How to market to Gen Z and millennials

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One is the largest generation in the US and the other is shaping expectations for brands — so how does marketing to Gen Z and millennials really work?

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Who are millennials? 

The millennial group comprises people born between the years of 1981-1996, although some studies place birth years slightly earlier, starting in the late ‘70s. The term millennial was intended to describe a group of people that reached adulthood at the turn of the millennium (2000), but in practice, the term is often more generous. Generally speaking, anyone aged from their mid-20s to their late 30s as of 2022 can be considered a millennial.  

Millennials are a vital group for any brand to target. They make up 23% of the global population and 21% of the US population to comprise the largest demographic by age. When it comes to marketing to millennials, this is the generation that saw the rise of the internet and the rapid takeover of digital. It makes them a unique group with a native hybrid fluency in both analog and digital living and positions them as key trend-makers, as demonstrated by the notable nostalgia craze. 

However, as important as the millennial group is, the rise of Gen Z means brands and marketers have had to shift gears again on how they present products and content to an even younger audience. 

Who are Gen Z? 

  Generation Z refers to people born anytime between the mid to late ‘90s and the 2010s. This age group was raised in the second half of the 21st century when several digital innovations like the internet had already been established. This makes them an ‘always on’ generation, a group of people born to a world where everything was already connected and access to a global internet was the norm. 

There is also the argument Gen Z differs from the millennial group due to developmental milestones. Whereas millennials matured at the time of a recession, Gen Z did so during a more robust time in the economy.  

As a generation significantly more diverse than those that came before them, marketing to Gen Z needs to reflect these new standards for brands.  

What are the differences between marketing to Gen Z and millennials?

Arguably, one of the most important things to note about these younger age groups is the fact that they’re actually not that young. The youngest millennial as of 2022 is already 25 years old, and the oldest Generation Z member is right behind at 24 years of age. This closeness in age means that the methods of marketing to both groups overlap in many ways. But it also means that trends that emerged and peaked during millennial years have now started to date in terms of Gen Z expectations.  

It also means that millennials are tech-savvy (certainly more than boomers) as they weren’t born into a digital world like Gen Z. This may be part of the reason that Gen Z is also more forgiving of bad customer experiences compared to millennials who have a solid memory of brick-and-mortar-only shopping to compare to faceless, online customer support.  

Gen Z and millennials expectation of perfection  

One of the most notable examples of how marketing to millennials and Gen Z can vary dramatically is the rise, and apparent fall, of ‘aesthetics’ or more specifically, a perfect aesthetic. Driven by the arrival of Instagram and the advent of the influencer, millennials championed a perfectly edited and filtered way of sharing their lives on social media. The impact was such that it gave rise even to new colors like Millennial Pink and huge interior trends bolstered by sites like Pinterest.  

Generation Z is apparently rejecting this trend, not only unbothered by their attainment of perfection but actively trying to avoid it. Photos from Gen Z shared on social media aren’t perfectly framed, aren’t filtered and generally promote a sense of ‘real life imperfection’ that millennials have long been photoshopping out.  

What does this mean for brands? In order to appeal to both generations, businesses must strike the perfect balance of authentic and ‘real’ while also offering the same sense of aspiration that those perfect influencer pictures triggered in millennials throughout the 2010s.  

Why is traditional marketing less effective? 

Apart from the obvious technological changes that mean traditional marketing falls flat in the world of digital, there are a few reasons why advertising to millennials and Gen Z needs to modernize.  

Traditional marketing is calculated 

Younger demographics prize authenticity and realness. So shouting about your products in a way that is clearly a marketing ploy will quickly be recognized as disingenuous and ignored. Advertising to millennials and Gen Z must focus on candidness.  

It’s distant 

Influencers may face their own accusations of being fake, but they are ultimately a real person in the same demographic as your real customers. This places them significantly closer to your customer base — right in their social media feed — than a distant celeb endorsement or marketing campaign happening in their Facebook ads. That’s not to say these things have lost their power, but that brands can’t ignore the massive importance of the influencer in millennial and Gen Z advertising. 

It’s impersonal 

In the same way, millennials want brands to have a person behind the brand name. This means when you run a social media account or send out marketing emails, they shouldn’t seem like stock phrases run off a script. Speak like a human, develop a personality and make your brand seem like a genuine social media friend that customers are happy to hear from.  

How can a brand effectively market to millennials?  

Millennials are still behind boomers in that many have yet to reach their full buying power. Burdened by student debt and an early career established in an uncertain economy, millennials may seem to be the generation that isn’t eager to spend. However, the truth is slightly different. They may not be able to compete with boomer wealth, but millennial wealth is in excess of $9 trillion. So while the death of the ‘American dream’ may mean this group is losing the desire to buy a family home for their 2.5 children, they are open to spending in different ways. Brands must shape their marketing to millennials to address these trends: 

Experiences over things 

Millennials are over accumulating things and are more about purchasing experiences that lead to long-term memories and happiness. Seventy-two percent of millennials seek experiences over products and this can definitely pay off for brands willing to give this group a worthwhile experience. A study into millennial social media habits showed that 32% would post on social media when they discover something that was ‘new, funny or interesting.’ Over 25% also said they would share a video on social media. The key takeaway for brands here is that millennials are incredibly interested in making others aware of their experiences, so by engaging positively with just one millennial, brands can successfully reach hundreds more.  

Guard against brand fickleness 

This desire for new experiences is also reflected in the millennial willingness to switch brands. A study found only 29% of millennials purchase from the same brand repeatedly. However, 90% of them also say they want brands to actively court them, giving plenty of opportunities for businesses to establish customer loyalty. To address this need, aim to engage with millennials often through your different channels in a way that is valuable, authentic and entertaining.

Be responsible 

A whopping 60% of millennials will purchase from a brand if it aligns with their values and supports a cause. Millennials want their purchases to lead to more than just a new product in their hands but to actively contribute to positive change. Be open and honest about your social corporate responsibility, your values and what you are doing to give back. Break down the them-and-us mentality that can come between customers and brands. Millennials want to engage meaningfully with brands and be part of the positive change you’re creating. 

The flip side of this is that millennials are ready to react to lack of responsibility or disingenuous attempts at it. Millennials are generally supportive of ‘cancel culture’ and are key figures in how cancellations are dealt. If a brand campaign hits the wrong note with this age group, harsh judgment is sure to follow.   

Brands should also consider the following key millennial statistics to create a marketing campaign that ticks millennial boxes: 

  • 46% of millennials have a huge social media network (over 200+ Facebook friends) ripe for word-of-mouth referrals
  • 37% will pay more for a product if it supports a cause they believe in 
  • 70% will leave feedback, good or bad, after engaging with a brand

How can a brand effectively market to Gen Z? 

Generation Z may be a mere nine years old for those in the lower threshold of the demographic, but the older members are making a big impact on the way brands do their marketing. They are also notably different to other demographics, such as in their open-mindedness. Consider the following statistics about the Gen Z mentality when deciding how to market to Gen Z: 

  • Seven out of 10 defend the right to fluid identities making them more interested in issues of race, sexuality and ethnicity 
  • 52% believe it’s normal to belong to different groups and move seamlessly between them, such as seeing no difference between online and offline friends 
  • 62% define communities by shared interests, not by pre-determined things like economic backgrounds  
  • 48% value gender fluidity in the products of brands they engage with 
  • 80% will not buy from companies involved in scandals — but this group is also more forgiving if mistakes are corrected

There are key Gen Z advertising trends you may want to keep in mind when shaping a marketing strategy: 
Capture attention quickly 
Gen Z, as the group raised with everything constantly accessible by a smartphone, does not have a massive attention span. Short-form video content quickly and easily taps into this mentality, allowing you to reach the 81% of Gen Z active on YouTube and Instagram. 
Get them involved 
Like millennials, Gen Z likes to be part of a brand when it’s doing something worthwhile, but Gen Z takes this a step further. From an Instagram Story poll to a personality quiz, Gen Z likes having something to interact with when they land on your page or post, making engagement more real and authentic.  
Be funny 
The internet has its own unique language and Gen Z are native speakers. Your brand might not be as fluent, but the willingness to join young netizens in making jokes, using the latest hashtag and just being human and humorous is something that can really pay off. Gen Z’s approach to brand loyalty isn't based on traditional factors and is strongly rooted in a brand’s authenticity — so try to avoid the corporate and the calculated.  
Promote your values 
Just like millennials, Gen Z values brands with values. Forty-five percent stopped buying from brands when they discovered they clashed with their ethics. The important thing when deciding how to market to Gen Z is not only to act in a transparent and ethical way, but to make sure Gen Z customers know it or they will have no qualms about switching to a brand that does. Even a simple hashtag will do — #environmentalawareness has over 18 million views on Gen Z’s favorite platform, TikTok.

What makes affiliate marketing a good way to reach Gen Z and millennials? 

Affiliate marketing taps into several of the trends outlined above. Advertisers can work with influencers and real people to create genuine engagement and authentic content. Brands can align themselves with publishers already embracing values that Gen Z and millennials value, helping boost credibility. It also allows for close analysis of the data, so you can see what’s working and what isn’t so you can always market to these key groups in ways they find meaningful. Get started with an affiliate program on Awin today.   

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