Wed Jun 02 2021 Michael McQueen

For years, millennials have been the central topic for discussions of marketing, workplace culture and employment. However, while millennials remain crucial to these discussions, our current moment is revealing a new subject of discussion: that is, the millennial’s younger cousin, Gen Z.

Defined loosely as those born between the mid 1990s and the early 2010s, Gen Z is three billion strong – thus making up almost 40% of the world’s population. They are over-represented in some of the world’s fastest-growing economies such as in India, South East Asia and the Middle East, and wield a combined spending power of $143 billion.[1]

Gen Z has already developed a notorious reputation for being difficult to decode. In the words of Forbes’ Pablo Stefanani, “Gen Z is a tough nut for many brands to crack: an enigmatic generation defined by its willingness to challenge convention and break the rules that brands had previously taken for granted. It’s critical that brands adapt to remain relevant.”[2]

In light of this, here are 3 key tools businesses and brands can use to decode this digital demographic:

1. Meaning

Even more than their millennial counterparts, Gen Z is characterised by an intense sense of social justice, authenticity and meaning.

85% believe that brands should be about something more than profit while 8 in 10 of them believe that it is the role of brands to make people’s lives better.[3] Almost half rate their online privacy as very important but according to research by Adobe, 75% of Gen Zs don’t trust politicians to protect their data online.[4] In a professional context, Gen Zs claim they are more driven by meaning than money with almost two-thirds (65%) saying they’d prefer to do something of significance rather than merely earn a big pay packet.[5]

Having borne the brunt of COVID-19, 83% of Gen Zs say they have a greater appreciation for in-person interactions and just over half said they felt isolated and disconnected during pandemic lockdowns. Significantly, this figure was much higher than the equivalent data for Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.[6]

For businesses attempting to engage with this demographic, the rule of thumb is that messaging and content needs to appear authentic, transparent and self-deprecating if it is going to gain the attention of Gen Zs. In many instances, Gen Z influencers will go out of their way to create images that are blurred and even taken from unflattering angles – something many Millennials would find inconceivable.

2. Media

As the people who reached adolescence around the same time that social media well and truly took off, the bulk of this group’s purchasing power is wielded over these platforms. Almost a third of Gen Zs actively use platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to seek inspiration for online purchases. It is the latter of these, TikTok that has capitalised on this younger generation’s appetite for social commerce most effectively. In October 2020, TikTok entered a landmark deal with Shopify enabling the platform’s 1 million + merchants to tap into TikTok’s burgeoning audience of Gen Z users. At the same time, the arrangement allowed TikTok content creators to add ‘Shop Now’ buttons to their videos.[7]

Facebook and Instagram quickly followed suit, announcing their own Shopify partnership allowing merchants use the company’s proprietary payment service Shop Pay within the Facebook and Instagram ecosystems. Industry analysts point to the fact that the pandemic saw Facebook and Instagram become one of Shopify’s most lucrative marketing channels with a 36% growth in active users in just the two months of March and April of 2020. It’s important to note that a sizable chunk of those Instagram users are Gen Zs.[8]

The significance of this move is hard to overstate considering that Shop Pay is used by big-name brands ranging from Allbirds to Kith, Beyond Yoga and Kylie Cosmetics – all businesses desperately keen to stay relevant in the eyes of Gen Z consumers.[9]

While social commerce is readily embraced by younger generations, it’s worth acknowledging that other demographic groups are quickly warming to the business model too. In August 2020, the world’s first shoppable streaming video platform named DroppTV was launched with the aim of enabling artists to create virtual pop-up shops in their music videos and sell directly to fans.[10]

3. Memes

Not only are Gen Zs passionate online purchasers, but they are a group that is distinctly keen to collaborate and co-create in the online world. Rather than simply viewing, commenting on and sharing content the way Millennials do, Gen Z displays an active engagement with content, positioning themselves as creators and curators.

Head of Creator Product Marketing at Spotify Sam Duboff suggests “The openness of Gen Z to create, meme and remix content is driving enormous engagement and blurring the lines between creator and consumer.”[11]

Looking again at Gen Zs social platform of choice, TikTok, a number of recent examples of viral co-created content offers insights into what it takes for brands to win with Gen Z.

The 153-year old American apple juice maker, Martinelli’s, became a viral TikTok phenomenon in May 2020 among Gen Zs when users started posting videos of them biting into the plastic bottles to find out if doing so really did sound like biting into a real apple. Within a week, the #martinelli hashtag had attracted more than 28 million views on TikTok and sales immediately skyrocketed. The company addressed the fever-pitch fascination on Twitter saying "While we don’t condone biting into plastic, we are happy to see everyone enjoying our products. Have you tried the juice inside? It’s even better than the bottle."[12]

Exemplifying the significance of this mode of marketing, even consumer goods behemoth P&G has turned to key online Gen Z influencers to make their presence known in the younger generation. In March 2020, P&G partnered with the then 15 year old Charli D’Amelio to choreograph a TikTok dance video. The video was not product-focussed but instead was designed to combat COVID-19 through social distancing and had been viewed almost 200 million times within a week of its launch. Importantly, each of these views placed P&G’s brand in front of a largely Gen Z audience.[13]

Gen Z has already overturned many of the marketing rules so many in the business world have for so long treated as tried and true. These tools of marketing will, among others, prove crucial for businesses keen to appeal to the younger generation. Knowing the purchasing power and online influence of this generation, the businesses that get them on board are the businesses that will last.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now. 

To see Michael speaking live, click here.

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[1] 2020, ‘State of Gen Z Report’, Zebra IQ, September.

[2] Stefanini, P. 2020, ‘A Simple Secret To Satisfying Gen Z: Listen’, Forbes, 20 March

[3] Chiu, E. 2020, ‘Generation Z: Building a Better Normal’, Wunderman Thompson, December.

[4] Stefanini, P. 2020, ‘A Simple Secret To Satisfying Gen Z: Listen’, Forbes, 20 March

[5] Chiu, E. 2020, ‘Generation Z: Building a Better Normal’, Wunderman Thompson, December.

[6] 2020, ‘Over 90% of Young Workers Having Difficulty Working from Home, Survey Finds’, Smartsheet, 22 April. 

[7] Phan, T. 2020, ‘With social commerce on the rise, Shopify’s tie-up with TikTok makes a lot of sense’, The Hustle, 28 October.

[8] Perez, S. 2021, ‘Shopify expands its payment option, Shop Pay, to its merchants on Facebook and Instagram’, Techcrunch, 11 February.

[9] Perez, S. 2021, ‘Shopify expands its payment option, Shop Pay, to its merchants on Facebook and Instagram’, Techcrunch, 11 February.

[10] Lane K. 2020, ‘World's first shoppable streaming platform’, Springwise, 24 September.

[11] 2020, ‘State of Gen Z Report’, Zebra IQ, September.

[12] Schroeder, A. 2020, ‘Here’s why people are biting into bottles of apple juice on TikTok’, Daily Dot, 1 May.

[13] Pearl, D. 2020, ‘TikTok Star Charli D’Amelio and P&G Create Dance Challenge for Social Distancing’, Adweek, 8 April.