Challenges For Brands Navigating Gen Z’s Contradictions
Liz Aviles, Vice President Strategy and Cultural Insights, Upshot, Chicago, IL

Is there anything worse for brands than getting a collective eyeroll from their Gen Z audience? Using obsolete terminology or attempting to capitalize on a viral phenomenon after it’s passed its prime are obvious missteps most brands know to avoid. However, marketers can’t just leave it at that and expect to succeed with Gen Z. They are, after all, emerging as today’s most influential arbiters of culture and trends.

Gen Z’s exceptional digital fluency, ever-shifting aesthetics and often contradictory expectations can be confounding to many marketers. They see themselves as change-makers who will have to fix the messes they’re inheriting but, like most of us, often behave in contradictory ways. For example, they prioritize sustainability, yet are driving the growth of fast fashion, not exactly a ‘green’ endeavor.

But as Gen Z overtakes Millennials as the most important youth demographic in the eyes of many marketers, brands will have to determine which current Gen Z obsession is worthy of their attention or action, and how best to keep up with Gen Z’s cultural momentum and demands in 2022.

Understand Web3 and Gen Z Creators:

The next phase of the internet is fast approaching and smart brands are already cultivating their understanding of this shift. The biggest Gen Z creator influencers are asserting their power and demanding more of brands and social platforms, sometimes circumventing both in order to monetize their own personal brands. YouTuber Logan Paul, for example, has made millions selling NFT digital trading cards of himself, while TikTok star Josh Richards opted to forgo a standard influencer-brand promotion strategy and instead launched his own brand of energy drinks, Ani Energy, available in Walmart stores. Gen Z influencers recognize that today’s social capital is also economic capital.

Creators and influencers no longer need brands in the same manner they once did, thanks in part to these new technologies and the additional independence provided by new virtual environments. As a result, to maintain influence, many brand marketers need to come up with fresh, creative ways to provide value to these creators.

Absurdity Is OK:

Brands need to acknowledge a few things about Gen Z at the start: They have a  proclivity for absurdism (think Birds Aren’t Real); they communicate in an ever-shifting emoji-laden vernacular; and in a moment may turn any cultural event into a meme. To keep up with the rate at which Gen Z escalates a rapid turnover of cultural fluency, marketers need to fully understand the unwritten rules of social communication and how each platform fits into the context of their lives – whether that be to socialize, relax, explore, explore, or game.

Brand managers don’t leave it only to your social teams, get these apps on your phone and explore them first-hand: Join a Discord server related to one of your own interests; explore TikTok, still Gen Z’s most essential app and source of entertainment (you’ll marvel at the algorithm that drives the For You feed). Don’t forget about Snapchat, which is still one of the top three social media apps for this generation. Understanding platform nuances and the appeal of the space in Gen Z’s daily lives is key for brands navigating brand access points for this demographic.

Upping Your Influencer Gamer:

Marketers need to stop thinking of Gen Z as simply ‘the next hot demographic to cater to’ and acknowledge their role as today’s most prolific and influential digital content creators and consumers. That’s why having a solid influencer strategy in place is essential. When brands are able to find the right influencers notable collaborations can occur. When a partnership isn’t genuine, Gen Z sees right through it.

Our advice: Ditch the carefully curated brand script and work with your influencers to create content that feels accurate to them and their audience. Also, don’t overlook the appeal and clout of micro-influencers with micro-communities like Reddit, TikTok and Discord. Influencer marketing is where the journey should begin, not end.

Check Your Facts:

Many brands try to connect with Gen Z by addressing social issues but often end up inserting themselves into conversations inauthentically. Gen Z values brands that take a stand on social justice issues, but make sure that you are well informed about the issue and have a legitimate reason for weighing in before inserting yourself in any fraught social conversation.

Lastly, look in the proverbial corporate mirror. Are your company’s stated values reflected in the makeup of the organization? If gender equality is something you promote on social media, you better make sure your company actually reflects it because rest-assured someone will likely call you out on it. Gen Z wields the tools of digital transparency and collective criticism in a manner unmatched by any previous consumer cohort.

In 2022 it remains essential that brands understand key nuances of Gen Z: their relationship with digital, their expectations around personalized and intuitive experiences, their demand for inclusivity and acceptance, and their outside influence on how brands will look, sound, and deliver value. Understanding these nuances will not only help grow your brand but will also help you avoid Gen Z’s withering eye roll.


Liz Aviles is Vice President Strategy and Cultural Insights, Upshot, Chicago, IL