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Creative, authentic, mobile: The characteristics of Generation Z

Key takeaways

  • Generation Z, born from 1995-2010, will make up the largest group of consumers worldwide by 2020.
  • Interacting with Generation Z is vastly different than with any other demographic and requires extra creative effort.
  • Authenticity is key when appealing to this advertising-savvy group.

Centennials, Post-Millennials, Plurals, Zillennials. There are many names for what is becoming more universally known as Generation Z, the demographic that comes after the Y or Millennial generation.

Born between 1995 and 2010, the internet has always been a part of their everyday life. They were also born into a less secure world: most weren’t alive pre-September 11, most were during the Global Financial Crisis. They make up 20% of the population and will be the largest consumer group worldwide by 20201.

While they’re somewhat like Generation Y, born from the early ’80s to mid-’90s, they’re also somewhat not like them. A reason that brands and marketers should pay particular attention? Generation Z drives US$44 billion in discretionary spending every year.

Reliant on mobile

Generation Z grew up online and spends more time there than any other demographic. For those old enough to own one, mobile is their primary way of interacting with the world. Nearly three quarters use mobile to text and chat with friends, 59% use it for accessing entertainment, 58% to play games and, perhaps unbelievably to the rest of us oldies, 36% of them use mobile to do homework2. Quite simply, they’re always on their phones!

Dovetailing with mobile use, is of course, their love of social media. While this group doesn’t interact on social media in the way that Millennials do, preferring a more private approach, they do use it just as frequently. Snapchat and Instagram are where they like to spend their time, places that are picture-heavy instead of text-based, in which they can lock down or share ephemeral content that won’t stick around to haunt them.

Multiple screens, multiple distractions

Worryingly for traditional advertisers, ‘Zers’ don’t care all that much about watching TV. It’s not that they don’t like the medium, but that they dislike the delivery method. Instead of parking themselves in front of the television when they get home from school or uni, they’re on their phones watching video.

They are multitaskers with short attention spans, similar to their older Gen Y siblings, so will often have multiple screens surrounding them (tablet, phone, PC, TV, laptop). The generation has an always-on, on-demand mentality – they watch what they want, when they want it.

Because they’re constantly switching from screen to screen, and have an attention span (or tolerance) of just eight seconds, it’s easy for them to ignore traditional advertising – which forces brands to be creative to stand out. Music, design, relevance and authenticity will all attract Generation Z to an ad3. If they don’t enjoy watching, they’ll simply move onto something they do like.

Gen Z also favours shorter content, preferring videos less than 20 seconds long. To catch their gaze, traditional entertainment providers may need to provide extra content of varied lengths and delivery methods, with integrated social to boot4.

Money, money, money

Considering its members range in age from just seven to 22, Zers have a lot of money. The source is varied: a lot comes as allowances from their parents, but many work part time if not full time. Being a financially conservative and determined lot, they also make money by working for themselves or earning money online2.

According to PwC’s Retail and Consumer 2016 Holiday Outlook, they like to buy things yet are careful in what and where they do so, and they spend nearly as much on other people as they do themselves. As such, Gen Z represents a huge opportunity for purchases across the board, no matter what demographic a product is aimed at.

Friends’ opinions matter

When it comes to spending money – which Generation Z does frugally – advertising has less influence than other people’s opinions. Ninety per cent of Generation Z relate to influencers on a personal level. They’re more likely to put stock in a product if it’s been reviewed positively by someone they follow, such as a celebrity, public figure or athlete.

They also listen to their friends. This is a highly social generation. When texting, chatting and using social media they’re also sharing. Almost three quarters will comment on their friends’ social media posts in a month, 62% share photos and video, and 45% share their opinions2. Over half will take a friend’s recommendation into account before choosing to engage with a brand.

Conversely, while what others think plays a big part in their lives, what they think also matters to others. For instance, one global study found that Generation Z had significant influence on the family budget, particularly when it came to food and beverage purchases, travel, household goods and furniture2. Which is to say, if you’re marketing to their parents, you should also be marketing to them.

Authenticity is key

Having grown up in a digital world where advertising has been a colossal part of their daily existence, they’ve developed a low tolerance for corporate advertising4. Ads, in their opinion, are best kept short and skippable.

Anything that seems fake or inauthentic, including things like image manipulation or obvious sales-speak, will be quickly ignored. It’s because of this distrust of marketing that recommendations from friends or influencers are more likely to be given weight.

Brands can advertise to Generation Z, but they have to do it on Gen Z’s turf. Products have to be relevant specifically to their lived experiences as well as being presented truthfully. Unfiltered, genuine communication will go far, ads that give a perceived (or real) hard sell won’t.

The importance of trust and transparency

Perhaps learning from the mistakes of Millennials, or influenced by their more anxious Generation X parents, Generation Z is much more savvy about privacy. While Millennials are often happy to sign over their details for receipt of a good or service, Gen Z is more cautious.

Allowing brands to have access to their personal information – even to enable better marketing or customised service – is something they’re disinclined to allow carte blanche. They want to know how and where it will be used and on what terms. They certainly don’t want to give away their location, online history, photos or payment info2. Using data to tailor messaging will be much harder than with other generations.

Trust goes further than just the privacy of their information, extending to the quality and standards associated with a brand and its products. They’re more inclined to choose brands that are socially or environmentally responsible or have a focus on quality. Importantly, this has to be actioned, not just claimed. Any whiff of disingenuity and they’ll be off, but consistent messaging that resonates with their belief systems will get them to stick around.

The discerning generation

While Millennials have been characterised as overly (and often naively) optimistic, willing to trust openly as long as they’re getting something in return, Generation Z is much more pragmatic. While both want similar things – namely, to get what they want, when they want it – they go about achieving that in quite different ways.

The sheer size of the generation, already making up a fifth of the population, and the money they have at their disposal, means that no one can afford to dismiss them.

While brands and media might have to go the extra mile to engage them, by putting effort into creativity and authenticity, or using social and influential methods of delivery, earning the trust of Gen Z will more than make up for the outlay.

After all, a recommendation from Generation Z goes a really long way.


Dr Amy Gibbs

Amy is the Editor in Chief for Digital Pulse, PwC Australia