Gregg L. Witt
Today’s young people tend to be highly individualized and making culturally relevant connections is non-negotiable. If you want to be noticed, followed and garner their attention, find and align with the most relevant groups within youth culture. Successful brand alignment with young people depends, in part, on your organization’s capability to make psychographic and situational context a priority.
What does this mean? Many brands default to demographic, geographic and behavioral targeting as their primary filters because they are more convenient, but the reality is that relationships are built in the personal realm. Demographic targeting, such as age, gender and ethnicity, remain a starting point to help organize consumers who are more likely to be a good match with a brand.
However, the ultimate goal is audience segmentation that helps us not just organize youth culture, but to understand it.
Hyper-individualization is the norm
Gen Z is pushing the idea of individualism, sometimes to the point of hyper-individualism. Gen Z defines itself as being more highly individualized than previous generations. This perception is important. Whether or not they truly are the most individual generation of our time is a moot point if they believe they are. It’s interesting when you consider how much exposure they have to the world via the Internet and social media, at a time when they’re developing a sense of self: they may have more options and raw materials to choose from than previous generations.
Regardless of studies and statistics, to understand Gen Z’s perspective we have to recognize their self-perception as the most unique generation. A 2017 report by AwesomenessTV found that, “Growing up in a time when intersectionality is the buzzword du jour, [Gen Z] perceive identity on a spectrum — a complex, ever-evolving construction of self rather than a static set of demographic descriptors. Now we are faced with an arsenal of niche, interchangeable and hyper-specific labels …” In fact, there seems to be an infinite number of hybrid subcultures that young people can zero in on and claim as “home.” No identity is too specific or personalized; it can all be made-to-order. Being highly individualized isn’t a barrier to entry or to societal acceptance. One might easily be accepted because of their individuality, instead of being excluded for it.
Today’s youth celebrate differences with less judgment or hesitation than previous generations, but it goes beyond just self-expression. Gen Z needs a more flexible identity because they have to adapt to more variety and situations in their lives. Identity is less and less conveyed by a static, stereotypical ‘persona,’ and more by a fluid, evolving, ever-changing condition.
We’ve all been in situations where we bring forward a different side of our personality to blend in with others, whether that’s our parents, boss, peers or partners. This is adaptation. Gen Z will try to match themselves to their current situation just like everyone else. Yet, because they’re also at a life stage marked by transition, coming up with the right personality may be more intense, because they’re discovering and defining themselves, as opposed to toggling between more solidified personalities like adults might do. Gen Z is blending characteristics like the pieces in a kaleidoscope. A teenage male entrepreneur who enjoys knitting while he and some friends drive to Coachella is no longer seen as having an identity crisis. He’s making an identity statement.
If brands want to connect, they need to understand and adapt to the way that Gen Z defines and identifies themselves. But tuning into the trends and influences that inform Gen Z’s lifestyle and consumer choices means getting out of boardroom comfort zones and into the complexity of youth experience. So, where do we start?
Putting alignment into action
A brand’s likelihood of building a commercially viable audience is in direct relation to that brand’s ability to identify and connect with the right spectrum of groups within youth culture. The key word here is spectrum. Relying on demographic targeting alone is like casting a net into the water and crossing your fingers. A segmentation method rooted in the lifestyles of youth culture may require more patience and work up front, but it’s far more likely to result in real cultural identification and alignment with the groups that will desire and value what that brand represents.
Key stages of youth culture alignment
Stage 1: Needs Analysis: Determine the extent of your targeting needs. How big, small, specific, etc. does your audience have to be for a particular offering?
Stage 2: Brand and youth personality match: Identify the consumer traits and characteristics you should look for that would be compatible with your brand’s offerings. What qualities do you and your ideal audience share?
Stage 3: Identify and prioritize potential subgroups: Develop a list of subgroups that share key personality traits and characteristics with your brand, and determine their alignment with commercial viability for your brand. What groups share these qualities? How deep is the connection, and how commercially viable is that group for your brand?
Stage 4: Optimal youth audience definition: How do alignment and commercial viability intersect? Who’s most aligned, who is most viable, and how can you strike the most successful balance? Do you need to sacrifice a little alignment to reach a more profitable group, or will sticking to a smaller group of more aligned youth result in more long-term success?
Youth culture alignment tips, takeaways
Hyper-individualization is the norm: Gen Z expects unique. When developing creative strategies to reach Gen Z, remember that being highly individualized or even “weird” presents an opportunity to connect with them on their frequency.
Traditional demographic targeting models are outmoded. If you really want to get tuned in with this group of individualistic young consumers, focus segmentation strategies on psychographic, lifestyle and situational context as priorities.
Embrace the diversity of Gen Z. If you approach Gen Z as a homogeneous entity and fail to appeal to the multitude of segments that comprise it, you’ll be relegated to a limited view of both their world and the motivations behind their decision making.
Identify like-minded subgroups within youth culture that align with your brand, and build relationships with them. Develop content and experiences that connect to the passions and situations of youth consumers. This human connection helps us to develop true alignment, which fuels the most effective strategies.
Gregg L. Witt is a youth marketing strategist and chief strategy officer of Engage Youth Co. He’s co-author of the book, The Gen Z Frequency: How Brands Tune In and Build Credibility.