Public relations

Watch out Millennials, there’s a new kid in town

The Kardashians’ days could be numbered. Today’s under-21s, dubbed Generation Z, reject celebrity endorsements – particularly if they aren’t authentic. So if your firm is using a famous person to promote its wares, then you had better make sure you can prove that celeb actually uses whatever it is you are trying to sell to this generation.

Healthy cynicism about traditional forms of advertisement is one of the characteristics of Generation Z, who, roughly speaking, includes those born since 1995 to 1998. Like young people through the ages, they worry about work and friendships. They don’t trust big companies (just six per cent compared to 60 per cent of older generations, according to research by Weber Shandwick). And, of course, they want to save the world.

The major difference is that Generation Z-ers don’t get their information from newspapers or televisions but from the Internet. ‘While we may call Millennials digital colonists, Generation Z are digital natives,’ says Bill Reihl, partner, global brand marketing for Ketchum. ‘The Millennials took over and embraced the Internet when it launched in their teens. But Generation Z are engrained with social media from birth. For Millennials, social media was a new thing, which is why they share everything. Generation Z-ers are conservative and strategic about their social media footprint.’

In addition, GenZ-ers’ opinions are constantly asked for and given.

And this generation also has a great bullshit detector: they expect companies to try to pull wool over their eyes so it’s essential to be authentic – not just pretend to be. They can check facts at the swipe of a fingertip on their smart phone.

But they aren’t rebels without a cause; they are not just disaffected teenagers engrossed by their phones and tablets. According to research by The Gild, Generation Z is far more conservative than those preceding generations: they are more likely to be anti-tattoos, for example, than the two generations before them. Reihl says: ‘One analogy is if there was a room full of people made up of Millennials and Generation Zs and the conversation turned to climate change, the Millennials would be all for setting up Facebook campaigns and arranging concerts, while Generation Zs would be discussing what they practically could do to help’.

Adam Mack, chief strategy officer EMEA at Weber Shandwick, which calls the 14 to 21 year old group Generation K (the K referencing Katniss in the Hunger Games) says: ‘I think the context in which this generation grew up makes them so different from those that came before. They grew up in a recession, in an era of uncertainty. They are much more anxious than earlier generations. And they are more driven, they have more purpose – they care more.’

They are also the most diverse generation – but the first where diversity doesn’t matter to them, whether racial or sexual (they may have same sex parents). Reihl says they are ‘like a Benetton ad’.

Therese Caruso, managing director, global strategy and insights at Zeno Group, calls those born after 1995 ‘Generation We, not like the Millennials who were Generation Me’. She adds: ‘Millennials were the tribe of individuals: with this generation they see it as a team effort where everybody has to play their part.’

What is not in dispute, however, is Generation Z and their love of technology. A typical UK GenZ-er spends three hours every day on social media through their phone, tablet, laptop or desktop. And on average UK GenZ-ers have 150 followers on Instagram. But it is worthwhile for companies to get to grip with this generation: in the US, it is estimated that the buying power of Generation Z is $44 billion.

Yet here’s the challenge: it has been estimated that you have just eight seconds to engage with Generation Z on social media – so how do you do it?

‘You need to be visual and have relevant copy,’ says Reihl. ‘They may not stay with you long but they will come back if you have an impactful story to tell.’ The first thing is to be authentic: and then, to become their friend.

Mack says: ‘Brands need to be aware that this generation can see through any blue or green wash. You need to be authentic: you cannot fake it.’

Caruso says the problem faced by brands wishing to engage with Generation Z is that that they do not want see themselves in those terms. ‘Millennials wore brand loyalty as a badge of pride,’ she says. ‘They would say I am a Nike person. With this generation, their favoured brand is themselves. This means brands need to help this generation see their brand as their friend – and they do so by sharing their values.’

In practice that means brands need to get them involved, making them feel as if their opinions matter. ‘Give them a job to do: show you listened and be a real solution in their lives,’ adds Caruso. And that means becoming close to them.

Mack says: ‘This generation trusts friends more than anybody else: 70 per cent buy products on the recommendation of their friends. This generation likes ‘real’ people they follow online, such as [26 year old zlogger] Zoella and they are more likely to buy brands on their recommendation. They want normal people their age, not Kardashians.’

Indeed, celebrity endorsement can be counter-productive. ‘If a celebrity endorses a particular brand, she’d better use it as they will be able to find out easily if she doesn’t – they are truth seekers and have a fact-checking device in their hands at all times,’ says Reihl. ‘They see incorrect advertisements as a violation of the social contract.’

Caruso says Generation Z-ers ‘are their own celebrities’. For brands, this means that they need to give this generation a job to do – which means involving them in the failures as well as the successes. Domino’s did this, says Caruso, by saying its pizzas weren’t great and needed changing – and asking for how they should alter their products.

‘This generation loves brands to be flawsome, not awesome: that means show your flaws so you are ultimately awesome for it’.

Reihl adds: ‘The attitude of GenZ-ers is that anyone can be redeemed. That is true of their personal life and they expect brands to be the same: that you learn from your mistakes as long as you admit to them. They don’t fear failure as much as previous generations. In fact, they embrace a tolerance of imperfection.’

So how do companies share with this generation? They aren’t going to be interested in your web page, or even your Facebook page. Instead it means focusing on ‘dark social’: social sharing of content without using social media platforms, such as Twitter. An example of this in practice is Adidas’ Tango Squads. These are groups of 16 to 19 year old football fans worldwide. Each squad is made up of around 250 footie fans – and these fans share information about new Adidas products and content with their followers.

Adidas’ senior director of global brand communications Florian Alt, speaking last year, said that 70 per cent of global brand referrals happen on dark social not Twitter or Facebook. He said: ‘At the moment a lot of brands are approaching social media as a publishing job with pre-set and pre-defined agendas. ‘It’s a different way to produce content and speak to your communities. It’s about sheer reach, what the hyper-connected kids bring is mass awareness. These are the guys who will push out your stories and content.

‘They give it longevity and authenticity because they are talking in a private message environment. If it comes as a referral from your mate, you’re much more likely to pick it up than if it comes from a brand.’

Mack points out that for brands wanting to reach this age group it can be more effective to make connections with 500 people with 2,000 Instagram followers each than one celebrity with one million followers. This generation’s favoured channels are You Tube, Snapchat and Instagram. And brands can harness these to great effect, particularly exploiting some of their new features.

For example, Snapchat Lens adds an interactive filter to a phone’s camera so users can take pictures with a themed overlay, which works well for cosmetics and fashion brands. Last year, cosmetic brand YSL Beaute launched its first Snapchat Lens in the UK which allowed consumers to try out a new lipstick. For 24 hours, Snapchat users were able to try out four different shades of YSL’s new Vernis à Lèvres Vinyl Cream liquid lipstick, while posing for pictures or videos pouting, smiling or blowing kisses at the camera.

The initiative came weeks after Burberry used Snapchat Lens as part of its launch of new fragrance My Burberry Black. Users taking a selfie saw themselves underneath a Burberry house-check umbrella, and if they then blew a kiss they triggered a golden light filter. The Lens was accessed by clicking a link from Burberry’s Instagram page.

Caruso adds that both Urban Outfitters and Sephora are also good at harnessing Snapchat. But she adds that if you are going to try to reach out to this generation through these social media ‘you need to use it properly or it can be plain embarrassing. There was a brand which mis-used the word ‘bae’ which was excruciating’. A feeling that parents of Generation Z-ers will know only too well.

This article first appeared in issue 112