Gen Z: More human, more caring, more sharing

How to market to Gen Zs – a conversation with Ed Brooke at The Leith Agency

Gen Z. Born between 1995 and 2010, they account for a third of the world’s population. Referred to as “digital natives”, they are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation and are forecast to be the most well educated. CIM Scotland Chair Ellie Murphy recently spoke with Ed Brooke, Executive Partner at Edinburgh based, The Leith Agency, to get his thoughts on marketing to Gen Z. 

Here’s what he had to say:

Why are Gen Z’s such an important market and what’s different about them?

I always like to start from the macro perspective and take a look at scale – Gen Z represents about 20% of the UK population, so it’s a sizeable chunk of the market for starters. If we then apply a Covid lens, we see that online spending by this group has increased by 33% during the pandemic. What’s interesting for marketers is that the impact of pandemic is projected to have significant effect in the longer term, accelerating the adoption of behaviours that were already being seen.

You can’t overstate the importance of the “digital native” label for Gen Z’s – they truly are the smartphone generation, communicating completely differently from those who have come before them. Exponential advances in tech are in themselves fuelling demand for ever greater use of tech, pushing boundaries to the max as tech developers try to keep pace with how Gen Z’ers want to live their life – why type when you can speak (voice recognition) for example?

Putting aside the tech for a moment, emotionally this generation has seriously gone through the wringer, and this shapes both their world view and how they behave as individuals: they will have lived through the 2008-209 economic crisis, potentially watching their parents lose jobs, a growing global wealth gap, student debt, and are now experiencing one of the biggest pandemics in the history of the World. And yet, despite concerns about depression and anxiety amongst this generation, they remain remarkably resilient, actively helping to shape the world that they live in.

I wince when I habitually hear others bemoaning Gen Zs. My experience is that they are more caring, more human and more sharing that any other generation and we should be taking our hats off to them rather than labelling them negatively.



How has marketing to young people changed from ten years ago?

I see marketing as a conversation, perhaps with someone you’re aware of but don’t know that well. Ten years ago, marketing could unkindly but realistically be labelled as largely a one-way conversation (all mouth and no ears); after a while the audience stops listening.

With Gen Z, listening, responding and being in the moment with them is hugely important. It’s all ears and less mouth. They are the one expressing themselves and you have to pick your moment to engage at the right time.

The notion of being genuine really appeals to them. Be aware that from the information sources they tap into, Gen Z’s are likely to already know a great deal about you from before they engage. They’re interested in people who stand up and be counted, people who are fighting for something, such as Marcus Rashford or David Attenborough. So, if you’re a brand targeting Gen Z, what gives you an edge? You need to stand for something and avoid neutrality at all costs. Be clear in your view, treat your consumers and your people right. For example, a lot of Amazon’s recent marketing activity around the welfare of its people will be to repair growing reputational damage and have been driven by the way in which younger people are thinking about Amazon. You need to react to the current climate and understand what’s important – not just know about your product or service, and the benefits it offers.

Feeling good is the most important thing for Gen Z’s, research shows, in contrast to Millennials who want to look good. Nike have responded brilliantly to this change in emphasis, continually shaping and shifting their message with the generations, now championing fitness to feel good. A lot of Nike’s organic research come out of their massive LA community store – a limited range of their clothing and a community centre – where they’re tailoring their products and message all the time by listening to customers data.


Which brands do you think are being most effective in engaging with young people?

Again, those with good reputations are winning out. Statista has highlighted three key areas for effective engagement with Gen Z’s:

  1. Ethics and politics – equality and diversity, the environment, health and social care
  2. Aesthetics – yes, it’s still there and important, but needs more substance. It’s not enough to look good, you need to be good – present well and be easy to use. Remember, if you can’t purchase in five taps or less, you’re toast
  3. Individuality and uniqueness – Gen Z’s are about creative expressions, particularly where this can be fulfilled technology – we’re back to our “digital natives” again


So, who’s doing it well? Well, for starters, all the main social channels with the exception of Facebook. Depop, the clothes re-sale app is interesting as it’s both functional and useful whilst allowing you to be creative. During Covid, it’s been really good at offering wellness help spaces and tips, and it backs up the brand with a degree of substance.

Nike I’ve already highlighted – a mix of health and wellness focus which they’ve integrated over the course of the pandemic, to ensure they’re seen as function and serving a purpose, whilst looking good too. Greggs are always on the top of their game. It’s a brand with personality and a sense of fun, which nevertheless shows real substance with its ongoing commitment to ever changing times -  the launch of its Vegan Steak Bake this Veganuary the most recent example.

I have to mention one we are proud to work with IRN BRU, which is taking note of the tough environment that Gen Zs are growing up in, and creating sharable and uplifting content, knowing that we all still need a bit of fun.

Looking to the restaurant trade, you can see all too easily the impact your ethics can have on your bottom line: popular American chain Chick-fil-A was forced to close it’s one UK outlet shortly after opening due to protests about its US owners making donations to organisations opposed to same-sex relationships and marriage equality. In contrast, Chipolte Mexican Grill, whose values take centre stage on their website, has been hugely effective at fun and creative engagement on tiktok – one to watch.

For Gen Z’s thinking of love in the time of coronavirus, Hinge, is a dating app that is seriously in the ascendency, having been very effective at being in the moment alongside their target audience; meanwhile I’m also loving the wonderful fusion opportunities being created by emerging brand MobKitchen which is combining good food you can create at home, with music, slick production, fun and attitude.



Is there a danger that brands are still seeing young people as one homogenous group?

Definitely. Historically marketers have always wielded the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut. For Gen Z’s it’s important to remember that although they need to feel part of a tribe, their individuality remains massively important to them, so you can’t lump them together or try and group with Millennials. I particularly loved a phrase I read recently: “Don’t confuse me with a Facebook using, avocado on toast loving Millennial”. So, be wary of broad wide themes with your marketing. With the amount of data available, profiling tools and tailoring that we can now interrogate, we need to have the respect to treat them as individuals; to dig deeper and understand how your brand can work with individuals.


Are there things around language, tone, imagery that are different for this audience?

There’s been a bit of an evolution in language, but bizarrely also a retro-evolution – words that used to be popular in previous generation are being reinvigorated and repurposed with new meanings for Gen Zers.

Almost half of Gen Z are looking for some fun and light relief (not surprising given the context) so it’s good to be aware of this in your tone, and to focus on encouraging them to express themselves and help them look good and keep on top of their lives. They are an incredibly diligent bunch, with a real fear of falling behind during the pandemic, so it helps to give Gen Z’s the tools to stretch themselves

Gen Z’s respect honesty and understand failure, and relate to brands which can talk openly and transparently. Be positive and be decent. This generation pride themselves on making others feel better, with a genuinely deep rooted need to look out for each other. If you’re able, reflect that back meaningfully. Also, be empathetic and tune in to their sense of loss – all the opportunities that they’re losing during the pandemic. Your tone needs to allow for this and acknowledge all the things that were precious to this generation that has been robbed from them.

Finally, if you feel like you’re achieving diversity in your communications, then redouble your efforts. You can and should always do more than you’re doing. Remember, only 12% of Gen Z feel represented in the ads that they see.


Tactics – what’s working best?

From a channel perspective, marketers need to understand what’s happening during the pandemic. The stats will have changed again and different channels will be more important. If you felt they were digital natives before, then this has ramped up exponentially: there has been a 62% increase time spent on social media and a 59% increase in gaming. Fair enough, these percentages will calm down a little bit, but overall adoption has leapt on another level.

Find channels that allow you to be part of conversation in a natural way. Your target audience will be looking for platforms that are efficient, convenient and easy to use. And don’t forget to keep one eye on the hinterland of tech development and how new developments such as voice activation can be appropriate for your brand and your consumers.


How important are celebrities and influencers?

Here’s where we need to reconsider the terminology of our industry (that “one mouth, no ears” thing again) - we often smack of peddling one-way traffic. So, it’s useful to reframe the terminology, as with younger generations it becomes more and more redundant.

Influencing is a better expression to sum up the role of marketing now. Being persuasive and compelling. Seeking to influence but in a shared and mutually beneficial way. Gen Z’s totally get the world of celebrity and influencers, so if you’re using them to represent your brand they need to be authentic. Celebrity is essentially more of a more Millennial thing - only 14% of Gen Z say they’re impacted by celebrity. However, influencers can be very potent if used correctly.


If you had one piece of advice to give people approaching marketing to young people what would it be?

Think smart phone first. Inhabit and immerse yourselves in that world, see how they interact and determine how your brand fits naturally in. It’s a good starting point. If I was allowed another piece of advice? Listen – two ears and one mouth always.