The status quo doesn’t exist anymore for Gen Z. And if it does, they don’t give a shit about it. Culturally, we moved from a deference model to a reference model as soon as the internet was established. We no longer had to yield to supposed epistemic superiors to help us decide how to feel about things. The relationship with brands has become much more peer-to-peer orientated. Digitally-native Gen Z have only ever known this reference model though, so they haven’t grown up with brands they simply ‘accept’ as the status quo. They are phenomenally well-informed, open-minded, and also, judgemental. But this needn’t be interpreted in the pejorative for brands; they simply need to know how to communicate with them.
Values and identity have never been more important for brands who want to capture the hearts and minds of these younger consumers. And if they get them, they’re likely to hold on to them for the long term. The attitudes that promulgate the worrying ‘cancel culture’ work both ways: if Gen Z condemn you, there’s not always a clear way back – but equally, if they support you, they will do so loyally and emphatically. Those brands who work out what they stand for and invest heavily in their own identities will be the brands who cash in on all of that Gen Z good feeling. Oh, and they also now make up 40% of global consumers – so it’s a worthwhile investment.
But how can you make sure the audience will be on your side? One way we’ve seen recently: brands who flip the conventional ‘us’ (the consumer) vs. ‘them’ (the brand) paradigm by breaking through category standard behaviours; making it clear that they are in their industry, but not of it; and by aligning their principles and practices with those very people who they want to buy into not just their product, but into them.
Young consumers are a uniquely principled cohort. They have certain desires and changes they want to see in the world. For example, we spoke to our SELFHOOD Collective about sustainability recently, and the overarching consensus was that they want simple, tangible, actionable solutions. And they’re completely open to which brands provide them. Give the people what they want, and they’ll give you what you want.
Giving the people what they want isn’t as simple as it sounds though, and can manifest in a few ways. The first is the most obvious: in the practical sense. Take Chip, for example. Chip is a finance app that uses AI to take small amounts of money from your current account and deposit them into a savings account. They’ve recently branched out into small-scale asset management targeted at young people who can’t afford financial advisors with the launch of Chip+1, which pays the market’s best return of 1.25% on savings up to £5,000 – making it about 125x better than the majority of big banks.
Already there, it’s not hard to see why a young consumer might be enticed. But what made Chip interesting is not the message itself, but how they chose to get that message across. Chip claim that this offer was made possible, in large part, by their decision to pull their advertising budget from the conventional outlets of Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram in order to give that money back to their users, because they believe “they deserve it more than Facebook and Google do.”
This kind of anti-marketing marketing is making use of the peer-to peer-nature of the reference model that dominates Gen Z communication. Rather than coming across this offer on another anonymous Instagram advert that they will likely swipe past without a second’s thought, Chip’s target audience are hearing about them from sources they trust: their friends, their colleagues, their families etc.
This isn’t a case, thank God, of arguing that brands shouldn’t advertise. But rather that they should always be advertising – if not through specific campaigns, then through their beliefs, principles and identity. Chip are tapping into the lack of trust that young people have for A) Big banks and B) Big tech, and are immediately separating themselves from the perceived ills of those two industries. By defying the status quo, Chip have positioned themselves on the side of their customers, rather than any antiquated industry norms.
This repositioning of the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ paradigm has a whiff of Paddy Power’s ‘#SaveOurShirt’ campaign from last year. Huddersfield Town left football fans horrified with their 2019/20 kit launch, which featured an enormous ‘PADDY POWER’ sash running right from clavicle to hip. The kit was universally deemed as emblematic of everything that had gone wrong with modern football, and Paddy Power were now in the crosshairs of every disgruntled football fan in Britain.
There was a collective sigh of relief, though, when Paddy Power revealed the ruse, and that they, like their audience, are unhappy with the exponential commodification of the beautiful game. They explained that they would be not only sponsoring Huddersfield, but also UNsponsoring them for the season, leaving them with a sponsor-less strip that harkened back to the halcyon days of yesteryear for football, before oligarch money came and ‘ruined’ what was once a working man’s game.
Young people want to see change and appreciate the brands who can give it to them, but that change doesn’t need to come in the form of grandiose or affected concerns for social justice, human rights, the environment etc. It can be as parochial as naff football shirt sponsors. What this boils down to in its essence, then, is the importance of a brand truly understanding their audience, as well as their own place in the world. You don’t have to please everyone, but you do have to know who you do want to please and how to please them.
You can question how much Paddy Power’s campaign was a genuine attempt to affect positive change, or whether it’s just another crafty marketing stunt. But the difference is relatively unimportant for the consumer. Paddy Power had the guts to step above the parapet and act differently from their rivals in a way that they knew their audience would appreciate. In fact, they arguably stepped above the parapet and turned around to start machine-gunning their unsuspecting industry rivals. By pointing the finger at a flawed industry – that they are arguably actually a part of – they are able to simultaneously appeal to their audience’s ideological desires by distancing themselves from that industry, while also highlighting the failings of their competitors. They recognized that it is the quality, rather than the quantity of exposure that matters. Particularly for Gen Z, in a world of incomprehensible shouting, it may be the brand who quietly and diligently gives their consumers what they want who can prosper.
A final comparison, and one that cropped up just last week: Netflix’s decision to remove Dave Chappelle’s eponymous opus ‘Chappelle’s Show’ from their platform, because it “made him feel bad”. A bit of history: a self-labelled “desperate” and relatively penniless Dave Chappelle signed a contract with Comedy Central back in 2002 and worked with the network until 2006, but came to believe he had been given a raw deal by a duplicitous network of suits. He left the network and his show died. Since then, he has never received any royalties, meaning networks such as Comedy Central and HBO continue to profit from his work through what he considers to be ill-gotten gains.
A couple weeks ago, it was revealed that Netflix had also won the rights to the series and had decided to start streaming it. That was until they caught wind of Chappelle’s feelings about his old show. They then immediately removed the show from their platform, despite the fact that doing so would give other networks unrivalled access to a commodity that they are theoretically entitled to. And they did so, ostensibly at least, because it was the right thing to do. As Chappelle himself recounted: “they would take it off their platform just so I could feel better.”
If the two previous examples could be broadly categorised as brands appealing to their audience’s practical and ideological concerns respectively, then this instance represents a brand appealing to their audience’s principles. And those are principles that go beyond this or that particular industry – but rather their core, fundamental principles as human beings. In this small act, Netflix demonstrated themselves to be a massive company, but one underpinned by common values of humanity, decency and respect – unlike their predatory antecedents in what has long been viewed as a toxic industry. This shows that defying the status quo isn’t just for challenger brands on their way up. Netflix, as an epoch-defining industry leader, are sending a message here of: ‘we’re in charge now, and we’re going to do things a little different round here.’ And besides, I’d challenge any marketeer to come up with a better endorsement for a company than a beloved GOAT of his field declaring to a legion of adoring fans: “that’s why I f*ck with Netflix”.
This brings me on to one closing point: it’s easy to see potential ulterior motives in all of the examples cited. I’m sure Chip would rather give money to their customers than Mark Zuckerberg, I’m sure Paddy Power have genuine gripes with modern football, and I don’t doubt that Netflix would value the happiness and well-being of a loyal collaborator. But it would be foolish to suggest that even the best-intentioned of brands go around exercising magnanimity just to make the world a better place. Any brand that is brave enough to break through category standard behaviours are doing so, at least in part, to win favour with their audience. But Gen Z don’t mind that. They’re happy for brands to grow off the back of their good will. In fact, they encourage it. Just so long as they’re getting something in return. Those brands who recognise this, and who align their own values with the values of those who they are seeking to reach, will be the brands who form more real, more lasting relationships with their Next Gen audience.