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Picture: 123RF/RAW PIXEL
Picture: 123RF/RAW PIXEL

If you’ve ever watched a car rally, you’ll know the wide-eyed unpredictability of every turn, the careful observation of the navigator to manage the terrain and the damaging cost of reading the road incorrectly. 

As someone who owns a marketing agency as well as an education company that focuses on social media and gaming education, I know that that’s what marketers are having to deal with at the moment. Moreover, the road ahead will only have more wind, rain, gravel, mud and snow, in the forms of ChatGPT 5 and 6, augmented reality, virtual reality and extended reality, all coupled with fierce social competition and innovation. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Teaching teens and preteens in schools on this very subject of platforms, apps, games and emerging technology feels like being invited into an enclosure, sitting quietly, and watching a diversity of behaviours before approaching to build knowledge and trust. I’m not sure many brands quite get this. In the explosive, dynamic landscape of modern marketing, the ground is shifting at breakneck speed. For marketers, keeping up with Generation Z (Gen Z) requires map reading where the contours and roads change in front of your eyes. The rules that have governed branding for decades are being challenged and rewritten weekly.

There is a lack of clarity on the date range of Gen Z. McKinsey says it’s those born between 1996 and 2010. Gen Alpha, those born after 2010, are moving faster, especially when not monitored by their parents. What I see and hear is eye-opening, often sad, but still a privilege, as it provides me with a platform to mentor on media literacy, online safety, and digital exploration and excellence. With each passing week, students redefine the norms of consumption, creativity and self-expression. To truly grasp their essence, you must understand the seismic shifts brought about by the pandemic. 

That very weird phase in our lives acted as a catalyst for digital acceleration which extended far beyond the surge in e-commerce. It blew up a new era of short-form video and redefined the meaning of authenticity and self-expression. It lowered the age of access and boosted screen time exposure. It widened the gap between most adults and kids, a gap that many aren’t even aware of, because parents wouldn’t know what to look for. Just like some brands and their marketing partners. We experienced a “youthquake” that split the road in two: those who are willing to accept the change and listen and learn, and those who think things are still largely the same. 

Brands are faced with a generation that knows few boundaries when it comes to creativity and innovation. They’ll try things, daily, while brands are planning slowly, meticulously and with caution. This creates a lag between brands and their Gen Z audience.

Intuitive, not fearless 

Gen Z are characterised by their fearlessness of technology — I think it’s more about an intuitive use of devices and platforms — a somewhat stubborn or confident sense of adolescent self, and a voracious appetite for content. Unlike previous generations, they were born into a world of social media and self-publishing. They have never known a time when their lives were not on display on timelines and newsfeeds; they’re the most tracked in history, enjoying the least privacy of any teens that came before them. They’re the children of the algorithm. 

In their quest for self-expression, Gen Z have become a powerful creative force. But that algorithm has shaped their creative expression. Channels such as TikTok and Instagram Reels have become their canvases, enabling them to showcase their creativity and individuality. 

Gen Z value authenticity above all else. Brands must tell genuine stories and craft real experiences

The marketer’s dilemma: bridging the gap 

For marketers, understanding Gen Z is a daunting challenge. Traditional approaches to brand promotion, especially those typically pitching hooks to Gen Xers, can feel forced and inauthentic to this new cohort. Often parents and marketers shrug their shoulders, insisting that “kids are immature and don’t know what they’re doing online”. Yes, kids lack emotional maturity, their prefrontal cortex is not developed and education hasn’t prepared them for critical thinking, cybersecurity and mental health online, but the reality is that they remain online, consuming, and shaping a narrative — irrespective of whether they should be. That won’t change, I can assure you. 

If their current consumption gets deeper and wider, guesswork will be the enemy of any marketer. The solution will lie in dynamic tracking and social listening. Brands will need to demonstrate humility and assume nothing. They must also seek out partners who have their ears to the ground and understand the Gen Z landscape intimately. And they will need to be way more responsible in their marketing. That’s another article altogether. 

Staying ahead in the Gen Z era 

To succeed in the Gen Z era, brands must be agile and adaptable. Here are key takeaways for staying at the forefront of brand marketing to youth:

  1. Authenticity vs assumption: Gen Z value authenticity above all else. Brands must tell genuine stories and craft real experiences.
  2. Embrace creativity: Encourage Gen Z to co-create content and contribute to brand narratives. Their creativity knows no bounds.
  3. Stay informed and adaptive: The digital landscape evolves rapidly. Brands should invest in staying informed about the latest trends and shifts within Gen Z culture.
  4. Engage in meaningful conversations: Create spaces for authentic conversations with Gen Z. Understand their concerns and interests and respond accordingly — if you dare.
  5. Champion causes: Brands should actively support causes and initiatives that resonate with their values.
  6. Rewrite the language: The lexicon of youth culture is ever-evolving. Brands must reimagine their language and messaging to stay relevant.

Navigating the road ahead 

Gen Z’s impact on brand marketing is undeniable, unstoppable and rising faster with every click and download, every purchase, every game and every chat. Most importantly, they’re shaping brand success with every rand they spend and persuade their parents to spend. The Gen Z wallet will make or break brands as each year passes. According to research by Youth Dynamics, young South Africans spend and influence R303bn. What will it be next year, and in 2030? 

Dean McCoubrey is owner of storytelling agency MediaWeb Group, youth marketing consultancy GenZA, and teen digital education company MySociaLife. 

The big take-out: Understanding Gen Z is a daunting challenge — brands will need to demonstrate humility and assume nothing.

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