In our last installment about the impact of Gen Z in retail environments, we touched on the importance of cultural understanding as the underpinning of the development of a welcoming, intentional retail environment.
A brand’s culture is about much more than smart design and tailored experiences for its customers. Having corporate values that are infused throughout a brand is no longer a nicety, but a necessity. That doesn’t mean modifying your brand to chase cultural whims, but fostering an authentic approach that embraces inclusiveness and individuality. Thinking about culture from a 30,000-foot view, brands can peg their culture toward commonly held social goods. It’s less a political stance than a practical reality because Gen Zers are anything but monolithic in their beliefs.
According to Andrew Mulholland, managing director of The Gild, a global brand consultancy that studies Gen Z culture, “Within each generation, there are wide divisions in politics, culture and taste. And across generations, there are attitudes that bridge young and old together. Treating the attitudes typically associated with terms like ‘Millennial’ or ‘Gen Xer’ as belonging strictly to one age range shows a lack of awareness of who people really are and how they really behave, in all their nuance and variety… Generations sketch out broad, loosely dotted, overlapping circles. If we want to truly understand each other, we need to look more deeply at the attitudes, lifestyles, motivations, and behaviors of the diverse range of people who make up these generations.”
Political campaigns have used ethnic diversity as a wedge or a uniting force in modern America. But for Gen Z, it’s more a pragmatic truth rather than a political stance. Consider the fact that Gen Z is the last generation to be majority non-Hispanic white at 52.9%. That means brands must develop a new way of understanding multiculturalism. According to Cross-cultural Gen Z, “Our research indicates that a majority of Gen Z will define their cultural identity in fundamentally different ways from their predecessors. By embracing and balancing multiple cultures, they are moving their cultural identity beyond simple definitions of race and ethnicity. How marketers and brands use culture to connect with this truly multicultural generation will require fundamentally different thinking.”
Whatever that different thinking results in from a brand’s perspective, one thing is certain: brand efforts will have to be flexible, iterative and nuanced. The sheer size of this population – at 83 million – will require brands to engage in creative wholesale reimagination, since they represent the second-largest cohort in America today. What’s clear is that Gen Z’s influence will ripple across multiple generations, just as Millenialization created massive upheaval for brands. The disruption that Millennials caused in the past two decades was largely born of innovation and technology. The coming disruption from Gen Z will be revolutionary from a cultural standpoint. For brands to be successful, they’ll have to understand cultural intersectionality over the generational silo.
One of the most interesting facts about Gen Z is that given their multiculturalism, one might assume they would be more progressive across all viewpoints. But that’s not what the data shows. In fact, it’s expected that Gen Z will be the most conservative generation since the 1940’s – much more conservative than Millennials and Gen X – but why? According to Move Over, Millennials, Here Comes Generation Z, “Millennials, after all, were raised during the boom times and relative peace of the 1990s, only to see their sunny world dashed by the Sept. 11 attacks and two economic crashes, in 2000 and 2008. Theirs is a story of innocence lost. Generation Z, by contrast, has had its eyes open from the beginning, coming along in the aftermath of those cataclysms in the era of the war on terror and the Great Recession…”
So while they’ve grown up with similar ideas about valuing diversity as Millennials, Gen Z is coming of age in an era of widespread terror alerts and global unrest. Further, it’s important to consider that our way of approaching generational understanding can often belie the lived experience of individuals. Not all Gen Xers are jaded; just as not all Millennials got a participation trophy. According to an article in Marketing Communication News about the conservatism of Gen Z culture, “The findings go on to suggest that traditional generational stereotypes are outdated, with respondents repeatedly defying conventional wisdom about their attitudes and behaviors. The research also highlights commonalities and differences between generations that may have been previously overlooked.”
When we think of disruption, we often peg it to technological advances and innovation. Every generation has its own connection to innovation – from the advent of cars, radio, television, cable, the internet. We all have relationships with, and adapt to, new forms of technology carving out a new role in our everyday lives. What’s so interesting about Gen Z is that they are living in an era where the impossible is possible and changing every day. So for Gen Zers, it’s less about what’s next in terms of technology, than it is about what’s valuable (and what’s not) within a culture. What’s more, they want an active role in creating a culture that is relevant to their experiences. This co-creation will extend to brand culture, as well. Gen Z wants to have a say, and brands that embrace them as creators will rise, while others that relegate them to a minor role will struggle.
According to market research firm Wildness, “What we’ve uncovered in our research is that this is a generation of Culture Creators (CCs) that are redefining entertainment, consumption, the workplace, and marketing. The CCs are empowered, connected, empathetic self-starters that want to stand out and make a difference in the world. They have created a new Cultural Currency that values uniqueness, authenticity, creativity, shareability, and recognition. What’s different for this generation is not as simple as the internet or technology. Technology is an important component, but what’s changed is this generation’s relationship with culture.” In short, Gen Z doesn’t want people to speak for them – they want to actively engage in the creation of meaning surrounding them, and that includes brands.
According to Forbes, “Despite the frightening times they’ve faced, only 6% of Gen Zs are fearful about the future. Having grown up amid major innovation and social change, Zs are inquisitive and globally aware. They’re already offering suggestions, solving problems, and proving their savvy, demonstrating how prepared they are for stressful and uncertain times.” Talk to them straight – no sugarcoating necessary – and they will respond in kind. Don’t presume to label them or speak for them: they define themselves as individuals and create opportunities for brands one interaction at a time. In short, Gen Z is a legion of individuals who see the problems of the world and want to be part of the solution. And they know they can.
For brands trying to understand how to navigate their own cultural roadmaps to create responsive experiences that fit into Gen Z culture, understanding some core principles will help. Without using generalizations that have plagued past demographic understanding, finding ways to nurture relationships based on individuality and inspiration can help solve for cultural clarity. Knowing that Gen Z is smart, self-aware and savvy about the world, the best brands will create a cultural infrastructure that is at once approachable, open, interactive and flexible. Gen Z wants to be involved in cultural creation. Brands should be smart, and let them.