Stop marketing to Gen Z and start helping them

Rather than try to convince this generation to put down their phones, marketers would be doing Gen Z a favor if they emphasized the community-based aspects of phone communication.

Photo: Thinkstock/oneinchpunch
Photo: Thinkstock/oneinchpunch

Just two years ago, the people born between 1995 and 2011 were being praised for their shrewdness about data privacy and their savviness about their personal brands. Now, a new book with an elephantine title by psychology professor Jean Twenge argues that all that smartphone use is making this generation unhappy.

“iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us” reveals that Gen Zers date less and have premarital sex less often than older generations—two stats that Twenge portrays in a negative light. While some of this talk is overblown—remember how the media feared that millennials were TV zombies?—Twenge has a point. It’s likely that more face-to-face interactions would make Gen Zers happier because our brains are wired that way. But rather than try to convince this generation to put down their phones, marketers would be doing Gen Z a favor if they emphasized the community-based aspects of phone-based communication instead of the isolating effects. Here’s how:

Emphasize real-life activity
As the Pokémon Go phenomenon showed, Gen Zers are happy to leave their parents’ house if there’s a good reason. Pokémon Go provided that reason. The catch is that this generation really experiences life through their smartphones. Pokémon Go offered a rare opportunity to combine physical activity, the outdoors, and smartphones. Yet despite this obvious appetite for such games, there hasn’t been a similar phenomenon since 2016.

Challenge and lead them
It’s been nine years since Dentyne chided millennials to get off Facebook and have real-life encounters instead. Ads beckoning young consumers to use “the original voicemail” (a whisper in a friend’s ear) may seem mildly parental, but at least you could say they have a positive message. Gen Zers already don’t trust brands, so why not earn their trust by being straight with them? If Gen Zers are indeed sad because they are isolated, then brands can help beckon them to get out more. 

Don’t just create ads, create experiences
Gen Zers are open to having a different kind of relationship with brands. Some eight in 10 Gen Zers would like brands to help them learn some new skills, according to a 2015 Deep Focus study. Brands also expose Gen Z to new music and games, as well. As a recent Forrester report advised, “To capture Gen Z’s attention, business leaders have to go beyond thinking digitally. They need to become customer-obsessed and deliver experiences founded on the pillars of empathy and delivering utility.” 

Like it or not, Gen Z consumers are not about to give up their smartphones. At the same time, there is evidence that all this screen time is not good. Here, brands have the opportunity to serve a different function. Brands are usually tools for escapism. They are aspirational in the sense that a brand is a vehicle for a new lifestyle.

For Gen Zers, that aspiration might be rooted in a lack of community and loneliness. Social media is a terrific tool for bringing people together, but hanging out online may not be enough. This makes brands less about escapism and more about translating the real world to young people who see their smartphone as the real world and everything else as an unsatisfying substitute.

James G. Brooks is Founder and CEO of the video platform GlassView.