As an industry, we're increasingly more comfortable with who millennials are, and what they want. It's taken a long time, but most brands are now attuned to their likes, dislikes and behaviors.
But don't get too comfortable. Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2011, is now coming of age in large numbers, and marketers can't afford to take as long to come to grips with Gen Z as they did with millennials.
The first cohorts of this new generation, who are now 16 to 19 years old, are increasingly relevant to a wide variety of categories and products. Globally, they are huge too: around 2 billion of the world's citizens -- approximately 27% of the global population -- belong to Gen Z.
The danger for marketers is that Gen Z is not millennial-lite or even millennial-extra strong, but different in distinct ways.
Born and growing up at a time of financial crisis and institutional instability, Gen Z are frugal and brand wary. But they are also industrious and collaborative. Smartphone-first and impatient of brands that don't offer them connected experiences, they expect visual and technical excellence and transparency at their fingertips.
While millennials coveted personalization in their media and advertising experiences, attempts at hyper-personalization often come off to Gen Z as intrusive. Ironically, while Gen Z places a great emphasis on personal privacy, they expect brands to be fully transparent. In an age where everything is knowable, brand imagery and values have to be consistent and discoverable across all brand touchpoints.
This presents something of a conundrum for marketers. Gen Z not only challenge how brands communicate, they challenge the very notion of a brand's authenticity and transparency in digital.
Appealing to Gen Z's unique sense of self and the world around them will require brands to embrace three key paradigm shifts in 2017:
First, brands need to invest media dollars and focus activity in digital platforms that allow consumers to co-create a shared brand experience. Unlike the personalization coveted by millennials, Gen Z will be hands on -- they want to try it, take it apart and recreate it.
Lego Ideas, for example, allows audiences to submit ideas on new Lego products and let others vote and comment on them. Submissions showcase fully built Lego products. Products created from Lego Ideas include a Lego version of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover.
Second, brands need to give their target consumers a deeper look inside the brand via owned media. Beyond simply offering products and services, brands need to share their story, their purpose and details about their production processes. Alongside owned messages, they also need to push such content strategically via sponsored content opportunities. Such openness will allow Gen Z to determine if the brand's values match their own.
Patagonia is a model brand using this strategy. In its new Fair Trade campaign, Patagonia challenges consumers to consider where their clothing was made, and shares video of the Patagonia production process and the people who make the clothes.
Finally, brands need to switch their creative and media focus. The internet is built on left brain, linear thinking and is factually based. Gen Z seeks a digital experience that is more right brain, with a focus on imagination through technologies such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, nonverbal immersive formats, music and stronger visual imagery. The Under Armour "Rule Yourself" campaign (winner of the Cannes Lion Grand Prix) featuring Michael Phelps resonated with its young male target and has become one of the most-shared Olympic ads of all time.
Winning over Gen Z will not be easy, but it will make brands and their advertising better and more adaptive in the process. Starting now will ensure we don't see the deluge of "What marketers don't understand about Gen Z" headlines that were so common as the millennials came of age.
By Joline McGoldrick
Joline is director of research at Millward Brown Digital.