Every few decades, a new generation comes of age with the same belief — nobody understands them because they are different from the generations that came before them. And it is true, to some extent: Each generation is different and grows up in the context of a unique time.
It logically follows, then, that members of Gen Z, the most connected generation in history, would take it upon themselves to help companies understand what their cohort wants and how to market to them.
"I'd label our generation the 'purpose generation,'" Michael Pankowski, a student at Harvard University and the founder of the Gen Z consulting firm Crimson Connection, told Business Insider. "Most aren't putting in the time to truly understand us. You won't learn how your brand can most effectively fit into the Gen Z meme lexicon just by checking out the Daquan Instagram page for 30 seconds a day."
Pankowski, a 20-year-old from Rockville, Maryland, launched Crimson Connection in January 2019 after his first semester at Harvard. He was inspired by ads he found on his social media feeds that targeted Gen Zers and still used outdated lingo from 2005.
"It was clear they didn't truly understand us," he said. "I realized that if these companies actually had Gen Zers advising them on what we like, it would help them make better ads."
So he got to work: Pankowski began speaking at events in places like New York, Chicago, and Boston, and publishing articles — and soon, a book — letting companies know that they need to pay attention to Gen Z, the consumer world's next big generation with a spending power that tops $100 billion. They are the most social-media-savvy generation, the most progressive and pro-government generation, the most diverse generation, and the most well-educated.
"Most companies don't give nearly enough attention to Gen Z, relative to how important we are in the global consumer market," Pankowski said. "In fact, some industry professionals still refer to teenagers as millennials. But for the very unhip: Millennials aren't kids — in fact, a lot of them have their own kids."
The stakes are high for companies seeking to understand Gen Z: a November Bank of America Research report projected that the generation's income will reach $33 trillion in 2030 and surpass that of millennials in 2031.
'Gen Z influences all other generations'
Pankowski told Business Insider that the main goal of his consulting business is to help companies realize that Gen Zers cannot be marketed to in the way millennials are. This, he said, is because millennials mostly grew up before social media; therefore, the same marketing strategies used to reach previous generations could still apply to them.
But this isn't the case for digital-native Gen Zers, Pankowski said. Companies need to become digitally fluent to appeal to Gen Zers, who grew up online. And brands have to adapt in such a way that seems authentic because Gen Zers are more politically active at their age than millennials were, and 16 years old are now "canceling" brands that don't align with their morals and values.
"Gen Z influences all other generations in determining what's popular," he said. "When brands do their part to make the world a better place, Gen Z makes sure to reward them with our money."
"I was at a conference in New York where the CEO of a really big media and advertising company told me they simply didn't know how to market to Gen Z," Gounari told Business Insider. "It really got me thinking, 'How is there such a huge active target audience for brands, but nobody is sure how to reach it?'"
Gounari grew up in Athens, Greece, and is a student at the University of Glasgow. She said she has been interested in social-media marketing since she was 13, and once she entered college, she began working as a freelance social-media manager.
She said she soon realized many brands were confused about how to reach her generation.
"I want to help brands get a better understanding of how to optimize their social media presence to appeal more toward my generation," she said. "Gen Zers have such drastically different digital habits compared to every other generation."
For starters, she said, Gen Zers prefer concise content. In fact, they have a recorded attention span at just eight seconds — four seconds shorter than millennials, according to Forbes' Blake Morgan.
"We have a more specific sense of aesthetic and values, and we have a very different sense of humor than most millennials," she said. "But I think brands are starting to understand that and optimize that."
'Gen Zers are the defiant ones'
He began working at the firm because he also felt that brands were not grasping how different Gen Zers were from previous generations.
"The biggest misconception is that people think millennials and Gen Zers are similar," he told Business Insider. "But I think what makes us different is social media and technology. I don't remember a time without Google or Facebook, or even without Instagram."
His firm works primarily with Fortune 500 companies and counts Verizon and NBCUniversal among its roster of clients.
I don't remember a time without Google or Facebook, or even without Instagram.
For the most part, Sivadas said, brands should create marketing strategies with the understanding that Gen Zers can see right through inauthenticity.
"It's because of our childhoods," he said, adding that Gen Zers grew up in the aftermath of 9/11 and a financial crisis, amid frequent school shootings, and in the middle of a climate crisis, political turmoil, and now a global pandemic.
"Gen Zers are skeptical of what already exists," he said. "Gen Zers are the defiant ones. They don't want to accept the status quo. They want to do things their own way. They want to challenge people."
'We see so many ads every day, we've become immune to them'
Larry Milstein, the 25-year-old cofounder of the Gen Z consulting firm PRZM, echoed many of Sivadas' sentiments. Milstein started his company in 2019 to help create innovation workshops and lead strategic discussions with companies on how they can engage with Gen Z audiences.
Milstein defines the Gen Z aesthetic as "much more authentic and honest." He said that when companies market to the young generation, they need to realize Gen Zers are "less filtered, curated, or overly stylized."
"I think there's this comfort with not looking overly perfect," he said. "So companies now are getting a lot more comfortable playing with things that are bold and eccentric, rather than having a look that's perfect."
One thing Milstein says he always tells companies is to not overdo technology when connecting with Gen Z and never underestimate the importance of having a human connection. And on that note, he said brands should remember that just because Gen Zers have an eight-second attention span on average, that doesn't mean they aren't paying attention.
"Constant access to the internet and information has allowed us to have a well-developed filter. So within those seconds, people are able to sift through what is relevant versus what isn't," he said. "Brands need to think more about how to create content that is relevant and engaging to an audience — something we're willing to spend more than eight seconds on."
Pankowski had similar thoughts: "Put simply, your advertisement has to make an immediate impression, or we're clicking 'skip,'" he said. "We see so many ads every day, we've become immune to them."
He added: "Understanding Gen Z is a full-time job, and the little details make a huge difference. New memes and slang take over social media one day and vanish the next. And companies know that if they post a meme that's fallen out of favor, they'll get clowned by the world's largest generation."