OPINION15 September 2021

Why is Generation Z marching to such a different drum?

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Generation Z are not just embracing different trends and behaviours, but are also living in an entirely different world to older age groups. Researchers should adapt, argues Roger Perowne.

Teenagers on phones at bowling alley

The insight sector is always on the lookout for statistics that deviate from expected norms, but Generation Z has remarkably different brands in their top 10 in comparison to all other age groups.

When Savanta recently carried out its Most Loved Brands 2021 research, we found that the UK’s top ten was unsurprisingly littered with tech powerhouses like Netflix and Apple, as well as comfort foods like Walkers and Cadbury’s. 

But the 16-24-year-olds’ top ten painted a vastly different picture: no Netflix at all, no Walkers, and YouTube at the top. There is no Coca-Cola or Samsung anywhere to be seen. Perhaps less surprising, they also put TikTok in the top ten.

New platforms and communications
On the whole, the age group we currently refer to as Generation Z – those in their late teens and early 20s – have historically been perhaps the most open-minded demographic, open to new experiences and willing to be creative and experimental.

A lot of the most innovative music and cultural ideas have come from young adults, but it probably wasn’t until the advent of MTV some 40 years ago (and doesn’t that make you feel old) that brands were able to reach that age group more formally.

Today’s young adults, however, have access to ideas and concepts that are alien and scary to older audiences in a way that’s genuinely unprecedented. Older adults were always wary of their kids’ taste in music or TV, but at least they recognised the platforms and understood the concepts of music and TV.

But with social platforms and media, and the creation of a generation that is both hyper-connected and yet more socially distanced than ever, even pre-Covid-19, the game is changing out of all recognition – and that is going to have an impact on market research as well as on the brands that are so keen to win new young customers.

A disparity greater than ever before
The online world is as important to Generation Z as the real world – and that generations above, who don’t exist in the digital sphere to anything like the same extent, don’t just fail to understand what ‘the kids are into’, but can’t even wrap their heads around the mechanisms involved.

As a result, the disparity between young and older adults has never been greater. Netflix might be ubiquitous to people in their 30s and older, but to younger audiences it’s a ‘Boomer tool’. Generation Z don’t love fashion brands but instead favour technology platforms.

And whereas previous 16 to 24-year-olds expressed themselves with joy, today’s young adults are more responsible, more angst-ridden and feel under more pressure than the any previous generation – not least because their youthful mistakes and missteps are recorded for eternity.

After all, the importance of experimenting and willingness to try new things is going to be negatively impacted when you know a stupid tweet you made when you were 16 can come back to haunt you 15 years later.

What it means for market research
Like other research companies, we’ve found that the opt-in nature of panels means that getting decent sample sizes of respondents under 30 is harder than ever before.

However, what we – and brands – have also begun to realise is that research involving Generation Z is no longer able to do the old standby of ‘confirming what a marketer already knows’. Their world is so profoundly different that preconceptions are basically meaningless.

One of the main factors behind this is the growth of personalised digital advertising. Maybe someone in their 40s wasn’t the right target for a TV or billboard ad aimed at a teenager back in the early 2000s, but at least they saw it.

Whereas now, with the digital avatar the main target for marketing campaigns, Generation Z can experience campaigns – and even brands – that traditional brand executives simply have no idea about. Ice cream sandwich (‘mochi’) brand Little Moons, for example, caused a sensation on TikTok recently, but how many people over the age of 40 have even heard of it?

Researchers can end up out of the loop on what Generation Z is thinking and experiencing in a way that’s simply never been possible before. Perhaps more importantly, so can those executives responsible for major investment decisions.

As a result, the industry is having to take an entirely new approach to researching Generation Z. The old industry standby of comparing one age group to another may not be as effective when the younger respondents are not just rebellious youths, but living in an entirely different world.

Roger Perowne is chief executive of Savanta.