Stop Selling to Gen Z

Traditional marketing doesn't work on this discerning, coveted demo. If you can't sell to them? Join them.

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This story appears in the June 2021 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

The minute you start trying too hard, that’s when Gen Z is like, Bye.”

That’s the advice of Dahye Jung, a strategy analyst at Sid Lee, the global creative agency that works with businesses like Dos Equis and The North Face. Every day, at least one of Jung’s clients wants to know, “How do we reach Gen Z?”

It’s a good question. Generation Z — the 20 percent of the U.S. population ages 9 to 24 with annual buying power estimated at nearly $300 billion — is a coveted yet elusive demographic. It’s the first generation to never know a world without the internet, growing up on cellphones, with virtual lives no less real than their IRL ones.

While no generation can be uniformly summarized (much as marketers will try), Gen Z has a few well-earned stereotypes: They’re socially conscious, tech-savvy, and quick to sniff out BS. “They don’t want to ‘buy’ from a brand,” says Eric Jones, who tracks Gen Z’s behavior as VP of corporate marketing at WP Engine. “Instead, they want to partner with their brands. They want a relationship; they want honesty.”

Because of all that, the conventional wisdom is that Gen Z wants community. More than buying, they want to belong. Perhaps it’s why 80 percent of tech founders believe community is “the new moat,” according to a 2019 report from First Round Capital. But this misses an important distinction because building a community around a brand doesn’t cut it for Gen Z. Companies must come to them — and that’s a fundamental mindset shift.

“You should be looking at a community that’s already doing its own thing,” Jung says. “And you say, ‘Hey, what do you guys need? Let me give you the resources to amplify it a little bit further.’” It’s hard for brands to let go of control and simply trust their community to boost sales for them, she acknowledges. “But that’s the new way of thinking.”

As one proud Gen Zer explains it, “We grew up in an age of reality TV, fake YouTube pranks, and polished ads everywhere,” says Megan Lenius, 23. “Because of this disingenuous content, we gravitate toward a brand that is going to give us a more genuine experience.” The entrepreneurs who are paying attention to that desire are finding valuable new paths toward building successful relationships with consumers.

Here are four smart ways brands have empowered, supported, and developed the communities Gen Z cares about — and what business leaders can learn from them.

1. Don’t ask for anything.

Fenty Beauty has successfully slipped itself into the Gen Z conversation. (And not just because Rihanna is the founder and face of the brand.) Hearing the frustrations of the most diverse generation in American history, Fenty launched in 2017 with 40 shades of foundation and an inclusive presence. In 2020, when the brand threw its weight behind the Black Lives Matter protests, it wasn’t for the community; it was with it.

Jung points to the Fenty’s Instagram Story takeovers, for example, that let activists and fans share whatever message they wanted — no mention of products required. “If a brand gives you the login to their Instagram account and goes, ‘Run wild with it,’ ” she says, “what more does it need to do to show that they’re on your side?”

But, Jung warns, brands shouldn’t jump on a bandwagon for the sake of being on trend. “Stick to communities you can fundamentally show up for time and time again.”

2. Support their interests.

Twitch launched in 2011 as a livestreaming service where video gamers could interact with their community and monetize their channels. Catering largely to Gen Z, it’s got social connection at the heart of the brand. But a recent Harvard Business Review report notes that Twitch, unlike platforms such as Instagram, has made deep investments in its community as the company has scaled.

“We had a girl who would create stained-glass windows of video game characters and wanted to share her artistry,” says Erin Wayne, senior director of community and creator marketing at Twitch. “So we said, ‘Why don’t we build a category for you?’ ” The platform expanded beyond gaming to art, music, cooking, and more. And its user base has noticed.

“Twitch has done incredible things for my career,” says Lenius, the Gen Zer who craves honest connection. As a budding singer-songwriter, she not only found an audience of 44,700 followers on Twitch but has watched the platform repeatedly find ways to engage with its base. Twitch offers an ambassador program to let users bring problems to their attention, regularly hosts Twitch Town Halls, and amplifies top streamers like Lenius, whose face it flashed on a billboard in Times Square. “It’s unlike any other service,” she says. “The community is the thing that has kept me there.”

3. Learn their language.

Not all brands have a clear connection to an issue or a community. What then? Timo Armoo, the 26-year-old founder of marketing firm Fanbytes, looks for trending “conversations” that aren’t verbal. Fanbytes counts McDonald’s and the U.K. government as clients, and late last year it was contacted by Idahoan, looking for help making its instant mashed potatoes cool in the eyes of Gen Z. (How’s that for a challenge?)

Armoo’s team decided to start on TikTok. With analytics, they identified the songs and sounds trending at that very moment to create an annoyingly fabulous earworm of a beat, to which they choreographed a “mashed potato dance.” They also analyzed and identified a few popular TikTokers who were into the buzzy sound they’d created to be hired for the campaign. Each received instant Idahoan mashed potatoes, along with the dance instructions and custom music.

The resulting videos felt organic and playful — and created two campaigns that got 14 million views. “What’s really different about Gen Z,” Armoo says, “is that because we’ve grown up with social media, we can easily amplify the things we like, and the things we don’t, very, very quickly.”

4. Meet them where they are.

Ahead of the 2020 election, Sid Lee wanted to teach future voters about the process. But civic education is a tough sell for the under-18 crowd. “So we put our mind to how they think, and where they are,” says associate creative director David Allard.

That led them to Minecraft. The agency designed a “Build the Vote” version of the game, with hidden rooms, forests, and a voting booth where instead of candidates, players weighed in on topics the demo does care about, like gun control and climate change. It worked: Eighty-five percent of the kids who started playing the game completed the exercise — and now Sid Lee is working with Minecraft and its parent company, Microsoft, to turn it into a free platform for every teacher in the U.S.

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