The Marketer’s Dilemma: Redefining Gen Z

girl with headphones, glasses, phone, drink

By Courtney Miller, Executive Vice President US Brand Strategy, Edelman

Gen Z is one of the largest generations of our time. With a global population of nearly 2 billion, they are viewed as a monolith. A singular, influential force, often painted in a very small box.

In a recent episode of Dexter New Blood (my current binge of choice), one of the wealthy “older” characters referred to this generation as “seeing the world only in binary terms, black and white, good vs. evil.” Such mainstream perpetuations have cast this generation in the eyes of marketers as one that is ruthless in their intent to cancel, and keen on activism.

Perhaps this is why we see so many brands teetering on the edge of leaning into fully understanding Gen Z and also holding them at arm’s length. Herein lies the presumed problem: Gen Z could fuel growth but they could also limit it. The actual problem, however, is not with Gen Z, it’s with the hard and fast definitions we use to label them.

In Edelman’s Special Report — The Power of Gen Z: Trust and the Future Consumer, we were enlightened (and stunned) to see an entirely new portrait of this generation, particularly where it concerned how they describe and characterize themselves.

In this global study of 9,600 Gen Z’s (14-24 years old), supplemented by rich in-person discussions, we learned that this is a generation that’s powerfully sensible, globally unified around taking care of one another and interestingly they have a language onto their own.  The way they communicate is quirky, intentionally lighthearted to combat the heaviness of everyday life — authentic and silly simple (after all why make simple things complicated?).

‘Activism’ is a prime example — it’s a generalization that gets attached to Gen Z. And frankly, it’s a loaded word. It spans a wide spectrum, historically with aggressive connotations. Even Merriam-Webster defines it as “emphasizing a direct vigorous action, especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.”

In our report and in sharp contrast to tradition, we find that Gen Z rejects this definition and defines their brand of activism under ‘unity’. Unity is their superpower. It’s not always radical and rarely ‘vigorous’ but rather about coming together to create change for a common good. 70% of all global Gen Z’s are involved in a cause. And causes are what unite them.  It’s their way of telling the world to “do better!”

Instead of the good vs. evil generation, we see a generation that fully recognizes the power of their voice but the limitations of their resources. And when it comes to marketers, Gen Z wants you to lean into them with a full embrace.

Brands can serve as their Sherpa on the journey to fulfilling on the causes that matter to them — Climate Change (#1); Poverty (#2); COVID-19 (#3) and Gender Equality (#4).  A full 9 in 10 Gen Z’s want the brands they buy to get involved in causes that better the world. What an exciting brief for brands!

As a strategist, I would answer the call for that assignment any day of the week. Even so, accepting the brief is one thing, activating against it is another. There are still stipulations to getting this right, especially with Gen Z. Here’s what this looks like in their terms:

  • Do Good for People – not one person; everyone. When it comes to trusting brands, they are less interested in “me” and more in the “we.” Generating relevance is now a team sport and brands can win hearts through collective good.
  • Lay Some Breadcrumbs – don’t give them all the answers to the test in one place. They want to discover for themselves.  This is part of how they will join forces in a common cause.  70% of Gen Z’s fact check what brands tell them and their top two trustworthy criteria are links to legitimate sources and citations of supporting evidence.
  • Have Some Drip (swagger or style) – they may be interested in big world issues but they are still young, funny, quirky and despite the chaotic world they live in, they have that hopeful zest that their age affords them.

Gen Z’s are among the largest generation but more importantly, they are a defining generation of our time, smashing through all preconceived, traditional definitions.  They don’t spend time trying to make antiquated philosophies work, instead they redefine them to make their world better. This makes their form of activism more approachable, emotional, and much more expansive than the traditional definition.

But, perhaps the most staggering finding of our research is how interrelated their relationship is with the brands they choose. Brands help them affirm their identity and action against issues that they may not be able to action alone. And just as Gen Z’s don’t confine themselves to small-box definitions, marketers shouldn’t either.

To lean into the full potential of this Gen Z-brand relationship, marketers can put aside their preconceived definitions of Gen Z. It is only through this mutual redefinition that real transformation can happen.


“Zictionary” of Terms

(because mutual redefinition needs to begin with mutual understanding)

  • Sus – short for suspicious; things are not what they seem
  • Slap – descriptor for how great something is
  • Hits different – stands out from the rest or makes you feel different when compared to other things
  • Drip – a cool sense of style in reference to clothes or how someone carries themselves
  • Bet – agreement or approval
  • Cap – considered false or an outright lie; most commonly used as a phrase “no cap.”