Gen Z Breaking Barriers: How Your Brand Must Adapt to Survive

Diversity is the norm of Gen Z. They are the first digital natives. They are smart consumers. You are politically progressive. COVID is their defining historic moment. The list of their core features goes on and on.

There's so much media coverage about marketing for Gen Z – the 68 million Americans ages 6 to 24 – and the impact Gen Z has on our business world that it can be difficult to sort it all out, especially for marketers.

At CBX, we wanted to find out for ourselves what drives Gen Z consumers. We carried out qualitative research with our cohorts in the USA and supplemented our results with a global quantitative study with 600 Gen Zers, which was carried out in collaboration with our partners in Lonsdale in Paris and Cowan in Shanghai.

The insights from our Gen Z study provided valuable insights that marketers can use to connect with this passionate and active generation.

This article focuses on one striking trait: Gene Z's affinity for breaking barriers.

Gen Z and Gender Fluidity

Our research found that Generation Z consumers purposely disrupt many of our culture's established ideas about gender. This is further backed up by a study by Gucci and Irregular Labs a few years ago which found that 25% of Gen Zers expect their gender identity to change over the course of their life.

What does such a seismic shift in Gen Z's view of gender mean for marketers?

The data suggests that established semiotic codes and visual cues are being torn to pieces for both men and women. For example, during a project for a toy company, our designers learned that today's consumer is questioning why products for girls are pink and why a dusting and cleaning kit shows the picture of a girl without any outside prompts.

Such a challenge of gendered colors and biases in marketing will accelerate as Gen Zers enter their 20s. Established yet progressive marketers like Procter & Gamble are responding: In the case of P&G, the Venus symbol – the traditional symbol for the female gender – is being removed from the packaging of Always Hygiene products in order to better non-binary and transgender customers to address.

For Gen Z, ugly is the new beautiful

As a Gen Xer, I grew up watching the movie Singles. At one point in the film, actor Matt Dillon's character meets Kyra Sedgwick's character and says, "I have no plot," to which Sedgwick replies, "Your plot has no plot."

Successful brands today epitomize Sedgwick's answer. Gen Zers wants the disorder of mankind to be reflected in marketing. It's okay for them to have acne, it's okay to be overweight, and brands that exist to obscure reality in some way are anathema to them.

Beauty retailer Sephora is a great example of how a brand can evolve to achieve authenticity. When I worked for the company years ago, a movement fueled by the hashtag #Iwokeuplikethis shed light on women emerging for life and showing off their natural beauty. It was accompanied by statements stressing that women, without help, could be ambitiously great.

Sephora's evolution expanded our society's understanding of beauty as a form of self-expression and became a catalyst to celebrate the multidimensional nature of that expression without considering outdated gender or beauty constructs. Today's Gen Z drumbeat is, "Can we learn to love ourselves?"

Such a cultural shift served as a foreword to Gen Z's predilection for raw, unfiltered, and sometimes intentionally distorted photography. Marketers need to keep in mind that this new generation will immediately express a brand's falsehood.

Starface, an acne treatment developed by a beauty editor who wants people to stop blaming themselves for acne, is an example of a brand that is face-to-face with the phenomenon. Starface recognizes that skin condition is a common biological function that can make makeup difficult.

Starface's approach to marketing explains that it helps a consumer manage their acne so they can do whatever they want to do to their face. But if you have acne, show it off by putting a star on your face.

Gen Zers break the concept of brand loyalty

Our research shows that Gen Zers brands can be loyal and dismissive to brands, as shown by this quote from one of our research participants: "When a brand tries to evolve and it seems compelled, I lose respect for them."

To overcome this seemingly mercurial attitude that challenges brand loyalty, marketers need to understand the role their brands play in the lives of their audience and remain true to the essence of their brands as they develop.

Levi's resurgence is fascinating in this context. The brand had gotten lost since the mid-2000s until it focused back on the heart of the brand. Levi's conducted consumer research in which one respondent described the "roles" of their jeans, leading to the statement, "You wear different jeans, but you live in Levi's." A simple description that describes how Gen Z thinks about clothing.

Practical advice for marketing to Gen Z.

How does a marketer get results like those from Levi's, Sephora, and Starface with Gen Z consumers?

First, embrace the design mindset, which at heart has empathy with your target consumer. Design Thinking "revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we design products or services," as the Interaction Design Foundation notes.

The Bottom Line: By thinking about what it is like to be your Gen Z customer, you can create an experience that builds long-term loyalty and drives brand identification.

For example, if you are a backpack brand and you know the majority of your consumers are teenagers, plan a trip to how your target consumers get through their day, including the wear and tear they put on their backpack. Think about where these Gen Zers are going and what they are struggling with.

JanSport did just that with its "Lighten the Load" campaign. By cleverly linking baggage and weight with the emotional stress that today's teenagers struggle with, JanSport hasn't made significant changes to its product to appeal to its new target market. Instead, she launched an initiative that addressed a cultural phenomenon unique to today's generation.

Next, you'll learn to use new and emerging semiotic codes (a set of rules that convey meaning) and visual cues when marketing to Gen Z. The brands mentioned in this article are examples of marketers who successfully use codes and cues that resonate with Gen Z.

However, codes and notices consist of more than pictures on a package. Codes and cues make up everything consumers use to perceive their world. They encompass all forms of communication, as well as the unspoken way people navigate using language and images – some of which are not even processed by the front of our brains. A simple example that has already been pointed out: Pink is a deeply ingrained code for girls' toys, albeit a completely outdated one.

The barrier-breaking quality that Gen Z embodies reflects how we as humans naturally adapt to new resources and access to society and culture. Technology has set the gears in motion, and marketers who are successfully driving this shift in marketing to Gen Z will be the ones changing their understanding of the codes and visual cues that speak for our new generation of consumers.

This article was written by Jaime Klein-Daley, vice president of strategy at CBX, a New York City-based branding strategy and design agency.

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