For the past few years, one of the most dominant topics in business and entrepreneurship has been what the hell to do with Millennials. Some companies love them, some can't stand them. Some advocate for them, some find them entitled. And some, actually a good many, were started by Millennials, with almost all of their employees falling within that age range.
Regardless of how you feel about the Millennial generation, there are a few things that are for certain: Millennials have changed the expectations companies have for their employees, have changed popular workforce culture, and many of them have already built companies that have had a dramatic impact on the world.
But while all of this talk about Millennials has kept everyone's attention for so long, Generation Z has been quietly growing up. They've been watching their older siblings rebel, stand up for all sorts of issues--everything from work privileges to politics and human rights--and have been diligently taking notes. But beyond all else, Generation Z has been looking at the world through the lens of their mobile device, so much so that when they think of education, for example, they think of YouTube just as quickly as they do the school they attend.
No one seems to realize that in just a few short years, Generation Z (those 20 and under) will account for 40% of the consumer market, and be an even bigger group than both Baby Boomers and Millennials. Which means, while everyone else is still debating over what to do with Millennials, their younger brothers and sisters will be the largest, most untapped audience out there.
The marketer in me is always looking for what's next. You can't afford to be satisfied and comfortable with where things are--you need to always be looking ahead. And right now, all signs point to the summit of the Millennial conversation, and the rampant shift that is about to happen in terms of marketing to the first digitally native generation, Generation Z.
Fascinated by the confusion surrounding how to reach today's young consumers, I chatted with George Beall, a Gen-Z consultant who helps companies fix and improve their branding techniques and product lines to best appeal to young people. He has worked with a number of Fortune 500 companies in industries ranging from technology to fashion, and has helped struggling corporations rebuild a sense of relevance for their products and services.
Oh, and he's not your average "ad man" in a suit. He's 20 years old. So if you struggled to employ Millennials before, then buckle up. Because chances are, your next consultant is going to be fresh out of college--if that.
Beall and I were talking about how massive companies that have been around forever are not prepared for the shift that has already started taking place. A glaring example was what happened with Pepsi--a company with enough brand equity to move a mountain--and their misstep in their Generation Z influencer campaign featuring Kendall Jenner. The campaign was intended to win over the hearts and minds of consumers, and instead it caused a firestorm of bad press, accusing the brand of trivializing important social movements like Black Lives Matter.
"It's because brands don't fully understand yet what moves a Gen Z consumer," he said. "If you look up stats, you'll find that Gen Z prefers seeing influencers in advertisements instead of formal celebrities. Pepsi got that part right, by putting Kendall Jenner in their ad. What they missed though was the entire story. Jenner's audience didn't match the story of the advertisement. Second, Generation Z truly does care about making the world a better place. We are very aware of what the big conversations are because we're tuned in. We know more than people think we know. And we all know a can of Pepsi isn't what solves racism, which is a very hot topic right now. The campaign could have hit, but it didn't because it overlooked some very fundamental details."
I thought Beall hit the nail on the head, and if anything it proves why big companies and older leadership teams need to start being more open and willing to hear feedback from younger thought leaders and aspiring professionals. In the age of the Internet, how old you are doesn't really matter anymore. What matters is what you bring to the table, and how you see the world and ultimately communicate that value.
"I don't think brands realize yet that Generation Z is extremely independent. Maybe even more so than Millennials. Generation Z sees social media as a tool, not just a new television screen. Gen Z sees social influence in a totally different way. And not only do they see it differently, but they know how to get it, build it for themselves, and then start launching products or their own companies," said Beall.
If you're a big brand, I can see how how shifting your budget from traditional to digital five years ago was probably scary. I could see how bringing in a Millennial consultant probably got you a few strange looks around the boardroom table. I could see how parts of your business changed so much, they hardly looked the same anymore.
But however fast you thought things were moving before, and how difficult it was to start making those changes, get ready.
Things are about to move a whole lot faster.