According to Gen Z, your brand is a joke—but also an opportunity: New academic research digs deep into their unique idea of engagement

by | Jun 11, 2024 | Public Relations

Generation Z is a pretty savvy group—these highly informed digital natives have been exposed to marketing messaging all their lives on their cellphones, so they learned young what brand authenticity looks like—and they can smell a rat from a mile away. So traditional comms strategies that may have been effective up to now just don’t fly with them. It’s a real case of “back to the drawing board” for comms pros targeting them. And even then, figuring out how to break through is a battle unto itself because most of us can’t relate to how their perspectives were formed from a young age—a real case of “you had to be there.”

A new academic report from marketing and media network Acceleration Community of Companies (ACC) explores this unique angle of marketing to Gen Z—the distinct social dynamics that shape their behavior and brand engagement, including new outlooks on their embrace of multiple identities beyond traditional identity markers, their penchant for satirical marketing, how they’ve expanded the concept of the “third place,” and the significant influence social currency has on purchasing decisions.

Gen Z marketing

The network’s new study, Unveiling Gen Z: What They Want You to Know in Their Own Words, represents the culmination of it’s months-long collaboration with industry experts and graduate students at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Collectively dubbed the USC Annenberg X ACC Think Tank, the directed research course is designed for public relations students to explore contemporary challenges, identify emerging trends, and gain deeper insight into what shapes culture. The report also leverages a survey of over 2,000 Gen Z adults in partnership with YouGov, as well as a separate global community survey and focus groups.

“When we initiated this research directive, our primary objective was to ensure that the Gen Z voice was genuinely heard. Despite being the subject of extensive studies, this generation often feels misrepresented,” said Monica Chun, chief client officer of ACC, in a news release. “We focused on the critical domains they wanted to share and deemed important. Over time, I realized that many of my previous assumptions were misinterpretations.”

Gen Z marketing

“This group has an extremely keen awareness of marketing tactics and tropes, so brands that want to resonate need to learn new languages and navigate the nuances of the many communities that they live in,” added USC Annenberg professor Matthew Le Veque, who led the course, in the release. “The Gen Z consumer expects a brand to relate to them on a more personalized level and they are experts at recognizing when it doesn’t. They crave engagement that celebrates their sense of uniqueness.”

Top takeaways include:

Gen Z is having an identity evolution, which they call “ZEGOS”

We already know that Gen Z (defined for this study as US adults aged 18-27) is drawn to niche communities that cater to their interests: 78 percent of Gen Z belong to one or more communities specifically related to their interests, hobbies or extracurriculars. But as they participate in these communities, they tend to adopt layered identities and characteristics that change depending on the group. This identity fluidity, or ZEGOS, represents the unique intersection between digital spaces and lived experiences, enabling Gen Z to find an immediate sense of belonging among different subcultures. In fact, 74 percent of Gen Z shared their desire for brands to understand and cater to their many interests and identities in a way that isn’t just somewhat personalized but makes them feel special.

Gen Z marketing

The way Gen Z interacts with your brand might not be how you intended

Humor, specifically satire, plays a huge role in Gen Z’s engagement with online content. In many cases, brand marketing that was not meant to be funny is reinterpreted by fans who take what they perceive as funny to an overexaggerated level, creating an unintentional but powerful connection. Even memes have become a language of their own, and brands that speak fluently often inspire brand affinity or product purchase: 41 percent of Gen Z said they pay more attention to brands that use humor or satire in their marketing and 35 percent say it makes them like a brand more.

There is no more singular “third place” for a generation that is everywhere all at once

Instead, they have a Zegosystem (Zegos + Ecosystem) that represents the seamless transition Gen Z makes between IRL and online communities. At the core of this ecosystem is Gen Z’s tendency to world-build around their passions, bridging the gap between the psychological benefits of a virtual community and the positive impact that comes from in-person connections. 

Gen Z marketing

Other key findings:

  • When asked to rank their motivations for their last few non-essential purchases, 21 percent of Gen Z ranked either validation/positive reviews by a peer, validation/positive reviews by influencers, or having seen it on a TikTok community or similar as their top motivation.
  • 54 percent believe social media is more about finding and engaging with communities and/or content tailored to their specific interests versus connecting with friends or sharing their lives online.
  • Surprisingly, Facebook is the social media platform where Gen Z feels most comfortable being their ‘true self’ (31 percent), followed by X (11  percent) and TikTok (11 percent). Note: this is not necessarily where they frequent the most but rather where they feel most comfortable.
  • Gen Z increasingly looks at the comment section as a critical forum for connection, offering a unique opportunity for brands. According to our community survey, 43 percent of Gen Z is comfortable with brands commenting and reacting to Gen Z.
  • 58 percent of Gen Z said they would rather buy an item they’ve had their eye on than go on a trip (42 percent) if they were to receive a surprise reward.
  • When given a set of 4 favored experiences to choose from, 53 percent said they prefer intimate experiences that enable them to easily connect and interact, over traditional experiences like going to a bar, concert, etc. (21 percent), visually appealing “Instagram-worthy” experiences that they can share on social media (15 percent), or immersive experiences that leverage cool technology (11 percent).
  • 65 percent agree that staying on top of popular trends has become more difficult in recent years.
  • 45 percent agree that missing out on a popular trend has social consequences.

Download the full report here.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov. The total sample size was 2,006 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between April 10-22, 2024.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all Gen Z US adults (aged 18-27).

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter