Avoiding the ‘Cringe Factor’ in Marketing to Gen Z

Connecting with the next generation is an eternal challenge for businesses. But as brands consider ways to engage Generation Z, defined roughly as those born in the mid- to late 1990s through the early 2010s, they’re facing an unprecedented situation. Never before has a demographic cohort been so in control of their own media.

Dubbed “digital natives” because they have grown up with widespread internet access, social platforms, and mobile technology, members of Generation Z create content everywhere, from TikTok to Instagram to gaming platforms, and interact with one another in unprecedented numbers. Whereas previous generations watched TV shows and commercials designed and created by adults, Gen Z is well accustomed to having a wide array of online content creators in their own peer group — many of whom have morphed into a new kind of celebrity.

Meanwhile, this next generation’s economic power is difficult to overestimate. A recent report from Bank of America found that Gen Z’s combined income will reach a whopping $33 trillion by 2030, accounting for 27% of global income and surpassing millennials’ income starting in 2031.

It’s important for brands to start reaching them early. A study by the National Retail Federation and the IBM Institute for Business Value found that the number of Gen Zers who feel strong loyalty to a brand “increases dramatically as they age,” so there’s “only a short window of opportunity” to build strong connections with them.

My company focuses on reaching young people through influencer campaigns with leading gamers, as we did for the Biden campaign. We work with popular gamers who have devoted followings and a strong track record of engaging directly with fans. They discuss products, services, and issues organically as part of their content and livestreams.

Other companies do similar campaigns with YouTube or Instagram stars outside of gaming. Through these routes, marketers have influencers weave in brand messages without disrupting the flow of the content their followers are there to experience.

While this can be effective, any campaign aimed at this demographic can also run into a disaster-in-waiting, which can make marketing efforts not only fail but even backfire.

Understanding ‘Cringe’

In any era, millions of young people roll their collective eyes when older people try to speak their language. For Gen Z, this misstep, put simply, is “cringe.” When clients come to my company looking to orchestrate new campaigns, they’re sometimes reeling from an “ad fail” in which they used outdated vocabulary or tried to capitalize on a viral phenomenon long after its popularity ran out.

To avoid these types of fails, brand managers should keep in mind the following when putting marketing plans into place.

Involve team members who know your target demographic. Brand managers should ensure that people who are in the demographic and up to date on trends are part of the team orchestrating campaigns and deciding on messaging.

Pay close attention to time frames. If a campaign is going to be released six months down the road, don’t involve a meme that suddenly gained popularity two weeks ago.

Seek congruence in partnerships. When it comes to Gen Z, brand managers should work only with influencers who are a natural fit for the message they’re delivering. As a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Behavior showed, congruence among the influencer’s personality, the brand personality, and the personality of target consumers is key for making sure the marketing succeeds instead of feeling out of place.

Empower the influencers to be authentic. Put the content creators in the driver’s seat. Allow them to decide what to say and how to say it. Often, this may mean allowing influencers to focus on certain issues a company is involved in. For example, some gamers we worked with in 2020 did not want to talk specifically about Biden as a candidate but were passionate about speaking on climate change. So they focused their messaging on environmental issues when encouraging young people to vote.

Fortunately, many popular influencers are savvy, thoughtful, and aware enough to help ensure that these missteps don’t happen. Still, brand managers need to be responsible for taking all of these precautions.

Gen Z is especially savvy. Young folks know when they’re being pandered to. Only with these precautions in place will a company build bridges to the next generation and create relationships that last.

Read more: sloanreview.mit.edu

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