Generational Marketing Needs A Reboot


Gen Z asked YPulse what brands could do to win them over. 72% of respondents identified more diversity in advertising campaigns as something that companies could employ to appeal to them. A queerbaiting Calvin Klein advertisement featuring heterosexual model Bella Hadid making out with a Brazilian-American CGI avatar is not what Gen Z had in mind.

As Gen Zers have come of consumer age, marketers and advertisers have scrambled and attempted to analyze what teenagers and young adults want from their brands and products. Article after article of generational analysis has warned advertisers that failing to effectively sell a brand to a generation with a $143 billion in spending power can have a long-term detrimental impact on their business – and these articles are right. 

Consequently, why do so many advertisements, aimed at Gen Z, get the formula wrong?

Generational marketing will not attract young customers if brands do not dig deeper past the Gen Z stereotype when trying to understand what teenagers and young adults value. Surface-level, stat-based marketing guides fail to view Gen Z as a multifaceted group of people.

Gen Zers are often stereotyped as progressive, technologically-dependent idealists with a love of memes and a passion for activism. For example, among other changes the generation has brought to the business world, Gen Z’s focus on environmental conservation has made sustainability extremely important when choosing between products.

But every generation holds different values. Fluctuating generational ethics brings changes to all sectors of modern life, including the nature of entrepreneurial ventures. Moreover, every generational cohort is made up of individuals with diverse perspectives. 

Nevertheless, the notion of Gen Z as being a multifaceted group of people remains lost on advertisers. 

Companies’ idea of a cohesive Gen Z comes through engagement approaches like McDonald’s’ and Wendy’s’ Twitter accounts, which, desperately attempting to memeify themselves and call it consumer outreach, obliviously latch onto outdated phrases and trends. Walmart’s attempt to hijack Gen Z’s slanguage is one of a host of advertisements failing to use hip youth hashtags from 2010. And, of course, it is hard to think about Pepsi without being reminded of their poorly-aging and misdirected commercial depicting Kendall Jenner ending police opposition to a youth-led social justice protest by handing an officer a soda. 

Although major corporations are the most prominent offenders in overgeneralizing Gen Z, it is difficult to find many brands who understand young consumers’ wants and needs. 

Just like any other generation, Gen Zers think deeply about the world around them, hold varying opinions as individuals, and can smell pandering behind a screen. The failure of these outreach attempts and advertisements is rooted in the falseness of their conception.  

By nature, generational marketing relies on a simplified, often stereotyped view of an entire age group. However, neither the Gen Z stereotype nor the idea of a generation unified in a singular set of beliefs is real. 

In a 2019 Forbes article, writer Kian Bakhtiari suggests that marketing to an age group as a whole is where companies go wrong.

“We live in a post-demographic world, where patterns of behavior can no longer be predicted by age alone,” Bakhtiari argues. “Therefore, brands need to move away from traditional demographic segments towards tribes: gathered around a shared mindset.”

Tribes, or groups of people with a unified mindset, do not all have a specific age. The introduction of tribes in the advertisement world would shift the definition of a marketing demographic from being about race, class, or age and toward being about a cohort of like-minded individuals with similar consumer demands. 

An excellent example of a company that has achieved success while facilitating individual tribes would be TikTok, a Gen Z favorite. TikTok’s surge in popularity amongst Gen Zers has brought with it millions of different videos made by the youngest smartphone-wielding generation. As more users have joined the app, sides of TikTok were created. 

“TikTokers are assigning labels for their different interests and communities within the app, calling them the ‘sides’ of TikTok,” explains Gen Z pop-culture writer Liz Sommer. “The sides of TikTok are marked by their distinct creators, hashtags, sounds, skit formats, memes, and challenges… while also building strong communities and subcultures based on interests in particular types of content.” 

TikTok sides demonstrate the fact that Gen Z is not a unified generation. Instead, Gen Z is a group of individuals with varying interests who happen to be of similar ages.

If anything, the example of a fractured Gen Z presented by TikTok could be a goldmine for marketers and entrepreneurs who want to perform well with specific groups and young people simultaneously. Narrowing marketing visions to specialized groups with related characteristics can create a robust and loyal following of consumers who recommend products and services to their peers. After all, age alone cannot determine individuals’ identities, needs, or wants.

Ultimately, marketing to 2 billion people as a cohesive group with rigid characteristics is unhelpful to brands hoping to understand a generation and contributes to negative generational stereotypes and an army of young, dissatisfied consumers. 

“There’s as much diversity within generations as there is between them. To think otherwise strips people of individual agency,” Bakhtiari says. “Young people are not a monolithic marketing segment. To treat them as such says more about the prevalence of lazy marketing than it does about the audience in question.”