by Julia Ahlfeldt (@JuliaAhlfeldt) A lot has been written about millennials, that elusive, hard-to-engage generation which sent brands scrambling in an effort to woo them. But millennials are growing up and marketers have begun to crack their consumer code. Focus has now shifted to the under-20s, the so-called Generation Z (Gen Z) or the generation that will become the largest group of consumers by 2020.

Unique subset

In South Africa, 26.8m people, or 46% of our population, are youth under the age of 25.

While millennials were the first generation to adapt to and adopt new technologies, for Gen Zs, it’s innate. Born after 1992, they’ve entered a world in which mobile phones are mainstream (the first cellphone was launched by Vodacom in SA in 1994) and today use social media as a primary way to connect with friends, as well as brands. In SA, they’re also the first generation to have been born into democracy, making them a unique subset of this society.

So influential is this new age of consumers that the Oxford Dictionary announced its 2017 word of the year as “youthquake”. This refers to the most-important term or phrase used in the public sphere during a specific year; examples of previous words are “fake news” (2016) and “hashtag” (2012).

Of course, Oxford’s ‘words’ are far more than an audit of everyday speech; they are a linguistic yardstick of the day. Tremors of a “youthquake” have been felt around the world and are significantly influencing how brands and businesses are evolving.

Implications for brands

For starters, Gen Zs expect a seamless service. They don’t care how they interact with a brand (on or offline) but they do expect that every touchpoint is simple and accessible. Don’t offer an omnichannel experience? Can’t easily enable in-store product reviews or don’t have a collection point for orders made online? Sales may suffer.

They’re more collaborative and like to help create things, too. What does this mean? Brands might want to consider a more-open process to developing products, or change the way they leverage customer feedback to let customers know that they’ve been truly “heard”.

Gen Zs also constantly engage in conversations online, interacting with others, sharing and consuming at a breakneck speed. Does this, then, mean that brands will have to change the way they communicate? Brands will likely need to be faster, more-responsive and produce content that commands attention in a world that is saturated with conversation. These are just a few key considerations brands need to make when developing or tailoring a product for this discerning audience.

Important questions

Then there’s the issue of security. As the ‘guinea pig’ generation for social media and the digital world, millennials engaged with technology as it was evolving, and before consumers really understood the implications of sharing their data. Where millennials have been more likely to give out their personal details willy-nilly, Gen Zs, though, are far more guarded. Having grown up during a time of major data breaches, and the exploitation of personal information, they are more aware of the risks associated with having their data fall into the wrong hands. Gen Zs will likely demand data security from the companies they choose to do business with, and may view their data as an asset that brands have to ‘earn’ access to, rather than something that is given away with each loyalty card.

These are all important questions needed to be asked by brands intent on crossing the consumer chasm from those born after 1992 to those born before. As a first step to engaging this new generation of customers, they should put themselves in their shoes and ask, “Is this the easiest way to access our product? Have we provided a channel to engage in conversation? Do we have a clear purpose which aligns to theirs?”

Those that do will find the crossover from one generation to the other more seamless, while those who ignore the youthquake signs may remain the domain of Gen Xs and Baby Boomers, and gradually fade away as Gen Zs age.


Julia AhlfeldtJulia Ahlfeldt (@JuliaAhlfeldt) is a certified customer experience professional (CCXP). For more must do’s and don’ts on how to keep customers returning again and again to buy from your brand, listen to her podcast, Decoding the Customer. She contributes the monthly column “The CX-Files”, which looks at current issues from a CX perspective, to MarkLives.

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