Your guide to Gen Z: 5 ways they’re different to millennials

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They may still be at school or university, but Gen Z shoppers should not be underestimated. That’s the message from social demographers.


Not only is Gen Z on the cusp of stepping into its spending power, but it is the largest demographic generation ever – comprising 30 per cent of the world’s population.


Besides, says social demographer Mark McCrindle, Gen Z has “leverage even beyond their numbers because they influence parental purchasing decisions, too. They are the golden demographic that any brand wants to target because they influence the generation below in terms of leadership and the generation above in terms of ‘what’s cool’.”


McCrindle emphasises that Gen Z should not be viewed simply as ‘Millennials 2.0’, and to effectively target them it’s important to appreciate exactly how they differ from their Gen Y counterparts.


Gen Z is digitally-savvy and globally connected


Although Millennials are tech-savvy, having grown up with the internet and witnessed the dot-com boom, Gen Z are true digital natives. “They have always been just a few clicks away from any piece of information on the planet,” says McCrindle.


As a result, Gen Z are savvier and more globally connected than any generation. “They’re the most global youth culture we’ve ever seen,” says Gen Z author Claire Madden, who explains that teens today share a common language and watch the same YouTube videos or share the same memes, whether they’re in New York or Newcastle. Globally, too, they are accessing the same brands.


Because Gen Z has been exposed to online technology and shopping at a much younger age than Millennials, Madden explains that, when it comes to retail, they have high expectations around conveniences like free or same-day delivery. “They know what’s possible.”


Retail tip: An online and social media presence is crucial to reach Gen Z, who live “phygital” lives that blend physical and digital realms, while flexible (and free) delivery and payment options, including Afterpay, are important, too. With Gen Z’s global outlook, there’s also an opportunity for local brands to tap into a wider, international audience via digital marketing.


Gen Z is financially conservative 


While Millennials have an optimistic outlook on their financial future – thanks partly to the success of their Baby Boomer parents – Gen Z are much more cautious. Their global connectedness means they “see the complexities of the world”, says McCrindle, who adds that Gen Z have also been hit hard financially by COVID-19. “They’re a very sophisticated customer. We call them ‘up-agers’ because their purchasing behaviour is more like someone in their 30s or late-20s.”


Retail tip: A generation that prefers saving to spending might sound like a worrying prospect for retailers. But McCrindle recommends that sellers emphasise products’ longevity and value for money to appeal to Gen Z shoppers. Brands like Patagonia, which provides repairs or recycling for its products, tap into this modern desire for value. 


Gen Z values individuality 


Gen Z is the most diverse and multicultural generation the world has ever seen, and they value individuality more than ever, eschewing mass communication for a more personalised approach. As they’ve grown, they’ve witnessed many larger legacy fashion and beauty retailers give way to smaller, more niche DTC brands.


Madden says that Gen Z has grown up accustomed to having a “voice” and being able to express themselves and collaborate with each other - and with brands. “They’re not just passive consumers,” she says. “Online, they’re not just consuming pages of information produced by an organisation, they’re on social media or YouTube – platforms that they themselves can contribute to. Think about their idea of an encyclopaedia: it’s not Encyclopaedia Britannica, it’s more likely to be Wikipedia, where there are 20,000 new articles written every month.”


Retail tip: Consider product personalisation to “help Gen Z feel like they’re part of shaping a brand”, suggests Madden. Take accessories brand The Daily Edited, for instance, where shoppers can customise purses, iPhone cases and other leather goods with their own name or colour palette. Madden says that a unique brand tone of voice will also help engage Gen Z, as will facilitating user reviews, with younger shoppers more likely to trust their peers than brands themselves.


Gen Z values authenticity rather than curated perfection


While Millennials have taken a curated and carefully art-directed approach to social media, Gen Z prefers a more authentic – and often low-fi – aesthetic, and this trend has flowed into the wider marketing and advertising world. For example, while the polished and glossy world of Victoria’s Secret was popular among Millennials, the raw aesthetic of lingerie brands such as Modibodi, who feature real women in their comparatively gritty campaigns, has found favour more recently with younger consumers. 


Madden says that this is partly because Millennials have often viewed social media as a way to communicate their ideal selves to the world “whereas for Gen Z social media is woven into the fabric of their daily lives… you could say [their social media] is part of their identity”. For them, authenticity and relatability are more important than polished perfection. 


Retail tip: Don’t assume that highly produced campaign imagery or brand messaging will be successful with Gen Z. Instead, consider an approach that includes real people as models or shares real stories of your team or staff.  


Gen Z value purpose and ethics


You only have to think back to the global climate change marches, the Women’s Marches or the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has swept the world to realise that Gen Z is passionate about social change.


And although it’s true that Gen Z didn’t invent activism, they have become a more powerful force for social change because of their global connectivity. “They are united as a global youth culture tribe. That means that when there’s a cause like climate change, as we saw last year, it becomes a global movement and takes off,” says Madden.


McCrindle adds that while Millennials are also driven by a desire to make a difference, Gen Z has moved the trend on from digital “clicktivism” to activism. “They’re actually out there on the streets.”


Retail tip: Brands with ethical and purposeful products will be especially popular with Gen Z, and retailers should look to ways to reduce their carbon footprint. However, warns McCrindle, transparency is key. The tech-savvy and sceptical Gen Z, who value authenticity above all, will not be afraid to call out brands that “virtue-signal” or exaggerate their ethical credentials. 


Anna Saunders is the former executive editor of marie claire, who also worked for The Sunday Telegraph UK. She is the co-founder of women’s publishing site PRIMER.


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