How to market to Gen Z – without embarrassing yourself

By Laura McLoughlin

Millennials have been the subject of countless articles over the last ten years, ranging from declining marriage statistics and job-hopping tendencies to their supposed narcissism. The generation, generally considered to be made up of those born between 1977 and 1995, has had its fair share of criticisms, praise and research, but at last, its time as the “new kid on the block” may be running out.

Generation Z, or those who were born after 1996, have been coming to prominence in recent years, and businesses should watch out. Past research into the buying habits of teenagers is quickly becoming outdated and irrelevant, as Gen Z, the oldest members of which are turning 21 this year, continue to show deviation from what we have previously understood teens to be like.

For businesses, this means relearning what they know about marketing to young people, and not just throwing some hashtags and the word “bae” at your social media. It means studying what makes this generation tick.


At the core of any person is their values, and when it comes to planning your marketing strategy, that is exactly where you should start. For example, despite the stereotypical opinion that all teens are reckless and irresponsible, Generation Z, is proving to be more risk averse than either Generation X or Y was at their age. Alcohol, drugs and cigarettes simply don’t have the same appeal to them, and what’s more, it’s cool to be close to your parents again. They are hardworking, pragmatic and surprisingly conservative. In fact, Forbes reports that 59% of Gen Z described their views as “conservative” and “moderate”, in comparison to 89% of Gen Y identifying as “quite” or “very liberal”.

Does your brand reflect the views of this new youth, or does it lean on outdated notions of what it means to be a teenager? A company should reflect what a teen today thinks is cool, not a Millennial at their age.

Perhaps the most strongly held value amongst Gen Z, though, is equality for all peoples. The Drum reports that 72% of this generation consider racial equality to be the most important issue today, 64% gender equality and 48% sexual orientation equality, and marketers need to be on the same page. Is the imagery for your brand inclusive of all races and genders? Does your next advertisement bow to family structure stereotypes, or does it subvert them? For Generation Z, inclusivity and sensitivity are not nice to have’s. They’re no-brainers.

Political engagement

Obviously, holding these kinds of values, it makes sense that Generation Z are invested in the political landscape of our world, despite being too young to vote – and they expect their brands to be too.

Teen Vogue, for example, a magazine aimed primarily at Gen Z girls, doesn’t just cover celebrity gossip and fashion trends anymore. It was a surprising front runner for commentary on the 2016 presidential election with its article entitled Donald Trump is Gaslighting America clocking up more than a million unique views. Even when told to “stick to the thigh high boots”, it launched a weekly op-ed named Thigh High Politics to continue educating and inspiring teen girls.

Not only do Gen Z teens want brands commenting on political goings on, but they want them to do something. Millennial Marketing reports that this generation has little patience for brands who claim to support equality and other social issues, while failing to invest in them. Fuse Marketing also notes that 85% of this generation better trust brands which support social issues and 84% will purchase their products.

Ben and Jerry’s is a key example of how brands can be politically engaged. The iconic ice-cream brand has weighed in on issues like gay marriage, climate change, and most recently the Black Lives Matter movement, but also puts its money where its mouth is by donating $1.8 million annually to organisations dedicated to social change. It continues to be one of the most well known and favourable brands amongst young people.


While Gen Z respect brands invested in social change, if your business, at its heart, isn’t genuinely concerned with these issues, avoid them. This generation values authenticity and “real people”, and you will quickly lose favour with them if you are found to be deceiving them.

In fact, 63% of Gen Z prefers marketing to come from “real people”. It is a generation distrustful of celebrity plugs and armed with ad-blockers, and so smart brands will find ways to bridge the divide between business and buyer while appealing to their sense of authenticity.

For example, many brands have sought the help of social media stars to promote their products. These stars are appealing to Gen Z because, to them, they are real people. Zoe Sugg, or Zoella as she is known by fans, is one of the biggest YouTube stars on the planet, and yet she talks to her camera as though conversing with a close friend. She discusses her family, her relationships, her struggles with mental health and really invites viewers into her private life, creating a persona more relatable and personal than any big brand can really manage. If your brand can make an authentic connection between its product and a social media influencer’s persona, you can develop a highly effective marketing campaign.

Another way to show your brand’s “realness” is a potential controversial one. Scott Fogel at Fast Company asserts that companies willing to take a position which isn’t universally supported are more likely to appeal to Gen Z. This is primarily due to the apparent honesty it reveals about a brand and the exposure it gains from “potentially polarising” viewpoints.


When it comes to reaching this generation, you need to think smart. Gen Z has been criticised for having an 8-second attention span, but these digital natives are simply expert skim readers with a wealth of different options available online and your content needs to meet their standards. Moreover, while teens are more connected than ever, their attention is split between 5 screens, 3 up from Millennials. This means that optimisation for smartphones and desktops, and creating seamless app experiences, is essential for earning long-lasting customers.

One of the most important aspects of reaching this generation is understanding that they interact visually. For example, 50% of the generation stating that they “couldn’t live without” YouTube, 15% citing Snapchat and 9% Instagram, all of which are obviously highly visual platforms. Not only that, but gifs and visual memes are used to explain multitudes, emojis are second nature and video is king, so if your business is to keep up to date with this generation, sideline the wordiness. When choosing social media influencers, consider those with a significant visual impact, like YouTubers or Instagram stars, and when posting on social media, don’t forget to attach an image or gif to your post. Your blog posts would also benefit from consistent use of imagery or gifs.

When it comes to marketing to young people, the task is never simple. This is doubly true for marketers who were young people many years ago. The humour is foreign, the buying habits unusual, but the most important thing any business can do is continue to learn and study its audience. Acknowledge them as a collection of unique individuals, rather than a mass of statistics, and meet them where they already are. Brands willing to learn from their audience, rather than pander to it with a few hashtags thrown in, will go the distance.

Laura McLoughlin works with Omnia, a branding and digital communications agency in Dubai’s Media City.