of friendship and community are built on today, in order of importance.

In the blink of a generational eye, Gen Z’s definition of friendship and community went from a single passion point grounded in fun to multiple passion points.


More important than popularity and well above having fun, what Gen Z wants most of all from their friendships are two things: having a small group of trusted friends who will stand by them no matter what and being the kind of friend who shows up and is there for their friends.


Being known and accepted has always been a core Gen Z need. Today it has become something of an obsession. With so many people (teachers, parents, coaches, peers) subjecting Gen Z to a constant barrage of evaluations and assessments in which they often feel they come up short (grades, club team acceptance, parent expectations), it’s small wonder this study reveals a fascinating shift in Gen Z’s emotional prioritization from adding followers to receiving likes in response to their social media activities.


Coming in third place as a driver of friendship and community is fun or Gen Z’s desire to find a peer with whom they can laugh, explore, rebel and wallow. In fact, out of the 12 Gen Z passion points we track, “hanging out and having fun” fell to number six.


Last in line of Gen Z’s new rubric of community and friendship is popularity among a large number of teens in their peer group. Out of a list of over 100 emotional drivers tracked in our study, being popular, being good looking or having the latest things come in just about dead last. Equally interesting, there is a remarkable lack of interest in dating or any other sign of appeal to the opposite sex. In a world where friendship and community are defined by trust, intimacy and support, traditional values like popularity have had their emotional relevance gutted.

From where we sit, the implications and opportunities for Gen Z brands, social media platforms and content providers with an interest in fostering Gen Z communities are considerable.

A different kind of community

Most content providers and social media platforms tend to define community as a large ecosystem of like-minded members with a shared interest in its content, influencers or celebrity. But an ever-increasing number of Gen Z has “second,” “real” or “private” Instagram and Snapchat pages where they only let a small number of trusted friends join. Against this backdrop, what might a new generation of technology-based communities look like that better reflect Gen Z’s new desire for communities that are smaller, more intimate and more trusting?

Fostering intimacy

As Gen Z looks for friendships and communities where they can be known, embraced and affirmed for who and what they are, what opportunities exist for new real or virtual venues where Gen Z can cultivate their individuality?

Safe harbors

As Gen Z continues their search for places, spaces and experiences that form and foster quality connections, what opportunities are there for you to reframe your brand or product experience (whether it be a gaming experience, a restaurant experience or a beverage experience) around this new need?

Virtual and real

Interestingly enough, Gen Z still says they prefer real experiences over virtual. What doors does this open for food brands, entertainment venues, restaurants and retailers to elevate their emotional relevance and sales with Gen Z through product and marketing innovation that Gen Z craves?

If you are in the business of Gen Z, then you are in the business of fostering teen friendships and community. But what friendship means and the emotional rewards teens seek from community bear little semblance to those of teens just three years ago. So in creating community-based platforms, content, brands and experiences, our advice is to take nothing for granted and innovate around the very different contours of community and friendship Gen Z now desires.