Gen Z Is Resilient and Honest, and They Expect the Same From Brands

The same old tactics won't win the hearts and wallets of the youngest consumers

Brandweek will feature live discussions with marketing pros at ULTA Beauty, Converse, UPS and more. Meet us in Miami Sept. 11–14 to boost your business and elevate your brand.

In Moneyball, Brad Pitt’s baseball general manager Billy Beane uses a new way of assembling a winning team, telling his staff, “Adapt or die.” As marketers, we subscribe to that ethos, but evolving is now more challenging than ever. A Gen Z tsunami is coming, and most brands aren’t ready.

Currently ages 10 to 25, they are the children and young adults who have grown up doing active shooter drills in school. Their education, social lives and entry into the workforce were disrupted by the pandemic. They grew up amid the opioid crisis, social media bullying and an attempt to overturn a U.S. presidential election. They viewed George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, over and over. Imagine the coping mechanisms required.

Successfully marketing to Gen Z cannot rely on the same old tactics. This generation will account for a quarter of global income by 2030.

Until now, they’ve had to cope with the world around them. But believe that when they sit in full power, brands will have to cope with them. That means embracing their unique identities and engaging with immediacy and authenticity.

Gen Z is ‘otherness’

This generation is already changing the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center, only 52% are white.

They witnessed the racially charged backlash against our first Black president and recognize racism in institutions.

Demographically, 20% of Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ+. They’re less likely to closet themselves, yet they’ve also witnessed exclusion, bullying, harassment and violence, particularly against trans people.

This year also brought challenges to reproductive rights. Losing agency over one’s body is an experience in otherness. Seventy-five percent of young adults believe abortion should be legal, which will increase as more of Gen Z enters adulthood.

Being “other” means living with a behavior code. “Don’t be too gay”; “Don’t be too Black”; “Don’t bring the troubles of motherhood to the office.” Gen Z will reject all these notions.

The marginalized will rightfully insist on taking their place in all sectors of society. But it’s challenging terrain for brands when everyone believes they are “other.”

Embracing otherness in the age of immediacy

Gen Z is impatient and will call out brands. Their entire lives have been documented online, beginning with their parents. They’ve never had the anonymity to experiment or make mistakes without those missteps potentially following them forever.

Imagine if Instagram had been around when Brett Kavanaugh was a DKE frat brother at Yale. We would have a digital paper trail of indiscretions, not a list of accusations. Actions have consequences for Gen Z, and this is now true for brands.

They’ve not been able to avoid consequence so they won’t allow brands to either. This means brands can’t just leave difficult conversations. Responding quickly has become imperative.

Holding brands and institutions accountable

Consumer analytics firm ThinkNow found Gen Z less likely than millennials to support companies that make public commitments. It’s not that Gen Z doesn’t want companies to say the right thing—they do, but they also want actions.

We’re watching this play out right now. Disney is still facing questions for its financial support of Florida politicians who advanced the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law.

The disconnect between Disney’s corporate donations and its commitments to LGBTQ+ communities makes it a poster child for critical analysis of what really constitutes brand allyship. The company’s initial response was similar to what big companies in trouble have used for decades: offering a statement opposing the legislation and donating funds to a group fighting for equality (which was ultimately rejected). For Disney, it was too late and only angered both sides.

Performative words aren’t enough anymore, and Disney wisely took the cue. After the backlash, its Pixar studio reinstated a previously cut kiss between two women into the final edit of its latest Toy Story film Lightyear. (In response, the film was banned by 14 countries.) Disney took a stand, and this type of intentional action is what Gen Z consumers expect from the brands they bring into their lives.

People ask whether Gen Z will change the hearts and minds of older generations. I don’t think so. The burden of change ultimately falls to the individual. However, Gen Z will hold people, institutions and brands accountable. It’s time to write a new playbook focused on audience nuances and brand bravery to reach them.

Adapt or die, indeed.

Adweek magazine cover
Click for more from this issue

This story first appeared in the Aug. 8, 2022, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.