Opinion: How to decode youth identity in the social age

Timothy Ranger, head of brand at ZAK, uses the agency’s recent research to explore how to communicate effectively with generation Z.

16-24 year-olds. They’re an intriguing group, aren’t they? Generation Z, to use the industry jargon, will make up an enormous 40% of consumers by 2020. That’s a hell of a lot of buying power. But to get them to buy, brands need to show that they truly understand them.

We’ve all been teenagers, frustrated that our parents just don’t get us. Well, it’s the same when it comes to marketing to them, except that if brands get it wrong, they won’t just slam the door and walk out of the house…they’ll take their $143 billion with them.

At ZAK, we know that this consumer group is complex. They’re the first generation to grow up truly native to social media, constantly connected with and visible to their peers. But we needed to fully understand the science behind it, so we commissioned a study.

We worked with neuroscientists to understand the development of the brain through the adolescent period, we conducted our own ethnographic research (on our respondents’ terms, not ours) and we validated our findings with comprehensive quant. The implications for brands are far reaching, and compelling.

Opportunity for brands
Isn’t it strange that you can vividly remember so much of what happened in your adolescent years, much more so than when you get older? There’s a scientific reason for this, and psychologists call it the ‘reminiscence bump’.

Essentially experiences are cemented into long-term memory like no other time in life…imagine the potential, and peril, for brands that are a part of these experiences. Impressions that last a lifetime.

It’s also at this time that we start to become conscious of who we are, how other people see us, and therefore start thinking about our personal brand, even if we don’t think of it as such at that point. We start to question what a brand says about us as we are building our identity.

The opportunity for brands here is huge – it’s the chance to become part of the consumer’s growing identity – think Adidas and their hyped street culture or Converse and their rockstar heritage.

During adolescence, the networks in the brain that we are discussing, known as the ‘social brain’, are going through an intense period of development. This creates a confusing cauldron of emotions and results in extremely high sensitivity to the influence and perceived thoughts of others – the infamous peer pressure.

To put a figure on it, adolescents are nearly three times as likely to take risks in the presence of friends.

Teenagers now constantly around peers online
None of this is new of course, it’s a growing-up process that we all recognise, but what is new is the digital environment in which these changes are happening. Constant connectivity means that this current generation are always in the presence of their peers. That is different.

The evolution of personal branding, plus constant exposure to a peer network means that 16-24s are testing their identity as they go. It’s a constant search for likes, and the dopamine that comes with it.

Your last post got only half the usual likes? Take it down, and do it differently next time. 45% of 16-24s say what they post on social media is not a true reflection of who they are.

In contradiction to this, they’re also laser-focused on authenticity and finding a passion. They don’t want to be a different person at home and at work, they want to be the same person throughout – it’s less about work/life balance and more about finding a fulfilling, holistic life that blends the two.

Doing all of this isn’t easy, but brands can actually play a positive role. Strip out the BS, don’t promote it. There’s a reason meme culture is so ubiquitous with this generation, it’s because they speak the truth. Young people are crying out for brands to do the same.

Boohoo’s #DOYOURTHING is a great example – they show real women of all shapes and sizes and have embraced meme culture to cut the crap and speak truthfully to their audience. They’ve created a community where it’s cool AF to be you.

It’s all about brands becoming enablers and helping this generation in what is an amazing, but challenging time. If you don’t do that, they’ll swipe left.