It’s that time again. The gurus are coming out of the woodwork with enlightening wisdom on how to market to the emerging Gez Z. If that statement alone sounds cynical, then you’ve a keen eye and by reading on you might continue to catch some jade.
I’ve noticed an uptick on the number of articles addressing the unique challenges of marketing to Gen Z. It would seem that generational marketing strategies are still a thing and the elders in our industries are still gnawing at the bit for an edge on how to connect with the strange alien youth. Sadly, the pervading advice suddenly sounds like something I might have heard before and I’m feeling the onset of an existential crisis.
Let me explain…
On the surface, convincing Gen Z to get invested in your brand sounds like a tough nut to crack. Fortunately, the chorus of experts have offered up a robust and ingenious plan. If you want to get the attention of Gen Z, simply speak to truth. Be authentic and transparent. Don’t overhype your offer. Gen Z is smart, savvy, and not likely to fall for the same old marketing tricks.
Somewhere there is an old man on a mountaintop, sitting criss cross applesauce in flowing robes and laughing to himself as his long white beard blows softly in the winds rushing from the mouths of a million marketers who believe they’ve stumbled onto a secret truth.
Days Gone By
I’m a proud Xennial, coming to age on the cusp of the internet revolution. I was a latchkey kid with a dialup connection and abandonment issues. The internet gifted me a keen awareness of my place in the universe and a means to acquire knowledge beyond the limited framework of my parents and Dr. Cliff Huxtable. I wanted truth, and authenticity, and I was certain I had found a means to acquire it.
Stepping forward a few years, I carried that hunger for truth with me through design school. My curriculum focused on the apparent shifting nature of our relationship to the brands around us. My peers and I were hungry for authenticity and we preached the need for brands to develop an emotional connection based on the existing values of consumers. They were not fools, and they would not be had.
Today, these are still the fundamentals I teach to the organizations I work with. I believe the need for authenticity and shared values to be both universal and timeless. However, in my youthful idealism, I may have thought that we had discovered something special and that we had an opportunity to lead a revolution that would alter the landscape of branding and marketing forever.
Suddenly my revolution feels less like change and more like a merry-go-round.
Right Round Baby, Right Round
I think I’m at a unique point in my career. I have a “new to me” perspective of the past, the present and the future. I’m a disenfranchised youth, an idealistic young adult, and a cynical old man all rolled into one great big ball of WTF.
I’m also a parent. I’ve watched my children emerge into the marketplace and somehow they are both brilliant and boneheaded. They are resourceful, and quick to spot fallacies. But, they’re also spoonfed and seemingly unaware of just how homogenized their media environment actually is.
Gen X was cynical and immune to the noise. Millennials had the internet as a blossoming technology and the ability to virtually crush anyone who came at them sideways. Gen Z has a generation of innovation in their back pocket and more “once in a lifetime” events under their belt than anyone in living memory, all before they can legally buy a Juul.
…and apparently we’re all still looking for the same thing.
What all of this says to me is that we’ve come no further in how we talk about our brands, or at least in our ability to communicate honestly while we’re doing the talking. Did we fail? Are we missing something? Why are we repackaging the same need for connection and handing it off like it’s “the future”? It’s still true… but it’s nothing new.
The twist is that I don’t believe it. Yep, we will always need to stress the importance of authenticity, consistency, and emotional connection. We will do so because there will always be brands that are tone deaf, and there will always be brands that are out for the quick grab. Those strategies will continue to work against us. They perpetuate a belief that we are disconnected, or that branding is a façade.
Understand that those bad actors don’t want the same things that we do. We’ll not be successful in stamping them out, but we can continue to stay true to our own principles, and do the work to build trust between our organizations and the people we interact with because we value the humanity in everyone.
Caveat here: The statements above lean heavy of the talking. It doesn’t take couples therapy to know I’ve left out the utmost critical skill of listening from the equation. We’ll get back to that in a later post, but for the moment I’m all in on the single direction communication.
Turn and Face the Strange
What has changed the most over the generations isn’t the need for authenticity. There will always be space to tell stories and forge connections. There will also always be snake oil. However, the means by which we convey our stories and snake oils has undergone more iterations over the last 20 years than any other point in the history of communication. Social media platforms continue to evolve.
New technologies offer astounding ways to transform both digital and physical spaces. Data models allow us to be spookily specific about who we are talking to. The necessary message hasn’t changed nearly as much as the means available to convey that message.
Perhaps the task ahead is more about agility. We understand authenticity and value what it brings. However, as new channels come on board it’s possible for our communications to get fragmented. We have to be caretakers of our brands and not allow them to lose focus as new platforms arise. We have to build brands that can skip through evolving environments without losing potency.
We have to identify the advantages and disadvantages of emerging technologies and consider how our brands fit into each new space. The priorities of future generations will evolve, but their need for honest connection isn’t likely to wane, especially given the congested spaces they will inhabit. How we navigate these spaces is what will make the difference going forward.
I don’t believe that the generations before Gen Z wanted authenticity any less than Gen Z does now. But I do believe that this generation’s journey is far more complex than we understand. If we want the connection, we’re going to have to meet them where they are.