Gen Z Rewrites Engagement Rulebook

By Jen Gaeto, Executive Creative & Strategy Director, Equator US

Leading Equator’s award-winning US studios, Jen Gaeto is a design and branding expert with 20+ years’ experience in consumer packaged goods. She is passionate about eliminating banal and formulaic design, as she works closely with clients and develops her teams of designers, artworkers, and account handlers alongside inhouse food stylists and photographers to deliver packaging solutions which precipitate shelf standout and business growth for private and national brands across the US.


With colossal buying power, digital proficiency and a yearning for meaningful interactions, Generation Z presents incredible opportunity for brands, but also a big conundrum, since brands must provide not just the products wanted by the young generation, but also the stories and experiences that go with them.  

Aged between 12 and 25 and totaling around 25% of the world’s population, Gen Z are both the world’s first true digital natives and the future of modern retail. 

Brands that aim to appeal to Gen Z, as well as brands of all kinds keen to future-proof against eroding relevance in years to come, have a big task ahead of them: comprehending and catering to Gen Z’s ever evolving wants and needs. This is a monumental task for brands which have forged and followed specific formulae in the past, maybe even for decades. However, brands that fail to act decisively and in good time could ultimately miss their chance to benefit from Gen Z’s incredible estimated purchasing power: a whopping $360 billion.


Why is Gen Z so… Different? 

Brought up during the age of digital technology, the close relationship Gen Z has with technology such as computers, mobile phones and the Internet began at an early age. The integral role of technology in their lives from formative years has created a cultural chasm between these youngsters and their generational predecessors.  

For them, the Internet is merely a tool, and nothing to fear. Thus, having greater trust in social media and influencers is one hallmark of the aforementioned generational divide. Gen Zers follow trend information closely and change their preferences quickly to jump on emerging trends (often led by influencers).  

Loyalty to influencers is palpable, with Gen Zers turning to them for guidance in everything from fashion to nights out to how to manage their finances. This is driven by their desire to feel unique and stand out, whilst still feeling reassured in their choices; and, amid increased rates of loneliness among young people, a yearning for “connection, companionship and aspiration.”

Placing value on connections and relationships is widespread. So much so that Voxburner attributes the success of top influencers including Emma Chamberlain (16.1 million Instagram followers; 12 million YouTube subscribers) to their ability to make followers “feel like they’re interacting with a close friend, thus creating that trusted influencer-follower relationship that’s so important” and focussing on topics relevant to young people including mental health, friendship, entrepreneurship and being true to yourself. 

Influencers constantly engage in two-way interactions with their followers on social media and, similarly, this is becoming the norm for businesses as well. Gen Z consumers are used to having sway with brands, connecting directly with them to communicate their feelings about current offerings and to inform the design of new products and services. As noted by the IBM Institute, growing up in the era of “fake news” has prepared these youngsters to quickly recognize misdirection and hype.  

For this reason, it’s important that brands grow their skills in listening closely when young people interact with them online and to prioritise transparency and authenticity in all aspects of their approach.


Prioritizing Stories and Experiences 

Gen Zers shop differently than their older counterparts – and not just in their amenability to influencer opinion. Compared with previous generations, young consumers are also keener to be entertained and immersed as part of the brand experience.  

When we talk about the omnichannel mix – where brands seek to provide a seamless shopping experience across all channels, including in store, mobile, and online – we see more brands exploring solutions in AR, VR and the metaverse.  

Meeting the demand for innovative experiences through these technologies could unlock significantly better financial performance for brands. This notion is supported by research into consumer attitudes, such as Snap’s Consumer AR Global Report, which found that interaction with AR experiences, which allowed customers to better assess products and form a deeper connection with brands, led to a 94% higher conversion rate. 

No matter the platform, however, personalization and unique online and in-app shopping experiences need to have strong storytelling to function as a backbone across all digital and physical touchpoints. 

As per Forbes, brands must deliver consistent messaging and voice while tailoring the content for each medium. Where they can be aligned at every touchpoint, they will increase their capacity to “shape first impressions for new acquisitions and increase familiarity with returning customers.”

As such, brands should consider consistent, strong storytelling a must-have tool for establishing authenticity and trustworthiness across the marketing mix, which ultimately disrupts.  

Because the advertising rulebook is being rewritten by Gen Z, brands seeking success in this space need to be extremely broad-minded and intrepid about the strategies that will strike a chord with their audiences. For well established brands that can bravely forge ahead with immersive technologies and “next gen” strategies, it could very well pay dividends to stay young at heart.