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The Defining Characteristics of Generation Z

What defines Generation Z? Strictly speaking, it’s those born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s and following Millennials, but according to a recent Adweek report, Gen Z are not “Millennials 2.0.” Turns out, the first generation to be born into a fully digital world are more than just “online a lot.” This cohort already represents 40% of consumers worldwide and understanding Gen Z’s relationship to the online world—how they interact with each other and brands—is key to successfully marketing to them. Here are a few characteristics of Generation Z.

They Live Online — Using (and Trusting) the Internet More
Older generations view the internet first as a place to get information and content, and second as a place to connect. The makes sense: many older Millennials and Gen Xers grew up without the Internet, only for it to become ubiquitous later in their lives. The same goes for social media. Millennials spent years online before Facebook was launched, while members of Generation Z have never lived in a world without social media or online shopping.

One result of being a digital native is being digital savvy. 95% of Gen Z use a second device while watching television and, more than previous generations, this group accesses brands and products on different channels throughout their purchasing journey. According to consulting firm McKinsey, this group is both smart and analytical about making decisions. Adweek’s study mentions that 72% of Gen Z want a website to already know what they’re looking for and 66% assume and expect that websites communicate with each other. This implies that Gen Z are willing to trust brands with their information as long as it delivers what they want. This trust is self-serving, as Gen Z also treats consumption as individual expression and access. The rise of influencers is related to this trend: the new generation knows what they want, and they expect the Internet (and brands) to know, too. 

They Want Brands to Authentically Care
Another result of being “born online” is that Gen Z sees online identity as true self-expression. Adweek references a CGK report that says 56% of this cohort claim to have friends they’ve never met in real life. This is revealing because it aligns neatly with the observation that Gen Z also demands authenticity from brands.

Not only will 82% of Gen Z put more trust in brands that include a real person in its advertising, but they will also happily engage with content from the brands they love and trust. They are the most easily influenced by online advertising. 40% follow brands they like on social media and one in three follow brands they are considering buying from.

Gen Z also differentiates itself by taking social issues very seriously, which is likely due to having such a diverse and wide-ranging connection to other people through the Internet. The majority believe they can participate in a social movement entirely online, and they expect the same from brands. Being connected on social media to so many people of different social and economic backgrounds means that a high percentage are equally more likely to purchase from a brand that contributes to social issues. Across the board this cohort values diversity and equality. And because they’re smart, they have a keen sense for inauthentic actions.  According to McKinsey, “If a brand advertises diversity but lacks diversity within its own ranks, for example, that contradiction will be noticed.”

Covid-19 Is Their Defining Moment
Until recently, with the onset and spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, Generation Z had mostly escaped a worldwide, generation-defining disaster or “black swan” event. The previous generation—Millennials—experienced the fallout from 9/11 during high school, and graduated college into the 2007-08 financial crisis. The difference between Millennials and the current generation is that Gen Z are better equipped to handle massive change. Not only did they watch Millennials endure this massive change and learn from it, they also have digital savvy.

When everything in society moved online, this is where Gen Z was not just fluent, but deeply comfortable.  As the pandemic has dragged on, Gen Z has been ready and able to harness the power of the Internet to organize, entertain, and stay incorporated in each other’s lives. When social justice moved to the forefront of American consciousness, Gen Z was leading the charge. An ethical, morally serious generation, Gen Z are mobile, wily, thrifty, and up for the challenge. They demand their brands to speak to them with the level of seriousness and honesty they bring to their interactions with the world, digital or otherwise.

These qualities are important ones for marketers to understand. Brands that are honest and committed to their principles are likely to earn deep loyalty from this generation. Perhaps instead of asking what’s next for Gen Z, we should instead be focused on what they have in store for the world.