Say hello to Generation Z! Brands’ focus are currently shifting from millennials to GenZers, stirring a controversial dilemma on whether this consumer group is really influential or just an exaggerated version of millennials. We’ve exclusively interviewed Toby Southgate, Global Chief Growth Officer of McCann Worldgroup, for his take on what Gen Z are looking for in a brand. 

­BB: Change is the new constant. That being said, staying relevant and becoming adaptable have become crucial brand differentiators. In your opinion, how can brands stay true to their DNA and sustain growth while embracing change and maintaining relevance?

TS: Perhaps change is constant – not a new constant, but a critical component in understanding the discipline of marketing. The key dependency here is the extent to which the brand itself is built from a clear strategic foundation. If it is, it can adapt and evolve. Strong brands do this. If not – if it relies on tactical executions and presents multiple, variable messages to the world – then maintaining relevance is very difficult. The value and benefit of long-term brand building as opposed to short-term activations is proven time and again, yet many marketers and brands overlook that value in favor of short term impact, which is usually unsustainable.

BB: Millennials aside, the next breed of consumers are here and accounting for a significant chunk of the buying power,Gen Z. In a nutshell, how would you describe the fundamental characteristics of their behaviour towards brands? What are their drivers? and what influences their buying decisions?

TS: I’m not sure Gen Z, or ‘millennials’ for that matter, account for significant chunks of buying power – in certain spaces, perhaps, but by no means everywhere. They are highly influential, and brands need to consider and be aware of their most relevant audiences – again, this is about long-term strategy and how it impacts marketing. Our research into these audiences shows a number of key differences between Gen Z and Millennials, some of which surprised us. McCann Worldgroup Truth Central, our global intelligence unit, identified a key defining trait of Gen Z, which is their appetite for immediacy: 64% of Gen Z’ers say they can’t plan for their future due to uncertainty in the world.

This impacts engagement with brands, and also purchase and buying patterns. They also want brands to play an active role in shaping the world around them: 84% believe global brands have the power to make the world a better place. This creates pressure for brands and reinforces the necessity for a strategic foundation: what is a brand’s place in the world? What does it stand for? What are you actively doing to demonstrate your commitment to that promise? At McCann Worldgroup we believe brands need a ‘meaningful role’ that defines behaviours, actions, and communications activity – that influences everything a brand does and says.

BB: Gen Z are known to be ‘digital natives’. How can bands of today build an effective engagement strategy with such a digital-savvy consumer group?

TS: Well that’s interesting. Yes, digitally native. But so are Millennials – and this created behaviours, habits, and associations that Gen Z appears to be rebelling against. Gen Z has reacted to the invasion and adoption of technology that was a defining characteristic of Millennials: our McCann Worldgroup Truth Central research tells us that 64% of Gen Z’ers are actively trying to reduce the amount of time they spend looking at screens. That doesn’t mean they don’t use technology – it means they find ways to make it work for them, on their own terms.  

BB: How brands can seduce Generation Z? What they’re looking for in a brand?

TS: Gen Z’ers have broad world views, and are increasingly immune to ‘seduction’ by brands. They’re smarter, savvier, and hard to influence. They want and expect not only authenticity, but also action – for brands (and businesses, and government, and communities)

The influence of this generation on the world of politics and government is seismic. As Gen Z’ers get to voting age this influence has the potential to change the world in fundamental ways. Events like the ‘March for our Lives’, and the impact of new activists and political leaders such as Moulala Yousafzi and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez gives Gen Z accessible figures of inspiration and motivation. In the last week alone, ‘AOC’ has influenced Amazon’s reversal of its decision to base a new HQ in New York City, and given a speech to the US House Oversight Committee that became the most-viewed video of any politician in Twitter history.

BB: One of the challenges that face brands when trying to be relevant with Gen Z is that their favorite brands are also shared by older generations. How can brands appeal to Gen Z and at the same time don’t lost other loyal consumer groups ?

TS: This is an age-old marketing challenge that isn’t unique to addressing the needs of new generations of customers: it’s about how businesses and brands define and communicate their place in the world. The fundamentals of marketing have not changed: media and channels have evolved, and the behaviors of people who buy products and services do too. But there’s no such thing as an easy route to fast, guaranteed success. Marketing is not hard, but it is difficult. Get the fundamentals right – know your brand’s role in the world, and make sure it’s founded on real human truths and insight that can give it meaning – and you stand a chance.