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Generation Z: New marketing challenges for a new audience

19th Oct 2009
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With so much choice out there, generation Z will simply ignore the marketing messages they don't want to hear. So how can marketers engage with this new type of customer?

Long gone are the days when marketers could rely on a captive audience to receive and respond to their marketing messages. The average consumer now sees something in the region of 3,000 messages every day, with more than 55% of direct mail thrown away unread. And as ‘generation Z’ – those born from the early 1990s – become dominant economic players, marketers are going to find that they have to adjust to a whole new set of rules.

Today’s teenagers do not respond to marketing in the same way as previous generations. They don’t watch so much television, for example. If they are watching TV, they’re watching it on demand (which doesn’t have adverts) or they’re watching clips on sites like YouTube. As they’ve grown up with banner ads and pop-ups, they screen these out automatically. Choice of channel is increasing exponentially as well, which means that if they sense a site or a magazine is becoming too dominated by advertising, they will quickly go elsewhere.

As a result of these shifts, a quiet revolution is gradually taking place whereby ownership of communications is being shifted from the provider to the customer.

Another way of life

As some evidence of this, consider Second Life. American Apparel saw the site as a good place to build a brand and make some money. However, disgruntled by what they saw as an invasion of ‘their’ space by corporates, the ‘Second Life Liberation Army’ swiftly appeared, shooting anyone they saw wearing AA-branded clothes. American Apparel (and other large brands such as Armani) have now withdrawn from the site. In a scenario unimaginable just 15 years ago, the customer wielded the ultimate power – if we don’t like what you’re doing, we can quickly make life very uncomfortable for you. Not only can we ignore your messages, we can de-activate your presence.

As customers now have a platform for their voice to be heard quickly, by a large number of people who will listen to them (via blogs, Facebook, YouTube et al) it means there’s no alternative for companies but to play by the rules of the audience.

Actually, Second Life can be a profitable place to be, as long as you operate on the customer’s terms, rather than the company’s. To market successfully to Generation Z, you need to understand how they think and what they identify with (and don’t identify with), then act accordingly.

The Cadbury’s Gorilla campain is a good example of a company unexpectedly having a hit on its hands, but the insight comes from observing how they subsequently acted. The advert, where a gorilla drums along to the tune of Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight, wasn’t, in fact, designed as a social networking campaign at all; it was a TV advert that was quickly uploaded onto social networking sites. It was at this point that the buzz was created, with the video being viewed over 500,000 times in the first week and some six million times by the end of the year. The results have been impressive: A YouGov poll found that the brand was viewed 20% more favourably as a direct result of the ad, and sales went up 9% from the same period the year before. 

Losing control - in a good way!

What’s more interesting, however, is the way that Cadbury’s behaved to keep the message viral, capitalise on their unexpected success and ensure the relationship between product and customer stayed harmonious. Lots of parodies of the ad appeared – there’s currently a version on Youtube of the gorilla drumming the theme from EastEnders, for example – and the cheekiest parody was of a woman playing the drums in a Wonderbra with the tagline ‘two cups full of joy’, mimicking Cadbury’s ‘a glass and a half full’ slogan. 

At this point, Cadbury’s could have tried to regain control of its brand and opposed the appropriation of the ad, imagery and slogan. Instead, it allowed the parodies full reign and the end result is that the gorilla has become a kind of cool, underground sub-brand for the company without any effort or investment other than a willingness to let the buzz develop its own momentum. The Wonderbra version was, in fact, eventually taken down from YouTube but not because it infringed Cadbury’s IP, rather that it used the Phil Collins song without permission.

Choice of channel for generation Z is now almost unlimited. If a customer doesn’t like a particular website, they can quickly move on somewhere else. This means that the ‘arms war’ of intrusive marketing doesn't work anymore – e.g. where marketers invade a space, customers find ways to avoid the invasion (such as a spam blocker) and companies respond with ever more ingenious ways of getting around the blockers. Teenagers will ignore you and find somewhere that suits them better or actively try to damage your brand. 

How to connect

Finally, a key way to connect with teenagers is to avoid overt branding altogether and communicate with them in a more easy-going, less corporate way than companies have perhaps been guilty of in the past. Orange’s sponsorship of the UK's Glastonbury festival has been very effective in this respect. The ‘chill ‘n’ charge’ tent, where festival goers can charge their phones for free and have a relaxed space in which to socialise, carries no branding or logos at all.

Orange relies on the strength of its brand, particularly helped by the fact that the association with the bright orange colouring is so strong, and the effects in terms of loyalty with the target audience are high. Finding ways of doing ‘marketing that doesn’t seem like marketing’ are going to be key in the battle to secure the loyalty and trust of generation Z in the future.

Key tips for marketing to generation Z:

  • Communicate to the audience in language they identify with.
  • Resist overt branding – they ignore the messages they don’t want to hear.
  • Let any buzz you create generate its own momentum (as far as legally and ethically possible).
  • The customer owns the relationship.
  • Adapt to how they want to receive messages from you; otherwise, they will go elsewhere.

Mark Stuart is head of research at The Chartered Institute of Marketing


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