by Greg Potterton. The advertising industry is trying to reach Gen Z with the same tactics they tried on the Millennials and are increasingly demonstrating how out of sync they are with today’s youth market.
It appears we have pushed pause and are defaulting to a decade old formula that once worked on a more naïve and less exposed cohort. The formula goes like this: depict a struggling protagonist with huge aspirations and an even bigger dream to be an entrepreneur. With grit, hustle and determination, he (it’s always a he) can only get so far. Introduce Brand X and suddenly the protagonist is able, through the power of brand association, to realise his dreams. Whilst this might have worked with Millennials, Gen Z really doesn’t care.
It is always perilous to generalise about any group of individuals, but there are fundamental differences between Gen Z and Millennials and, whilst aspiration and the need to improve one’s lot in life will always be an important factor in any messaging, Gen Z’s values have changed whilst the industry seems to be stuck in a comfort zone of inertia and convenience.
Through our research agency, Nude, we recently spent 10 weeks living with a squad of township youth to determine what it means to be young in South Africa. The results were both comprehensive and exciting and, whilst the ways in which Gen Z differs from other generations were many, it was the findings on aspiration that were the most exciting.
“We tried to live the story brands told to us growing up, and we are still paying some of the repercussions of some of the shallow promises we inherited. On the other hand, our disillusionment is also the reason we are leaders of social change.”
– Andile, 26-year-old male
Firstly, Gen Z’s don’t aspire to be like a brand. They aspire to be like themselves. Gen Z has discarded aspiration for self-navigation and substituted badging for action. They are not waiting around for a brand to give them permission to enter the hallowed sanctity of its ‘brand aura’ or to laude them with a ‘badge status’ reserved for the elite. Instead, they are out in the world, defining themselves and aspiring to be better and more inclusive individuals.
Conspicuous consumption, social proof and brand values are jargon that might have once worked around a boardroom table, but are irrelevant to the Gen Z market. Gen Z’s are the first generation who are not rebelling against anything – rather, they are engaging and creating the future on their own. Where Millennials saw hurdles, Gen Z sees opportunities and prospects and they are not waiting around for brands to help them with their cause.
“We view societal change as necessary, so we create and redefine our own narratives in all walks of life. I am provocative and ground-breaking.”
– Lerato, 23-year-old male
Equally, Gen Z doesn’t care about your brand’s values. As much as we would like to believe it, today’s youth don’t care about a brand’s social purpose, its corporate mission or how “woke” it is. Whilst marketers and their advertising agencies are circumflecting over a brand’s CSI strategy, Gen Z are already out there getting things done. Whether it’s a micro-businesses, neighbourhood project or side-hustle, Gen Z are looking out for their own and creating opportunities that serve the broader community.
“My hustle is to motivate and inspire our generation through dance and arts; through things that inspire youth to fight for a better life and to help them understand that anything is possible and that they have that right to becoming great.”
– Lee, 25-year-old female
One of the reasons why the advertising industry could be getting it so horribly wrong is because of the socio-economic disparity between those who create the messaging and those to whom it is targeted. South Africa has the world’s highest Gini coefficient (the statistcal measure of economic inequality in a population), which means the notion of what the youth aspires to is vastly different to reality. Most advertising is created by Millenials, who have a very unique lens through which they view the world and its consumers. Most advertising is done because it feels virtuous and not because it is what the consumer values. Gen Z are not concerned with scarcity, status and ego, but rather self-navigation, expression and community.
And whilst Millennials and Boomers are embattled in a meme-worthy war of words, Gen Z is quietly getting things done, with or without brands’ support.