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Q&A: Julia Errens on how brands can connect with Gen Z

Stylus’ Media & Marketing editor reveals how she got into the heads of Gen Zers – and how brands keen to connect with them can do the same thing.

Julia Errens, Stylus’ Media & Marketing editor, knows a thing or two about Gen Z. Fresh from creating an infographic (and an accompanying video) revealing its five key temperaments, she explains what makes Gen Zers so different – and how brands can connect with them.

Oh, and Julia also us tells why the internet briefly went crazy for the gay Babadook – and what this says about teen attitudes to shock humour.

Your latest Pop Culture Round-up took the form of an infographic: the Five ‘E’s of Gen Z. Why did you focus on this particular generation?

“Gen Zers have brought with them a shift in how they define themselves. When I was growing up, as a youngish millennial, I was tied to the local identity of my friendship group. I later chose to become a suburban German pop-punk kid – that’s how identities are constructed.

“By contrast, Gen Zers have their smartphones on them at all times, so they don’t have to confine themselves to a single identity. Maybe they have their social justice friends, grime music friends, musical theatre friends. They don’t have to choose anymore, which leads to a more nuanced, self-assured audience worthy of investigating.”

Is this why Gen Z is so special compared to other generations?

“I don’t think any generation is that far removed from the one before it, and this is true of Gen Z and millennials. But the key difference is access to communication and organisation tools.

“Millennials raised in the pre-crash era had this idea that you can get a job and have a life of stability – an illusion that doesn’t resonate with Gen Z. With the prevalence of the gig economy, I don’t think a Gen Zer thinks they’re going to do one or even just three jobs throughout their life. They’re very much open to the idea of freelancing and living many different modes of existence.”

Your infographic reveals five temperaments that drive Gen Z. How did you identify them?

“We wanted to find out what kids living so many different lives actually looks like. We went for temperaments because you no longer have different peer groups within a generation – now their experiences can be united in the same life.

“So we looked at the most prevalent signifiers – Gen Zers having a tendency towards entrepreneurship, for example, and them being pioneers of the ‘nowstalgia’ movement. It’s still weird for Gen Xers to see a 15-year-old rocking a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air t-shirt that they bought at Urban Outfitters.

“These things are powered by online media libraries, which previous generations just didn’t have – nobody else has been able to go online and watch whatever they liked from the past 40 years. Instead we were co-consuming culture, hence the phenomenon of ‘water cooler shows’.

“I spent a good two months hanging out on every generation-relevant social platform and blog I was aware of, which is something we do with less of a laser focus for our regular round-ups. I tracked everything I saw and organised the information into the key habits – ‘nowstalgia’, entrepreneurship etc. – I’ve already mentioned. And then everything just kind of fell into place.”

What surprised you most during the course of your research?

“The gay Babadook meme. You know the The Babadook, the Australian horror film about a woman with depression? Well, it showed up on Netflix, probably because of a cataloguing mistake, under its LGBTQ section. Somebody created a Tumblr post about it, and somebody else replied saying that he was an important LGBTQ icon.

“And then the entire thing blew up – it was covered by The Guardian and elsewhere. People even started splicing the gay Babadook into RuPaul footage. However, when people tried to apply the same meme to Pennywise, the murdering clown from It, the LGBTQ community stepped in and said that enough was enough. This was interesting because even though things go wild, people will find a natural cut-off point for a meme joke.

“I don’t think this level of respect would have been present with the shock humour we knew when we were teenagers, like original South Park stuff.”

How good are brands at connecting with Gen Z?

“It’s difficult for brands because Gen Zers don’t trust institutions anymore. So it’s hard for any kind of commercial entity to join a social justice conversation without them being accused of trying to take over a narrative. Good examples are hard to come by. Negative ones, by contrast, aren’t – Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner-fronted campaign being a case in point.

“But Converse did a good job with its recent back-to-school campaign, where Millie Bobbie Brown starred in the brand’s own gifs. Brands can definitely create awareness at the very least by providing expression tools that are easily shareable across social channels.”

What would be your one key bit of advice for brands who want to connect with Gen Z?

“Perhaps the most important bit of advice is acknowledging that you make mistakes because a) you’re a commercial entity and b) the people who create your content aren’t Gen Zers. Fallibility needs to be added to the equation – brands can’t save face by trying to present a perfect façade. If they make a mistake they need to be there for the conversation afterwards.

“If you’re going to target a particular audience, get someone from that audience in the room. You can’t just take something that’s been created by a cultural community and reappropriate it for your own ends without respecting what that moment was trying to achieve to begin with. Not everything can be twisted into something you can sell stuff with.”

A recent study by by psychologists Jean Twenge and Heejung Park revealed that Gen Zers aren’t drinking or going out independently as much as their parents did. Was there anything in your research to suggest this was the case?

“So much of Gen Zers’ social lives happens in the digital space, so it doesn’t matter as much where you are physically anymore. But also, I think parenting styles have changed. When I was young, our parents would kick us out in the morning during summer holidays and tell us not to come back till dinner – that’s the most crotchety thing I’ve said this week.

“I think it’s harder now for kids in many countries to spend time with their friends without their parents. There’s also been a shift in terms of socialisation spaces – why should Snapchat be inherently worse than hanging out at the mall?

“Each generation makes do with the spaces accessible to them. It just so happens that digital spaces are now so versatile. I think this contributes to the perspective where lots of Gen Zers say they value time spent with their friends online as much as they do in person.”