Branding for a brand-averse generation

Dec 20, 2017
Jasmine Glasheen

Generation Z is notoriously brand-weary and skeptical of traditional advertising, which makes them a tough nut to crack for marketers. However, as forecasted to Fast Company, 40 percent of all consumers will be from Gen Z by year 2020, retailers can’t afford to miss the mark with this consumer demographic.

Heavily inundated with advertising from conception, Gen Z customers have a built-in ad blocker. In a 2016 study by Vision Critical, 60 percent of Gen Z reported finding advertising “of any kind” disruptive.

Although they spend more time online than any other generation, Gen Z is inclined to skip online ads and to tune out traditional advertising methods such as airbrushed celebrity endorsements and ads on cable television. To make matters even more challenging, Generation Z is notoriously frugal and, according to a recent study by marketing firm Saatchi, aren’t impressed by the big brand names which had so much impact on their predecessors.

Brands need to do things differently in order to reach this elusive audience. This means refocusing marketing strategies to relate to individuals, rather than trying to pander to a wide audience.

Here are some additional steps brands can take to reach Generation Z customers:

  1. Align with a cause, such as Patagonia and REI did by recently rallying to protect national monuments.
  2. Focus on showcasing the quality and purpose of products through educational YouTube videos.
  3. Premiere new products in (highly photographed) small and intimate events.
  4. Work with micro-influencers to reach relevant niche audiences instead of wasting money on TV celebrity endorsements.
  5. Instead of investing in mass advertising blitzes which will likely be ignored, allocate those funds towards faster response times on social media.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How can retailers create a relationship with customers from Gen Z who largely resent traditional advertising? Is it possible to build a brand for an audience that prefers to be brand-less and self-identified? If so, how?

"At the end of the day, let’s face it, who doesn’t want socially responsible brands with an authentic voice?"
"Things have changed, we want more “merch” from brands we “follow” than ever before. They are Generation Z’s brands."
"Retailers need take a deep breath and remember that every generation grows up and looks a lot like prior generations growing up."

Join the Discussion!

18 Comments on "Branding for a brand-averse generation"

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Art Suriano
I agree with the points in the article, and I would say that the rule still is to keep the message simple. I think part of the problem today, not just with Generation Z, is that we bombard consumers with too much advertising. As a result, most of the ads no matter the medium are contrived. They attempt at times to be funny when they’re not, or to be so creative that the consumer has no idea what the message is and ignores the ad. I like when companies like REI and others take action on a cause and gain awareness that way. It is smart for name recognition and customers will find you and perhaps visit your stores or website. However, advertising is still relevant and it’s probably best when addressing Generation Z to keep it short and to the point without the fluff, and without celebrities who everyone knows endorse a product because they get paid. Generation Z is a smart and informed group, and advertisers can’t insult their intelligence with ideas of… Read more »
Ryan Mathews

I think the Gen Z brand loyalty issue breaks differently depending on category. Technology products, for example, seem to have a higher brand loyalty. I’ve seen lots of late-Millennials and Gen Zers with those nifty new $1,000 iPhone Xs, for example. I think many of the suggestions in the article are right — the YouTube marketing and targeting micro-influencers, for example — but I’d like to raise a metapoint here: It isn’t that the media messaging doesn’t work, it’s that Gen Z has different media preferences. Mass market, broadcast media built the modern brand marketing system and its day is done. Savvy marketers can still push buttons, but those buttons are “new media” — Instagram, social networks, YouTube, etc. Branding still works, it just wears a VERY different face.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

The five suggested steps are excellent in the Gen Z experience economy, but telling the story, selling the story (item two) is still paramount to establishing identity. Other items gain brand affinity and alignment with a generation that is much more brand-engaged than they want to admit.

Adrian Weidmann

The suggestions outlined by Jasmine offer great guidance. I would add that ” … aligning with a cause” must be genuine. Thankfully, Gen Z is truly motivated and socially responsible. If a brand is discovered to superficially align with a cause just for commercial leverage and gains, this generation will expose and burn you globally through social media faster than you can send a frowning emoji.

Anne Howe

Why not invite the Gen Zs into the content development chain? It takes guts and honesty to let them rate and review with their “no BS” filter but let’s face it, another 80 million consumers of a brand’s future cannot be ignored.

Stuart Jackson

Generation Z wants their advertising to be full of authenticity, real people and they want brands that can prove their social responsibility credentials. They use social media to showcase their lives and discover new products and services. They’ve got a low boredom threshold and skip over ads that aren’t tailored to them — they’re teenagers.

But I think brands get hung up on the differences between the generations when actually all ages have a great deal in common. A recent study by Ipsos showed that there are many myths surrounding what Millennials want in life, and there are going to be just as many surrounding Generation Z.

At the end of the day, let’s face it, who doesn’t want socially responsible brands with an authentic voice? I don’t think retailers should be looking at the generations in silos. Our whole culture is changing and if brands don’t shift soon they’ll become irrelevant.

Lee Peterson

You know, I’m with Gen Z on this one (and most things, actually): please leave me alone! Be a good brand, generate word of mouth with quality, great service and by doing the right thing (think REI/Patagonia lately) not by running an auto-sound video when I call up The Weather Channel!

We all thought the internet was going to shield us from ads for a while there but damn, it’s worse than ever! I can’t watch a video, do a search, look at ESPN or anything without a required amount of ad time. Required! It’s really, really intrusive. Stop it! Someone in Adbusters once said, “anything on TV is not worth buying” — I’m starting to think that about online ads too. Good brands need to be good. And getting out of our faces would be a start; it’s really not helping you sell yourself or your goods.

Joy Chen

All the ways identified to reach Gen Z are the right approach. The bigger point about building a brand that appeals to Gen Z is that it must be part of their lifestyle. Only with this approach would they identify themselves with the brand. This would mean it requires the brand to be experiential.

Yoav Vilner
29 days 27 minutes ago

The main issue here is that Gen Z has shifted to other media which are completely different than the ones that worked for the previous generation. YouTube is a great suggestion as well as social media in general. Micro-influencers on Instagram, for example, represent a very promising and cost-effective advertising medium. I also agree with point number five — mass advertising doesn’t work anymore, consumers have been overwhelmed with too many ads. Personalization is always key in advertising.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

For a long time we have talked about becoming consumer-centric and personalizing messages. While this approach is effective with other generations, Generation Z did not grow up with mass media and responds to an individualized, personalized approach. Companies now need to get on board with this consumer-centric, personalized approach or risk losing Generation Z.

Sky Rota
29 days 9 minutes ago

I strongly agree with Jasmine’s step four about using micro-influencers to reach specific audiences. However, It is not entirely true that Gen Zers prefer to be brand-less.

The thing is, your definition of “brand” and our definition of the word “brand” has changed. Back in the day your brands were huge household names like: Coke, Nestles, Pepsi. Today, a “brand” may be a name that only one of your four kids knows about.

Ex: “BigBallerBrand,” “Lance210”, some of you may know these brands and some may not, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t “brands.” So yes, it is possible to build a brand for what you call a brand-less generation. I think it’s time to rethink what you all consider what a brand is. Things have changed, we want more “merch” from brands we “follow” than ever before. They are Generation Z’s brands.

Mohamed Amer
Thank you Jasmine, these are great points on a topic that is challenging the experience base of many of today’s CMOs. Gen Z is the anti-mass everything and despises feeling manipulated. They’re not only digitally savvy, their identity is tightly woven in with technology and devices, they expect myriad of choices, instant and personalized interactions. While they strongly value and align with social and environmental causes and community, they’re also keen on the self. Against this background and changing lifestyles (not limited to Gen Z) fueled by technology, traditional advertising not only doesn’t work, it is dead. Advertising is turning into highly-personalized digital moments that are relevant to a specific viewer, it’s not the category of digital online ads, but the quality, relevance and timing of the message and the recipient. Intelligent application of programmatic advertising linked to deep insights at the individual connected consumer level — across devices and screens — is the future of advertising and marketing. Gen Z, like any generation before and since, will define how they wish to be communicated… Read more »
Cynthia Holcomb

Walk into an American Eagle store on a weekend. It’s jam-packed. I know, I have a 15-year-old. She was born in 2002, and I have observed her transition from complete “non-interest” in brands to a very specific interest in particular brands now that she is in high school. At morning drop off, I see a brand parade of Columbia, Nike, Vans, American Eagle worn basically in the “same look.” While my comments are anecdotal, as a retailer my interpretation of the statement “Gen Z largely resent traditional advertising” and “prefers to be brand-less and self-identified” means to me the days of many brands flourishing are behind us.

Think about it, in earlier decades, many brands were important because an individual’s fashion sense/style was important, cool, etc. Today Gen Zers wear carefully selected brands to execute their uniforms of jeans and leggings and white “tennis shoes” worn with the right branded jacket or top or hoodie.

Doug Garnett
As my Gen Z friends text me from their Samsung phones while wearing Nike or Adidas gear hanging out at Starbucks waiting for their clothes washing in Tide they have confirmed … Why isn’t this research compared against the past? Every new generation has tended to enjoy the idea of rejecting the past, yet all the while embracing it. Every new generation grows up and becomes consumers of many of the same brands. We need to remember that Gen Z lacks the income to purchase many of the big brands. And once they have that income their purchasing will shift. What about avoiding ads? EVERYONE avoids online ads when possible — that’s a given. And TV? They watch somewhat less traditional TV and more streamed. So it’s somewhat harder to reach them with advertising — but not impossible. Retailers need take a deep breath and remember that every generation grows up and looks a lot like prior generations growing up. And remember that right now, Gen Z has very little purchase power compared with older… Read more »
Shep Hyken

Some might view this situation as a curse. Others view it as an opportunity. Taking the more optimistic approach, the opportunity is to be good enough to earn the right and privilege to market to these customers. Be so good, build such trust and create a connection so that they want to hear from you. Use customer data to individualize or personalize the experience.

Cameron Conaway

Thanks for this piece, Jasmine.

I’m not sure that they’re brand-weary, but they are empowered consumers and therefore have little tolerance for the traditional interruptive experiences offered by the (mostly) long-standing brands.

As Lee mentioned, brands like REI and Patagonia continue to shine. I see this as being partly because they stand for something positive and meaningful — which is to say something vulnerable and that can be exploited for profit, which is to say something at risk of being completely destroyed by the current political establishment.

As Sinek said, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” This is only growing truer over the years, and will manifest fully with Gen Z.

Vahe Katros

Retailers could organize teams of Gen-Z employees and challenge them to merchandise and market their concepts, create different prototype stores/web/mobile experiences and have a competition that would help understand “the audience.” You could do it like an incubator — invest and trust in people!

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Even though I’m not a member of Gen Z, I’m very much more inclined to support a brand that markets to ME.

"At the end of the day, let’s face it, who doesn’t want socially responsible brands with an authentic voice?"
"Things have changed, we want more “merch” from brands we “follow” than ever before. They are Generation Z’s brands."
"Retailers need take a deep breath and remember that every generation grows up and looks a lot like prior generations growing up."

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