Turtlenecks, Tenacity, and the Truth: What I Learned Speaking to Gen Z on Three Continents9 min read

Mary Ellen Dugan /January 16, 2020

It’s hard to start out a panel discussion with a fashion faux pas, but that’s exactly what happened to me during one of the panels we hosted at our 2019 global summits, in which we pressure tested our annual Gen Z research with real live members of this generation. 

I was wearing my favorite turtleneck when one of the panelists, a 20-year-old college student, quite matter of factly said she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one. Ego-bruising aside, her comment made me reflect: How aligned with or distant from this generation am I? Is it just fashion or are there other areas where Gen Z has surprising ideas about the way things should be? 

After wrapping up all the panels in 2019, I thought about it some more, and it became clear that Gen Z is indeed bringing new ways of thinking to the table. More importantly, they have a refreshing desire for truth and authenticity that’s poised to reshape the future for all of us.  

As we enter 2020 and a new decade, I’ve rebounded from the turtleneck slight, and based on the Gen Zers I spoke to across three continents, I’m excited and optimistic about how this generation is going to push marketing and technology to the next level.   

Across all three of our panels, it was apparent that trust is an exceedingly important factor for this generation. Gen Z wants and expects highly personalized digital experiences, but in order to provide them, brands have to be faithful stewards of consumer data and make good on the types of digital experiences they’ve promised.   

For example, all of our panelists overwhelmingly agreed that they would provide personal data to a website if it meant they’d receive a more personalized experience in exchange. But if that trust was breached, and the experience they receive is not what they expected, they would also quickly take their business elsewhere. 

“There are so many other options out there,” one panelist in the UK said. “If we’re not getting what we want from a digital experience, it’s easy to find the same thing somewhere else.” 

Displaying good faith and trustworthiness is something Gen Z expects, far more than their predecessors. They see engagement with a website as a two-way street—a digital exchange—and if that exchange feels one-sided, it will send them elsewhere in a heartbeat. 

By being upfront and honest, brands will attract a loyal Gen Z customer base that’s more likely to keep coming back. 

Gen Z respondents at our summit in Australia discussed the types of digital experiences that resonate most with their generation   

I was also impressed by the tenacity shown by each and every panelist—none of them were waiting for things to come to them, they were actively pursuing their goals. Most were still in college but had already launched some sort of career, which is a departure from previous generations who often “waited their turn” before diving into entrepreneurship.  

Gen Z is not waiting for a conventional career path to unfold; they are taking matters into their own hands. Here, this generation’s familiarity with the digital world makes them natural entrepreneurs. Unlike prior generations, in a short period of time, they’ve accumulated expertise in branding, honed by years of seeing what works on social media. Further, because of social media, podcasts, YouTube, and more, they’re more comfortable reaching out to mentors in their field. With the majority (64%) of new U.S. businesses expected to start online (across all generations) Gen Z has an inherent advantage. 

This was true for all of our panelists—those going into traditional lines of business and those who were starting their own. For example, in the UK, one of our panelists, a medical student, said he was looking forward to applying new technology and advances in the digital world to medicine.  

Another respondent, who wanted to start a cleaning business, said she planned on doing so by launching an app (think ride-sharing for house cleaners). This spirit of digital entrepreneurship is just a part of Gen Z’s being. Companies can’t think of Gen Z as simply consumers, collaboration and partnership will be key.

Whereas “user-generated content” was the buzzword of the past decade, this generation is going to want user-generated product innovation. The sooner we embrace this concept, the better. 

Gen Z panelists in the U.S. talked about the value of authenticity when trying to reach their generation  

Authenticity is also a major value for Gen Z—they expect it from their peers and they demand it from the brands they engage with. 

In Australia, this was evidenced by one panelist’s response about a recent LinkedIn ad campaign, In It Together, and how effective that campaign—which followed real-life job-seekers’ in their job hunts—had been in reaching her.

“By the end of the campaign, I felt like I knew the job-seekers,” she said. “I still remember their names. I think it was a fantastic campaign because I could personally identify with their struggles.”  

On the flip side, she added, a social media post which came out around the same time featuring fashion model Gigi Hadid eating McDonald’s fries felt inauthentic—off-brand for both McDonald’s and the model. 

“My friends and I saw that and said, ‘she doesn’t eat McDonald’s, she’s a Victoria Secret model!’ I think Linkedin did a much better job of getting their message across.” 

This burning desire for authenticity was a consistent theme across all of our panels. Because Gen Z recognizes the value of their own brand, they are less tolerant of hyperbole, which, as a marketer, is a hard pill to swallow. Nonetheless, based on my discussions with this generation, brands will have to find new ways of toeing the line and positioning themselves if they don’t want to alienate Gen Z.  

Because of that, I believe this generation will make us better marketers as we will have to pressure test against every value proposition we put out there, forcing us to become more creative, authentic storytellers. 

n the UK, Gen Z panelists explained why they prefer personalized experiences and why they would offer personal information in exchange for them

With all of the panels behind me and time to think about all of the positive traits this generation exudes, I actually believe Gen Z is going to guide us to a more open and honest future. 

I’m entering the new year and the new decade super impressed with Gen Z and excited for what they’ll accomplish. This is a generation we should lean in to, and extend them a helping hand, even if it means ditching my turtleneck.

In the meantime, stay tuned—we’ll be publishing our next round of Gen Z research in the spring, and I can’t wait to see the new results. 

Feature photo by Andrea Piacquadio