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How to connect with Generation Z

How to connect with Generation Z Maria Elmqvist

"Generation Z" is the name of the "new" generation, a collective name of the people who are teenagers today -- a fearless cohort.

Growing up as digital natives, this group has always had access to digital tools which have helped them gain exposure (for good or for bad) online. Platforms and tools like YouTube and Snapchat have enabled both the fame-inclined and the everyday sharer the ability to create their own fully-formed brand or casual presence online.

So, what's the key to this fearless behavior? A fearless attitude. For Gen Z, it's all about going your own way -- starting your own company or creating a new product without having to wait for permission, the right skill set, an academic degree, or even years of work experience.

Portraits in fearlessness

Tyler, the Creator is an example of a teen creating his own path. In 2011, he had a breakthrough as the 19-year-old leader and co-founder of the hip-hop group Odd Future. With a spirit of going against the norm, he wore Supreme clothes, had his own Cartoon Network show, and talked about skateboarding being the best thing in the world. This became some sort of ironic reply to hip-hop artists "seriousness" and a role model for the younger generation.
Tyler also designed and produced the group's clothes and ran his own branding agency named OFWGKTA. He says that he "doesn't like other rappers," and isn't interested in mimicking his peers. Instead, he's encouraging people to do their own thing. Though, there have been quite a few criticisms aimed towards Tyler's statements and actions, perhaps those outside the Gen Y/Z cohort are not ready (or do not understand) this type of controversial, unserious humor.


An up and coming Swedish artist who shares the irreverent style of Tyler the Creator is Young Lean -- a Swedish 18-year-old hip-hop artist who recently threw a few concerts in Manhattan. He is famous for referencing the 90's and Tumblr culture, drinking Arizona Ice Tea, and wearing a bucket hat. If you attend one of his concerts you'll find a stage filled with people surrounding the rapper and a floor filled with people bouncing up and down, wearing bucket hats and repeatedly screaming "sad boys" over and over again. It's difficult to know if the rapper is serious or ironic when he raps traditional rap lyrics sung with a melancholic voice over ambient beats -- he might just be making fun of rappers and hip-hop in general.

These influencers are a representation of today's teenagers -- fearless, irreverent, and entrepreneurial.

Brands doing a good job in meeting the fearless

Some people argue that Tyler helped put clothing brand Supreme back on the cultural map through his fearless personal brand. Supreme's coveted one-day, limited edition items create lines so big around the block that the police often need to close down the streets. Supreme is also an innovator in social, and uses Snapchat to promote "snap-sales". This means that at any given day or time, a Snapchat is sent out that lets the customers know that there is a sale for a limited amount of time -- causing a rush to the store.

Another brand driven by this generation and its irreverent humor is Skittles, the candy that is the most popular among teenagers and younger children. The "Touch the rainbow" campaign has been running for years, and it shows a humor that is just on the edge of being inappropriate, or at least against the norm. Something the brand is representing even today and throughout all their campaigns.

Taco Bell
This fast food chain has become successful with Gen Z because it is talking the same language as modern teenagers and dares to create social media content in real time. It tests new ideas based on how teenagers communicate with each other (for example, Vine), and with successful results it has built connections with them as friends instead of talking with them as a corporation.

Another example is Netflix, who hosts yearly hackathons where users are invited to co-create and develop new features for their product. This can be used as a measurement tool for what people are looking for in the product, and business development ideas.

How brands can connect with Gen Z

Since teenagers obviously already are able to create their own careers and personal brand across social channels, it is more important than ever for brands to show radical transparency, authenticity to position oneself as a member so to speak, of the Gen Z group. Understand their world, language, and customs and reflect that in your products and communications. Help with building their brands and speak to them through the new relevant, mediums that exist.

Checklist for connecting with Gen Z

  • Use social media to connect to people on a one-on-one level. Allow people to "pull" information from the brand channels instead of just "pushing" out a one-way "advertising message".

  • Stay up to speed on what platform they are using, and tailor the content to each platform.

  • Game social media platforms are relatively new, and new ones (e.g. Twitch) are coming. This gives room for brands to invent within the platform and test new things.

  • Listen to what teens are actually talking about and dare to use the same language and style of communication as they do.

  • Make stuff -- or help them make stuff. This is the end of people as "consumers" and the beginning of us as creators. We have made the switch from consumer to producer and there are opportunities for brands to take advantage of this space to connect with people.

"summer, holidays, vacation and happiness concept - group of friends taking picture with smartphone" image via Shutterstock.

Maria Elmqvist is the cultural strategy trainee at sparks & honey.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Maria Elmqvist is a Creative Strategist from Sweden, where she studied journalism before moving to San Francisco where she received her degree in Advertising. She has most recently worked with the cultural strategy team at sparks & honey.

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