In search of future perfect

Can marketers deliver authentic brands, highly customized experiences Gen Z demands?

Five people with cell phones
VBJ File

By 2020, Generation Z will represent 40% of all consumers, the largest current generation of purchasers. By many market estimates, Gen Z carries up to $143 billion in buying power, and they have unprecedented influence over their immediate family’s purchasing decisions, from vacations to groceries to values-based choices, like whether to buy products in plastic packaging. People born after the mid-1990s have a decidedly different outlook than their predecessors, the Millennials, and they are dramatically influencing the way companies sell products and experiences. Marketers and branding professionals are closely tracking these shifts.

In the land of tech natives

Gen Zs are tech natives. Information has always been at their fingertips. Phones are tools for living, not distractions from it. They can immediately and thoroughly research products and companies, read reviews from strangers and check in with their friends. Kevin Getch is the founder, CEO and director of digital strategy of Vancouver-based Webfor. He said that because Gen Zs have access to more information than ever about brands and products, and they are “phenomenal” at researching, Gen Zs have already made up their mind about a product or service by the time they pick up the phone to make contact. He has worked with Washington State University Vancouver to more closely track mobile users – Gen Zs – and used data from those interactions to increase conversions dramatically.

Matt Cole is the owner of Revere, a downtown Vancouver integrated brand experience agency in business since 2016.

“Mobile experiences are now more paramount than ever,” Cole said. “Creating an engaging mobile experience for a generation whose world takes place on a 6.5-inch screen means (that) to be a successful brand, tech does matter, and it won’t wait for you to catch up.”

He also spoke to the way retailers and eateries are engaging the native mobile user.

“Content, offers and products all must be dynamic and customizable, so brands are investing heavily into technology that will allow users to customize, compare and explore,” Cole said. “It’s not so much about the transaction as it is about the journey. So, retailers create dynamic interactive experiences on the web for shoppers who want to know everything. In stores, things like menu boards are digital so they can be changed on a whim to tailor offerings based on trends, behaviors and seasonal timing.”

Authenticity is everything

Brought up post-9/11 and through the recession of the late 2000s, Zs are thought to be skeptical and value-oriented, prioritizing integrity and personal connection over a “good deal.”

Getch said companies need to “communicate value through values.” He added, “A big thing to them is if you say this is who you are, this is what you do, you need to deliver on that and if you don’t, they are going to find someone else who can deliver on that.” Getch should know – he has a 19-year-old daughter who was a fan of, and now works for, a famously Z-focused brand, Dutch Bros. Coffee.

Generation Z is “searching for real value that doesn’t always have to be attributed to money. Zs are searching for place and meaning above money and power,” Cole said. “What this means for marketers is that we have to make compelling offers that ascribe to these meaningful values. For example, one of the e-commerce brands we work with was trying to jumpstart online sales through social ads and rich web content. The offer wasn’t ‘take 15% off your next order,’ it had to be, ‘join and we’ll throw in this free product.’”

AHA, a 28-year-old Vancouver-based branding and messaging firm, has been focused on corporate responsibility for the last 23 years, said Melanie Adamson, AHA senior director, brand, a newly created position she took on in March. She said in AHA’s work with clients who are serious about “recruiting and retaining talent, it is important for companies to relay their values. I love to see how it’s evolved from millennials to Gen Z. They are demanding corporate responsibility from the brands that they are seeking.”

Adamson, like Getch, has kids in the demographic.

“As a mom of a 14-year-old girl, I see that crew – my daughter and her friends – demanding acceptance around things that might have been wishy washy, when there is no reason for wishy washy,” Adamson said. “This is an opportunity for brands to be authentic and take a step back, look at what they stand for and express their values. If they don’t, you’re going to be able to tell.”

The role of influencers

Gen Zs depend heavily on “influencers” – YouTubers, Instagrammers and other social media personalities that recommend products or are paid by companies to represent products. Influencers resemble the celebrity spokespeople of previous generations, but they are engaged in conversation with their viewers and fans like never before.

“It’s important for brands to understand who their influencers are and who they are influencing,” Adamson said.

While influencers were emerging as a market force just five to eight years ago, said Cole, today, they are big business. There are even third-party services that aggregate influencers for brands to choose from.

“We have influencers to thank for the emergence of cult brands,” Cole said. “Gen Z identifies more with influencers with compartmentalized celebrity than it does about mainstream celebrity influence. This is a generation who cares about real genuine experience and this generation feels like influencers they follow are more relatable, more real than the mainstream.”

“Influencers can also make product promotion more organic so it doesn’t always feel like you’re watching a commercial produced via big media,” Cole added.

Getch said that influencer marketing, in its growth, has become “almost very seedy,” and he pointed to micro-influencers, those social media personalities with a smaller but intensely devoted and engaged following, as an emerging marketing tool for brands.

Whether it’s creating a culture of influencers, forcing brand transparency or demanding personal customization, Gen Z is certain to be the defining force in tomorrow’s markets.

“We could not have totally predicted Gen Zs’ market behaviors (that) have taken shape in their coming of age,” Cole said, “but we do know that the pendulum has swung, and it means that real connections are mandatory now and I don’t see that swing back the other way anytime soon.”

Kevin Getch

Future Proofing

Gen Z appears to be driving the culture toward more ubiquitous use of artificial intelligence, or AI, capabilities. Webfor’s Kevin Getch is writing a book about the macro trends of consumer behavior toward more personalized, predictive and proactive technology. He said the next “land grab” in technology development will be in personal assistant-type technology, in which devices prompt users to make every day decisions, such as following-up on appointments, buying airline tickets, managing recurring grocery purchases and more. The possibilities seem limitless, and Gen Z doesn’t look at privacy as hurdle in the same way older people do. Gen Z, he said, doesn’t mind “trading some of their privacy for convenience to get a personalized result.”

His book, “Future Proof Your Marketing: How to Win at Digital Marketing – Now and During the Artificial Intelligence Revolution,” will help business owners, executives and marketing managers understand the current marketing landscape as well as the massive changes that are coming, and provide them with a framework to develop an adaptable customer-centric marketing strategy. It will be available in print and digital format at Amazon, launching on July 26 at Webfor’s 10-year anniversary party 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Webfor office, 1002 Main St., in Vancouver.