Valuable research on Gen Z should offer contrarian opinions rather than popular norms, and MullenLowe’s Lam Tran says that by exploring extremities and weirdness, research can uncover untapped opportunities for brand creativity and innovation.

After conducting numerous research reports and workshops, I’ve discovered that insight on Generation Z always captures attention from all fields, not just marketing and communication practitioners.

Gen Z represents the future workforce and has increasing purchasing power. In Vietnam, where the population is young, they are driving cultural narratives and pop trends. Hence, it’s no surprise that there are numerous reports about Gen Z, all attempting to decode this mysterious generation.

However, after reading countless reports over the past four years, I have become increasingly frustrated by a bigger issue. These reports tend to repeat the same facts and generic truths, which may serve well for a surface-level understanding of Gen Z. If you’re looking for genuine insights and untapped innovation opportunities, such conventional reports with conventional findings have little value.

Interesting research begins with rebellious hypotheses, such as “Gen Z conventional truths are wrong! Now let’s prove it.” Even if the results confirm or disprove the hypothesis, the real value is in the insights gained. A good hypothesis should explore uncharted areas or have the potential to spark intriguing conversations with respondents.

Besides designing an interesting research study, the ultimate goal is to decode meaningful insights. However, insights cannot simply be copied directly from raw data or consumers’ statements. Valuable insights are always born from curiosity and imagination.

Ah, yes, that word ‘imagination’. It may sound unscientific in research, but it’s the vital leap required to turn mundane, fact-based truths into insightful revelations. Because let’s face it, good insights demand researchers to view people as humans, not just data points. They must imagine Gen Z in their unique cultural and social contexts, accounting even for their biological stage of life. Without imagination, research is nothing but dry numbers and labels, devoid of any real empathy.

Last but not least, for reports to be useful for brand creativity and innovation, it needs to prioritise interestingness over mass relevancy and familiarity. There is little value if the research reports a truth that has become a social norm or has become a cliché that marketers can recall from the top of their mind. To provide fresh insights, we often have to examine the extremities, the tails of the distribution. Some of these unpopular truths may never gain critical mass in the future but they always provoke thought and reflection.

So to put philosophy into practice, I started this weird research initiative with the Potatoes Club, a brand and communication strategy community in Vietnam (the Potatoes Club is founded by the author and it conducted ‘The Unpopular, The Weird & The Ugly about Vietnamese Gen Z’ report).

We established five principles to adhere to: 

  1. Voice empowerment: The people who conduct the report are also the audience of the study. We recruit Gen Z to create a Gen Z report, fostering reflection and imagination within the same group of individuals.
  2. Diversity: Both the researchers and respondents should come from diverse backgrounds and hold diverse and even extreme perspectives.
  3. A shared hatred towards convention: We hate how research about Gen Z often concludes the same thing, which is not useful for creative communication and innovation. 
  4. Search for oddness and extremity: We prioritise what appears to be intriguing but is seldom discussed.
  5. Contextual empathy: We keep in mind the economic and social contexts in which individuals live as they may provide underlying motivations or explanations.

The report covers five topics:

  • Identities and values
  • Relationships and belongings
  • Work, money and business
  • Well-being
  • Social responsibility

There are a variety of truths worth noticing:

1. Gen Z face their first identity crisis much earlier

Social media and the internet provide shortcuts to the adulting journey of this generation. Previously, an identity crisis often occurred after completing college or university and entering the workforce, when individuals began to question their life’s purpose.

For high school-aged Gen Z, we’re witnessing a surge in social media conversations, support groups and career counselling services tackling the identity crisis of individuals aged 15–18. Navigating adolescence is already tough but social media’s abundance of advice makes it even more challenging.

Brand implication

Brands can empathise and create conversations among Gen Z by authentically representing their hardships, rather than being tone-deaf and portraying the stereotypical, overly positive, colourful and stylish image of Gen Z. It’s hard to grow up in this era.

Or a brand can establish a safe and trustworthy environment where Gen Z can seek guidance from credible psychologists or counsellors, rather than feeling lost and confused by relying solely on internet advice and influencers.

2. Gen Z doesn’t perceive credit/debt as terribly as previous generations

Previous generations have been cautious about debt but Gen Z in Vietnam is growing up in a prosperous era with widespread credit card and digital credit usage. Major banks and e-wallets are introducing credit cards and loans tailored for Gen Z.

While the embrace of credit can stimulate economic consumption and growth, it also presents potential risks if financial literacy does not keep pace with the rate of credit adoption. Similar debt challenges have already become a social issue among the young population in advanced Asian countries, such as Korea.

Brand implication

Most financial services focus on consumerism, neglecting the importance of equipping Gen Z with financial literacy and effective money management tools. There is a significant opportunity for a financial service to differentiate itself by offering a higher purpose and value. 

3. Sexy is a fashion statement, not a sexual signal.

While the previous generation sees sexy fashion as inappropriate, Gen Z sees sexy as a cool style. This is influenced by US-UK and Korean pop culture, and TikTok culture. The recent hottest celebrity among Gen Z, Mono, is an example. Showing more skin and flesh of the body signals confidence and the personal statement of “I wear what I want”.

And note that wearing sexy does not necessarily mean they’re trying to send sexual signals to others. However, this is often misunderstood and, as a result, misjudged by others.

Brand implication

Misconceptions surrounding the concept of sexy often lead to the unjust assumption of ‘sending sexual signals’. Unfortunately, both men and women frequently endure offensive remarks, particularly in the realm of social media. Brands have the opportunity to tackle this stereotype and promote a more inclusive and respectful environment for Gen Z.