Catering to Gen Z Means Shunning Traditional Marketing

When it was time to launch this year’s back-to-school marketing campaign, the clothing company Old Navy knew it had to switch gears. Typically, the San Francisco-based clothier, which is owned by Gap Inc., devotes its marketing efforts to the moms who purchase clothes for their sons and daughters.

Old Navy knew it also had to effectively address both parents and kids with its back-to-school campaign because, let’s face it, kids drive purchase decisions more than ever before. But it’s not easy to craft a marketing campaign that simultaneously appeals to parent and child. For many brands, the challenge is particularly acute because school age gen Zers (defined as those born from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s) are decidedly unlike the millennials who came before them.

Two key observations regarding generation Z guided Old Navy’s approach. “We think of gen Z as a savvy customer who grew up in a digitally connected world,” says Julie Luker, director of brand engagement at Old Navy. “She expects a lot from brands, both the content they create and also the impact they make. She wants to be entertained, not advertised to, and she also searches for brands that provide social good.”

With that in mind, Old Navy opted to partner with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to create a line of T-shirts designed by club members, with the goal of raising $1 million for the nonprofit organization. The social impact of the fundraising was a story Old Navy felt would resonate with gen Z.

But the brand knew it needed to find an authentic voice to help tell the tale. So Old Navy partnered with tween musician Alaya High (also known as @ThatGirlLayLay) to be a translator of sorts. “She penned a rap about the tees [T-shirts] and starred in an accompanying music video,” Luker says. “The video brought the tees to life in a fantastical world, toggling the viewer from the playground to a layered augmented reality, all within the rhythm of Lay Lay’s signature beats.”
As part of its 2019 back-to-school push, Old Navy partnered with tween rap star Lay Lay to promote a line of T-shirts raising money for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Old Navy/YouTube

The video was deployed as part of Old Navy’s first-ever campaign with the social media network TikTok, enabling gen Zers not only to consume the content on a favored platform, but to edit and rework it, as well.

Keeping its core mom customer front and center, Old Navy also created a TV commercial starring Lay Lay and the comic Paula Pell, as a way to engage both parents and kids.

“The campaign worked, outpacing our benchmarks on all social platforms — from the click-through rate on TikTok to the engagement rates on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to the completion rate on YouTube,” Luker says. “We also surpassed our fundraising goal and were able to donate a total of $1.2 million to Boys & Girls Clubs.”

What’s Shaping Generation Z

It should come as no surprise that members of gen Z are different from the millennials, gen Xers, and baby boomers who have come before them. After all, every generation carries a unique mix of cultural and political experiences, and shares specific tastes in music, art, and technologies.

Understanding how those experiences shape gen Z’s attitudes toward brands and marketing messages is critical because of the group’s sheer size and buying power. According to Ad Age’s The Gen Z Marketing Playbook, those born between 1997 and 2012 made up 26 percent of the U.S. population in 2017. What’s more, gen Z commands up to a whopping $143 billion in spending power.

To forge meaningful and long-lasting relationships with consumers of different generations, marketers need to fully grasp what makes gen Z tick and then plan accordingly. A good place to start is being clear on what members of gen Z are not: They are by no means carbon copies of the millennials who marketers have, rightly so, devoted much time and effort to understanding.

For example, while gen Zers have grown up in an always-on connected world of smart phones and devices, they’re also actively limiting the time they spend on social media. And while millennials are avid online shoppers, gen Zers have a fondness for physical settings and the experiences they can provide.

Perhaps most salient for CMOs and brand managers looking to make inroads with the cohort, gen Zers are highly resistant to traditional marketing avenues. “They are unlike any consumer segment before them as they do not consume traditional media, so they don’t engage with print or television advertising,” says Mark Beal, assistant professor of professional practice, public relations, at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University and author of Decoding Gen Z: 101 Lessons Generation Z Will Teach Corporate America, Marketers & Media.

“Marketers and advertisers need to rip up their old media plans and playbooks and develop an entirely new media mix,” Beal adds. He says brands need to focus on media channels such as Instagram, YouTube, Spotify, and Snapchat, and create “Instagramable events, experiences, and podcasts while also considering channels like TikTok and Twitch.”

Raw Content Preferred

That’s not to say that just using the proper platforms is enough to effectively engage gen Zers. It’s crucial to fully understand the impact technology and the internet have had on both their social structures and content expectations.

“Gone are the days of looking up to the traditional stereotype of the popular kids at school,” says Caitlin Neelon, communication strategy director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners (GS&P), whose clients include Doritos and Cheetos, two of the most popular brands among gen Zers. “Internet subcultures have allowed teens and people in their early 20s to geek out and find their social niche. As a result, they value inclusivity and bold self-expression. That attitude applies to their expectations of brands. They want unpolished content. They want to see real people and not just celebrities.”

One example of how GS&P has responded to this desire for unfiltered and customized content is by creating a Cheetos Vision app that turns users’ photos into virtual Cheetos.

Beal takes the notion of gen Z’s desire for self-expression to its logical conclusion by suggesting that brands create their own gen Z incubator, in which 10 to 30 gen Zers lead content development on behalf of the company. “They will be spot-on more than any 30- to 50-year-old marketing executive,” he says. “I always tell marketers, ‘Don’t market to gen Z; collaborate and listen to them and they will guide exactly how and where you should develop your next program or campaign.'”

One brand that has followed that advice is Target. Beal says the retail giant created an incubator for gen Z entrepreneurs interested in fashion, music, sports, food, and other categories to apply for assistance from Target via mentorships and workshops as they grow their own firms. The retailer also created @TargetTag, a digital magazine on Instagram that encourages visitors to create and share content.

Because Target helps to “nurture and grow their better-for-people or better-for-the-planet businesses,” it has used feedback from gen Z incubator participants to launch Target-owned brands, such as Wild Fable and Original Use clothing and accessory lines, as well as Heyday electronics.

Another brand that has done well engaging with gen Z is Wendy’s. Beal says this is because the fast-food chain fosters two-way, authentic communication with gen Z. “On their social media channels, Wendy’s speaks using gen Z language and terms in an authentic way,” such as using its Twitter account to lob good-natured barbs at competitors like Burger King and McDonald’s, he says. “They are also highly responsive on their social media channels and engage in conversations with gen Z.”

The understanding that gen Zers tune out traditional marketing channels — almost 70 percent avoid ads altogether — means that their purchase cycles are different than other generations and that in-person campaigns can be effective.

“They spend more time in the awareness and engagement stage, through various outlets both offline and online, before making that first purchasing decision,” says Rich Anand, founder and chief operating officer at Evolvez Agency, an agency that focuses on gen Z and has worked with brands like Dollar Shave Club, Panera, and The Economist. “When they do purchase and become repeat customers, they turn into advocates quickly, able to leverage their expansive network to spread the message to their peers.”

For The Economist, Evolvez more or less skipped digital marketing altogether. “In our opinion, no gen Zers, unless they are hardcore news consumers, will see an ad and purchase [The Economist] over the likes of say The Wall Street Journal that every university essentially offers its students for free,” Anand says. Instead of going digital, he adds, Evolvez spearheaded classroom presentations and workshops featuring student advocates who shared what they value about the magazine. “We have been so successful with this model that it’s now in its eighth semester.”

Take a Stand, Reap the Rewards

Many brands have long considered political and social issues as areas to avoid. Weighing in on marriage equality or environmental concerns has long been seen as more of an opportunity to alienate potential customers than to attract new ones. However, marketers who stick with that conventional wisdom will come up short when it comes to gen Z.

“Gen Zers are growing up in a world with content overload; declining trust in business, government, and institutions; and the pressure to address future global challenges,” says Aneesh Dhawan, founder and CEO of PurPics, a platform that helps brands engage and understand gen Z consumers and whose clients include Ford’s Spin Scooters, Shake Shack, and Vita Coco. “Within this context, gen Zers are demanding more from brands.” There’s plenty of data to back that contention up. Indeed, according to research conducted by Cone Communications, 94 percent of gen Zers believe companies should get involved with social and environmental issues. Additionally, nearly 90 percent of gen Z would choose to buy something from a company that supports a cause they believe in compared to a company that doesn’t. The 2017 study took the pulse of 1,000 gen Zers between the ages of 13 and 19.

Brands are also responding to that activist impulse among gen Zers. Dhawan’s company, for example, worked with LUNA Bar on a campaign centered on Equal Pay Day, which highlights the persistent wage gap between men and women. The effort paid off, with an average engagement rate of 25.8 percent for the campaign. “By running campaigns centered around authenticity and purpose,” Dhawan says, “we learned how to unlock the attention and engagement of gen Z.”

As much as taking a stand on social and political issues opens up the opportunity to connect with gen Zers, it’s equally important for marketers to understand that their messages had better correspond with real action and progress. Put another way, gen Zers deplore — and will punish — false advertising. This means that claims of environmental responsibility must be backed up by legitimate results in achieving, say, 100 percent renewable energy targets and deforestation-free supply chains.

Marketers have a chief role telling these stories, of course. But they should also promote change from within companies, argues Pablo Turletti, founder and CEO of the ROI Marketing Institute, which works with companies to measure the effectiveness and profitability of their marketing efforts.

“The marketing targeting gen Z should be something that really acts upon social and environmental issues,” Turletti says. “Marketing departments must also assume a transformational role in and outside their companies.”

Turletti stresses that brands must generate awareness about the need to go beyond profits, but still point to the importance of making money. “They must convince a young, demanding, over-informed, technology-driven group of people that companies can help to solve social and environmental problems,” he says. “But the only way they can do it sustainably is if all those activities are profitable.”



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