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Q&A: Getting to Know Gen Z

EY's Alison Medina discusses Gen Z and their growing importance and influence in the market today ahead of her keynote address at the Path to Purchase Institute's Future Forward conference.
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A thought leader, communication strategist and storyteller by trade, Alison Medina has spent the last 20-some years focused on identifying and defining macro and micro trends and opportunities in the consumer, brand and retail space. In her current role as consumer and generational strategist at EY (Ernst & Young LLP), she rigorously researches Gen Z and helps explain their impact as change agents driving societal shifts in current and future consumer behavior, the future of work and the acceleration of digital transformation.

Medina, who will deliver the keynote address on the second day of the Path to Purchase Institute’s Future Forward conference next month, answered a few questions about Gen Z and their growing importance and influence in the market today.

Future Forward will take place May 16-19 at the Sheraton Grand Riverwalk in Chicago and will focus on demystifying the new consumer in a world forever changed, and will look at how, where and why consumers shop, as well as the implications this has on brands and businesses — with tangible takeaways to enact change.

P2PIQ: Who is Generation Z and why should marketers be paying attention to them?

Alison Medina: If you thought the last two years accelerated faster than the world was ready for, prepare to buckle your seatbelts. True digital natives and the most diverse generation to date, Gen Z as a cohort is accelerating the rate of sociocultural change that the world is traditionally accustomed to, propelling radical shifts that will domino into a million other outcomes.

They were born between 1997 and 2007, so today they are roughly 15-25 years old. While they only account for 14% of the U.S. population, they outpunch their weight in influence. This whole generation of digital natives is already having a tremendous impact on society. What they do and how they think is going to dramatically reshape our institutions — in fact, they already have. 

Where they are different from the generations that preceded them is in their ability to connect instantly and disseminate information globally, influencing all generations at a much faster rate. They are not only driving the changes in society — music, fashion, communication, technology — but they are accelerating those shifts at a pace never conceived of before. Gen Z is redefining cultural norms — understanding what drives them now can help anticipate broader societal shifts for all generations in the future.

[Read More: A Preview of Future Forward]

P2PIQ: What are some important traits and shopping behaviors/habits marketers should know about Gen Z?

Medina: Gen Z values authenticity above all else. In EY’s 2021 Gen Z segmentation study and insights report, 92% of Gen Z said being true to oneself was very or extremely important. They will expect nothing less than full authenticity and transparency from the brands they buy from and the companies they follow. This can include anything from sourcing, supply chain and labor practices to influencer marketing, brand ambassadors and executive actions. They will expect companies to do what they say they are going to do and will call out social injustices as they see them.

EY’s research shows that sustainability has become a matter of trust with this generation, with 57% believing it is important to buy from brands that protect and preserve the environment. They are driving new sectors of industry, from rental, resell and share to repair and reuse. Seventy one percent of Gen Z reported buying or having someone buy for them at least one used or pre-owned item since March 2020, indicating the secondhand recommerce market isn’t going away anytime soon.

Perhaps most important to remember about Gen Z is their need for ease, simplicity and most importantly, immediacy. They are inherently wired in and hyper digital. They are naturally intuitive, and they expect the world to work as fast as they think. The iPhone launched before they were born — they have never known a world where they didn’t just take the phone out of the box and everything else magically happened. There was never a time when technology wasn’t intuitively ingrained into all aspects of Gen Z’s lives — relationships, learning, play — WiFi might as well be added to their basic needs with food, air and water.

They will expect the same ease as they move into other life stages, like home ownership, families, children, jobs — and especially in their role as a consumer. 

P2PIQ: Can you share some expectations Gen Zers have on consumerism, the workplace and the world they have inherited? Why does this matter to brands from both a consumer and workplace perspective?

Medina: Gen Z feels they have inherited a world on fire, but they are hopeful that they can enact the change required to fix it. Gen Z is not going to be patient about dealing with outdated systems, policies or concepts — whether they are buying from you or working for you. It is the fastest way to become dated as a business. And when they get frustrated and don't see an organization’s will to change, they quickly move on. They have an abundance of options at their fingertips. They are not going to wait around for organizations to catch on and catch up.

Organizations need to move quickly and measurably to transform.In a rapidly evolving-post pandemic world, sitting on the sidelines and waiting for everyone else to move first is not an option.

What we have learned from our many conversations with Gen Z is that they seek control — over their time, their money, their impact and their future success in life. They don’t want to be told how to live their best lives, but they are motivated to work hard and make their own version of success. 

P2PIQ: How has Gen Z changed marketing? Does traditional marketing still work on this group?

Medina: Gen Z has changed the world of marketing in the sense that they require a new level of transparency and genuine intention to shine through. Having celebrities smile in front of a camera with a product no longer holds the same weight. Gen Z wants REAL, and they want it now. They want to see a brand for who it is and what it stands for. 

They are also pushing marketing into new channels that will continue to evolve the lifecycle from what was once just a consumer journey to what brands and retailers must focus on now, which is an experience-led consumer journey . The rise in immersive gaming experiences, metaverse activations and blockchain/crypto currency/NFT interest is not being driven by the retirees in our society — it is being driven by our youth. 

This is creating a new frontier in consumer marketing that will be exciting and ever-changing over the next few years as these emerging technologies continue to gain traction. 

P2PIQ: What do you think many companies are missing when marketing to the youth and Millennials?

Medina: When most c-suites talk about targeting “youth,” they are still talking about Millennials in their minds (having no mind that the oldest Millennials are now turning 40). Gen Z is vastly different than the Millennials before them. Remember, Gen Z has come of age in an unprecedented time of existential crises coming one after another (terrorism, school shootings, elections, a pandemic, war). They are a generation of little adults – having had a front-row seat and unfettered access to the turbulence that has become the norm for us all. Their parents were not able to shield them from the wrongs of the world.

This has formed their opinions and given them a voice. Topics of inequality, sustainability and social injustices that Millennials drew attention to, Gen Z are taking on full steam ahead. They are bringing once taboo topics front and center into the mainstream, and challenging decades-old assumptions on everything from gender, sexuality, mental health, workplace and of course how companies are expected to operate. And they back up their beliefs with action.

Gen Z wants real, and they want it now. Human-centric brands will win with this generation. This means consumer brands and retailers will need to go beyond simply just selling, e-commerce and omnichannel. They will need to create consumer experiences that are built on an understanding of the way Gen Z and Millennials live, eat, shop, work and play — and use this knowledge to provide value in the right place, at the right time. 

Companies will need to adopt and practice policies that allow their employees to bring their whole, authentic selves to their professional lives. By doing this, you enable your consumers to authentically see who you are and what you stand for, from the inside out. 

Full, unbiased transparency of the good and the bad parts of your business will be the only way to win their trust — Gen Z simply expects that companies are working toward creating a better, fair world.

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