The truth. We all say we want to hear it, but can we accept it when we do?
Updated excerpt from my Book: The Gen Z Frequency, How Brands Tune In & Build Credibility with Youth Culture
Sometimes the truth means we need to get out of our comfort zone and take risks. It can mean hearing things we’d rather not hear. Often it can paralyze us into doing nothing at all rather than heading into unknown territory.
The truth doesn’t need to be so daunting, though. In fact, when it comes to building brands, tapping into fandom communities, and creating social impact, there are several ‘truths’ that ring true over and over again. We’ve distilled these down to five foundational guideposts that we refer to when working with brands. I apply these Truths to everything I do because they lay the foundation for how to think and act long before even starting to plot a strategy or putting an engagement program into action.
The Truths are simple. You will have seen them before, but you might not have considered how they build upon each other, creating a practical way to tune in and build credibility with Alpha Gen and Gen Z. Don’t be fooled by the Truths’ simplicity – the magic is in their application.
The five foundational truths:
Truth 1: Develop An Brand Identity Youth & Fandom Audiences Care About
Gone are the days when brand identity is built with a bullhorn. We all know that brand identity is now the sum of every consumer experience, but that doesn’t mean covering the spread of fragmented media with one brush stroke. In our opinion, context is just as important as content. It’s about brands boldly proclaiming a belief in why they exist in the first place, then proving it in ways that shape-shift within the medium and the context of media. In other words, prove that you are who you say you are in as many ways as you can.
Adam Wilson, Former Director Of Brand Marketing
For Carhartt, North America
Brands need an identity that young people care about, and that identity needs to go far beyond your service, product, and packaging and really determine who you are and what you represent to your audience. It’s the differentiator between successful brands, with strong audiences and proven staying power, and those that struggle to find their path. If you can build an identity Gen Z or Alpha Gen respects and cares about, you will have taken a significant first step toward the bigger goal of the brand–audience alignment.
Gen Zers and Alphas have access to more brands than any generation before, the choice of a brand says more about who you are today as a consumer than it ever has. 55% of Gen Z say they choose brands that are eco-friendly and socially responsible, a statement of their own personal identity and beliefs reflected by the identity of the brand
With a genuine, compelling, and entrenched foundation, your brand can withstand the ups and downs of the market or trend cycles. Once you’ve established your identity, stay committed to your core principles and beliefs – know what is non-negotiable and what can morph and evolve with your audience.
It’s easy to see when a brand is genuine because they really have something they stand by, rather than just marketing products to us. I don’t think brands are going to be successful if they don’t put their heart into it.
Daniel P . | Age 16 | Generation Z
Adult perceptions challenge our ability to resonate with youth and cross-generational audiences
We all put a filter on reality. How one person sees something can differ hugely from how another person does. The concept of perception is critical when discussing a brand’s identity. ‘There is an internal perception (the brand as the supplier sees it) and an external one (the brand as it is present in the memory of consumers and customers)’ (Franzen and Moriarty, 2009).
As business professionals, we need to ask ourselves if our internal perception is accurate and learn how to rise above any bias so we can be open to the reality of how our product may be received in the outside world. By getting ourselves out of the way, we can see Gen Z clearly and position brands the way we want them to be perceived.
In order to do this, we need to know what informs Gen Z’s perceptions of the world. Once we understand what fuels Gen Z’s opinions and preferences, we can better understand what motivates them. If we want their attention, we need to figure out how to appeal to them from their perspective. This is how you build strategies that work in reality and not just in the boardroom.
Today’s youth are the social media generation. It has never been so easy for young people to explore a brand’s values and determine if they are values that they wish to support. I cannot think of an easier or more effective way to have your brand resonate in the minds of Gen-Z and Alphas, than have values that they align with. The truth of the matter is in this world not only do you need to convince youth to purchase your product. You need them to pick your brand or organization.
Jake Skoloda | Age 18 | Gen Z Entrepreneur
Does your brand resonate with the targeted demographic and cultural segments?
As often talked about, Gen Z is a large and global demographic. The whole cohort, however, is made up of many groups and identities that are continuously evolving, and we have to know which groups and subcultures are the best matches for our brand. This leaves brands with a dizzying array of options to consider and ways to position themselves. Yet, it is so important to be dialed into these identities, or what may seem like a small detail for a brand can become a big problem for a misidentified group within Gen Z. An appeal to one group may alienate others, so brands have to prioritize: do they water down the message to be more broadly palatable, but possibly less compelling overall? Or do they prioritize one group over another, based on the group’s alignment with the brand, or the commercial viability of the group? There is no easy solution, but I recommend that a brand start with a core group affiliation that is the best fit, and build from there.
If you only appeal to Gen Z in the larger context, you lose opportunities to connect to the more influential and passionate groups within the whole. In fact, you may even be ignored for failing to respect those groups. Because some groups are more nuanced, we recommend that you don’t alienate some as you try to appeal to others.
How do we maintain our core identity in an evolving and challenging market?
Knowing what you are not is an important aspect of your brand identity. Consider the following questions: What is most you? What falls somewhere in between? What is less than that?
Sometimes even brands with ultra-clear identities can become distracted. When challenged by competitive threats, market fluctuations, and trend cycles, brands should revisit their core values, beliefs, and personality to get back on track, rather than reach for something new, which can weaken their story. Sure, brands need to evolve, but they need to stay anchored to their core identity as they do, or risk chasing audiences and trends. It takes confidence and courage to define yourself and stand behind that definition, rather than editing yourself in response to market pressures. Yet, fall into the trap of choosing something that might quickly boost sales over something that is truly you, and you may compromise your relationship with youth culture – you’d be trading a quick buck for the greater value of a long-term investment.
Example: three brands with identities young people care about
Truth 2: Establish and Maintain Trust with Gen Z & Alpha Gen Audiences
“Trust? It’s everything. When it’s there, when it’s really there, that’s how a brand gets brought to life, protected and defended, grown and shared in the most authentic and powerful way possible. Trust takes belief, belief takes faith, and faith takes nurture and care. It takes more than a product, a promise, or a campaign. We work to earn trust in everything we say, everything we make and everything we do. Period. This is an important lesson I learned early on and continue to bring with me wherever I go.”
Nick Tran | Global Head of Marketing at TikTok
Building trust is absolutely critical when building consumer relationships. The process, while it might not always be easy, doesn’t need to be complicated. Through our experience helping brands connect with their targeted youth audiences, we have learned that building trust comes down to a simple equation: Transparency + Authenticity = Credibility. By avoiding pretense or deceit and being true to core beliefs, consumers will trust in your promise, reliability, and the strength of your company.
The science of trust In relation to young consumer marketing
The role of trust in consumer-brand relationships has been championed in the advertising industry since the early 1990s and has been studied extensively in behavioral and chemical science. A 2012 study by Krueger et al on the neuro-chemical aspect of trust begins with the connection to behavior. ‘Trust as a critical social process is indispensable in friendship, love, families, and organizations. It facilitates interpersonal relations and permits reciprocal behaviors that lead to mutual advantages for cooperators during social and economic exchange’ (Krueger et al, 2012). In other words, in order to build a genuine relationship with Gen Z, your brand’s identity has to be trustworthy and invoke an emotional connection.
When we build trust and bond, our bodies release a chemical that drives us to deepen the relationship on both sides. We commit to Gen Z while they commit to us. When we earn trust, we reinforce brand loyalty. But it’s more than just feel-good – it actually creates a chemical reaction in our bodies. [T]he neurochemical oxytocin (OT) is synthesized in the human brain when one is trusted or simply treated well. The OT molecule, in turn, motivates reciprocation. The release of OT signals that the other party is ‘safe’ to be around and that cooperative behavior will not be exploited… the synthesis of OT motivates people to treat the other party ‘like family’ (Crosby and Zak, 2015).
Fact: 85% of Gen Z’ers say that trusting a brand is critical or important in purchase decisions.
Earning trust takes time. You can’t develop a relationship overnight with Gen Z any more than you could with a friend. Brands need to approach sales and marketing with thoughtfulness towards the needs and desires of their audience. This way, they have the best chance of being brought into the circle of trust. If you are not palpably committed, young people will move on.
Brands break my trust by failing to listen and underestimating people who support them, by creating products that are unreliable, or by making a negative impact on society. i hate when companies use pop culture influences just for a quick financial gain.
Devan T. | Age 16 | Generation Z
Trust is critical to any consumer — Alpha Gen and Gen Z are no different
As a brand, positioning yourself as an authority that talks down to Gen Z and Alphas are definitely not advisable. You stand a muchbetter chance of earning your way in as a trusted friend, with no pretense of control. The modern relationship between youth consumers and brands is a symbiotic one, rooted firmly in identity and trust. It goes both ways, or not at all. When brands do lead, it’s only because Gen Z’s trust in the direction of their leadership is tried, true and absolute. Trust lowers the barrier to acceptance and creates a safe environment – which means they may just choose you over the hundreds of other products they will see today.
Examples: three brands that have earned trust with Gen Z and Alpha Gen audiences
Truth 3: Cultivate Brand Relevance with Youth & Fandom Audiences
Staying relevant with Gen Z requires brands to stay on the pulse of everything happening in culture. And not just a gut check a few times a year… it requires a daily pulse of what this audience is talking about, feeling and connecting with emotionally. From politics to pop culture, Gen Z admires brands who are willing to engage in timely conversations.”
Michael Abata | Director of Retail and Brand at Shutterfly
You’ve established who you are and why you matter (your identity) and you’ve begun to earn Gen Z’s trust. The next step is to establish relevance, but how do we go about it? Why does one brand have Gen Z standing in line for hours waiting for a new product to drop, while other brands are discounting products just to drive a few visits to their site? For a brand to be relevant, they have to bring something – whether that’s product services, content, or entertainment – of unique value to consumers, at exactly the moment it is useful, critical, or applicable. When a brand does this, it takes on the role of friend and resource, making sure that needs are taken care of.
What is brand relevance? Giving back, standing for something, creating products and content relevant to the new school, that’s linked to your brand and [done] at lightning speed.
Kodie Shane | Age 23 | Rapper and Singer
A prime example of the power of relevance is the rise of Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, the cosmetics line for all skin tones by music star Rihanna
(www.fentybeauty.com). In 2017, it was celebrated not only because of the popularity of and devotion to Rihanna but because it finally provided a mainstream product to a notoriously underserved population, at a time when diversity was being increasingly embraced in popular culture. It was irresistibly relevant to young consumers, who themselves are an increasingly diverse population, and who, we have found, applaud brands that want to make a difference in the world.
The most relevant brands in culture get youth audiences to talk and to create brand-relevant content. This user-generated content is the currency of today’s world. Organic and genuine, it is the modern-day equivalent of brand awareness, brand trust, and brand reputation.
Are you immersed in the world your audience cares about, and the way they experience the world? Have you thoughtfully taken their circumstances into consideration when you develop products or communications for them?
Examples: Four brands successfully cultivating brand relevance with Gen Z and Alpha Gen
Truth 4: Possibility is the opportunity for brands to create magic with Gen Z and Alphas
“Find a creator – a real creator, not a fake one – that speaks to and inspires the audience you’re after. Partner with them for six months, a year or longer with the goal of becoming a true member of that creator’s community. Don’t tell them what to say – instead enable them – and through them, their community – to go places, do things, and discover possibilities. Become part of that creator’s community, but let the creator chart the course, set the sails and choose the destination. You’re not buying media, you’re not running a campaign. You’re joining a community. Be respectful, be generous, but mostly keep your mouth shut. With the right match between creator, community, and brand the results will be amazing.”
Jim Louderback | CEO at VidCon
Gen Z often sees brands as a way to express a multifaceted identity. They communicate who they are to others, in large part, through association. Products themselves may be simple – like a t-shirt – but when they come from a particular brand, they convey much more information than just whether or not they fit, for example; they are now a part of what the brand represents. When a consumer chooses a brand, they choose to be aligned with what that brand means or promises. Gen Z may look to brands to give them the opportunity to express what they are struggling to express on their own.
Why do we choose between two products that are essentially the same thing? Consider AH Maslow’s theory of human motivation. Maslow believed that ‘Man is a perpetually wanting animal’ (Maslow,  2000). Human needs can be classified in a hierarchy that must typically be satisfied in order. From basest to highest, the needs that must be satisfied are physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization (Maslow,  2000). If we reconsider the t-shirt, it is, at its most basic, a sleeved tube that will cover your torso, after all. If you are cold, it may keep you warm (physiological), if you are in public, it may keep you from feeling exposed and vulnerable (safety). Any t-shirt does this, so what else is it? Why is the customer really buying a new t-shirt when they already have 10 at home? The new shirt clearly provides something those shirts don’t. Maybe a brand is popular, and associating with it makes the wearer feel as if they are a part of something (love/belonging). Perhaps the brand is exclusive and the wearer gets a boost to their sense of self (esteem). It could be that the brand or message on the shirt stands for something that the wearer believes represents their true self and helps them say, ‘This is me!’ (self-actualization).
73% of Gen Z believe they need more self-expression to live a happy, healthy life. Brands that enable and fuel this ability to self-express will tap into this deep generational desire to live a better life by being who we truly are.
No matter what a brand represents, it can influence youth consumers who are looking for opportunities to fulfill their personal needs. If we identify compatible audience segments and are able to connect, we can investigate and discover what motivates them both intrinsically and extrinsically. This helps us understand what they want and how we can help them achieve it. If Gen Z aspires to a world where workers are treated fairly, for instance, a brand’s support of fair trade can imbue their product with the promise that this t-shirt was made in a fair trade factory, and that when you wear it you are helping people exit a life of poverty. If your brand can cover each stratum of Maslow’s human motivation triangle, and your product has the ability to deliver and satisfy on all these levels, then you are well on your way to tuning in effectively and building credibility within youth culture.
Example three brands successfully leveraging possibility with Gen Z and Alpha Gen
Truth 5: Experience
A fundamental part… perhaps the fundamental part of humanity is to derive meaning from our existence, in the broader context of the universe. Gen Z is coming of age in a time period where we are constantly given digital reminders that we are not alone. An individual experience, recorded on a Snapchat or Instagram story, is almost immediately integrated into a broader ‘story’ pooled together by hashtag or geographic location. Technology has given us the tools to show us, in real-time, that we are one piece of a much larger puzzle. Brands need to become part of this larger puzzle, and contribute to the overall experiences of this generation.
Sara Unger | Former VP, Marketing, Strategy, Trends & Insights at Viacom
Gen Z is used to sensory overload and craves it. They want to be surrounded by experiences that make them feel alive and connected. Supreme (and many other brands that have been successful at creating the right experiences for Gen Z) understand this. While it garnered trust by creating alliances with artists, photographers, athletes, and more who resonated on just the right frequency for the youth consumer, it also knew it needed to take that to the next level by providing the right experience. It is doing something right because 20 years later, you’ll find discerning young consumers still waiting in line at its door.
Fact: 73% of Gen Z and Millennials (18-34 year-olds) rate in-store experiences such as events or engaging activities over the possibility of seeing and touching their desired item in-store. Source: Channel X and Savvy Study.
In a world of information overload, Gen Z’ers are seeking things that stand out from the noise, experiences that add humanity and emotion to a littered environment of advertisements and content.
Today, successful brands are creating experiences that invite their audience to become part of the story. They want to be part of the conversation, not just talked to. A good experience builds community, encourages interaction, and builds brand loyalty, where we explore more immersive experiences.
Two brands successfully create experiences that create a sense of belonging among Gen Z and Alpha Gen
6 Key takeaways for brands marketing to Gen Z and fandom audiences
- Youth culture is a complex convergence of subgroups; a concerted application of the Truths is critical to building consumer-brand relationships. Take the time to reflect on the Truths as they relate to your brand and situation, then complete each Youth Market Readiness Audit. Your answers will be used in Chapter 4 as you go through the Youth Culture Alignment Framework, and again in Chapter 6 as part of the foundation for the Youth Culture Engagement Playbook
- Identity: Define and position your brand in ways that contribute to youth culture. The brand stories should be unique, audience relevant, and something Gen Z can and wants to participate in.
- Trust: Be trustworthy, dependable, and earn the respect of youth culture. Transparent business practices, consistency, and reliability are the actions needed for Gen Z to consider you an ally.
- Relevance: Know what matters within youth culture, and actively forge relationships that deepen the connection. Deliver on what Gen Z needs and wants, when and where they expect it, and make them look cool in the process.
- Possibility: Determine what you can uniquely offer that opens up the realms of possibility for Gen Z. How can your brand inspire young people to define themselves, reach beyond the present and yearn for the future
- Experience: Create positive and meaningful experiences that connect your brand with the broader stories in youth culture. Deliver unique and memorable experiences across channels that contribute to the overall experiences of this generation in all its manifestations.
Use the five truths to create genuine connections with hard-to-reach youth consumer groups by learning from the top 50 companies that apply them: