Understanding Gen Z isn’t impossible, but you have to get past existing assumptions, argues TBWA\London’s Jess Smith.

For many, understanding Gen Z is like knowing how to do a Rubik's Cube or keep a Tamagotchi alive. They assume they know what they are doing and that it won't be too hard. Then they give it a try and it all goes horribly wrong, ending up with a dead pet and a half-completed coloured cube chucked in the bin.

So to get inside their heads (and save a Tamagotchi’s life) and increase credibility and market share with the Gen Z audience, we carried out some research for adidas using our very own TBWA\Edges, which tracks meaningful cultural shifts that have the scale and longevity to propel a brand toward a greater share of the future. We looked at how these shifts were influencing Gen Zers in our four key markets.

What we found was that this target audience is not quite as into what perceived industry wisdom suggests, and what they actually give a shit about is pretty different from the existing preconceived notions.

Here are five key things that Gen Z actually care about.

Kinder culture

One of the main preconceptions about Gen Z is that they are all about the now and looking forward and don’t give a toss about looking back. But that is just not true. Nostalgia really resonates with them. During tough times they like to look back, dreaming of more idyllic times and finding this a source of comfort.

What is most surprising however is that they are looking back on items they never grew up with, such as toys from the 90s era. From kinetic sand to LEGOs, young adults are now engaging with these nostalgic products and media. But they are also bringing part of their perception of the current world to the mix, that is why we are seeing pop culture favourites like the Barbie movie and Disney’s relaunches of classic animated films to live action because they allow for more diverse actors and actresses to be the centre focus.

Nano influencers (influencers with a following of 1,000–10,000)

While it is thought that, like millennials, Gen Z are still hung up on the influencer culture, where social value is weighted on having a huge following, this actually isn't the case. They are much more focused on culture with value and authenticity.

So, while brands might perceive Gen Z as relating to the Kardashian-style influencer, the research is showing that the generation is more focused on influencers who have strong socioeconomic views, or altruistic motives.

It’s an exciting time hinting at a world moving on from vapid influencer culture. We’re now seeing, in certain campaigns, nano or micro-influencers become more successful as they’re engaging authentically with intimate communities.

Liquid reality

As technology has developed and become more sophisticated, there has been a blurring of the digital and analogue worlds as these two realities become increasingly intertwined.

There’s been so much hype about the metaverse and brands playing into this space but the more interesting concept is around how brands allow consumers to seamlessly progress between IRL and URL and how they express themselves in each, such as Gucci selling items with NFT twins and Forever21 producing a physical line that was inspired by their Roblox store.

We are also beginning to see the analogue world being inspired by the digital one, whereas it used to be the other way around. Brands that are able to switch between the two are the ones who will really reach Gen Z.

Data rush

A staggering 99% of 17-year-olds in the UK now own a mobile phone, while six in ten children aged eight to 17 have more than one social media profile, according to Ofcom’s 2022 Media Use Report.

The way in which Gen Z communicates and connects with brands is changing at an increasingly frantic rate. They are entrepreneurial with their own data and exceptionally good at monetising it. They are also very savvy to how companies use it. They want to know who is using their data and if they can choose to sell it or not sell it to whoever they like.

Brands that operate with a transparent and honest policy in the way they collect data will more likely gain a loyal following than those that don’t. We’ve already seen success with browsers such as Brave and apps like FourSquare that reward people for their data.

Activist awakening

European Gen Zers relate the most to ‘Extended Reality and Activist Awakening Shifts’. The typical GenZer is not afraid to take a stand, and this generation is more aware of issues such as climate change, the cost of living crisis and government inaction than any generation before them.

The generation wants to see brands and consumers join forces to make change. Airbnb came to the fore in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion by renting properties to women globally who were shaving their heads in solidarity for oppressed Ukrainian women. Tinder has even released a report that says activism is sexy! 

Gen Z is a visual generation, where technology is at their fingertips, with content such as memes making or breaking their decision to follow a brand. Depop utilises this with a social account ‘Depop Drama’, with the company purpose being shared thousands of times due to it tapping into humour. Brands need to put the work in to truly understand their target audience. If Gen Z is their large focus, this research is leading us to believe we have to get to grips what makes the generation tick, sit up and listen and ultimately commit to a brand loyally.

Like completing a Rubik's Cube or keeping a Tamagotchi alive, understanding Gen Z isn’t impossible. It just takes time and patience and a lot of thinking. And to not make assumptions that you know how to do it.