For Gen Z, Consistent Values Drive Buying Behavior


The oldest members of Generation Z are turning 21. The post-Millennial generation, born between 2001 and 2019, is starting to graduate from college, drink legally, and make major purchases. There are almost 80 million of them in the United States alone. Their current U.S. purchasing power is estimated at just shy of $11 billion, a figure that is only expected to grow as the cohort continues to mature. For marketers who want a slice of that pie, there are a few things that must be remembered, starting with a golden rule of sorts: Don’t assume that they are just like Millennials. 

They are not. Zs are different. (I recently wrote a piece for Inc. about just how different.) And they don’t like to be compared to Millennials – these are their parents or older siblings. If you call them Millennials, they won’t assume it’s an honest mistake; they’ll assume you should have known better; then they’ll find someone better to buy from. 

Second, they don’t like having their lingo co-opted by old people. To the typical Z, anyone older than they are is an old person. So, if you’re not one of them, don’t try using their lingo to appeal to them. They won’t find it appealing, they’ll find it cheugy and they’ll tell everyone they know when they see it tried. So, when talking to them, just be yourself; let them be the ones to talk like Gen Zs because, well, they are Gen Zs. It’s not that they don’t like old people; they do. In fact, 92% of them, according to YPulse, say that they can learn a lot from people who are older than them. It just hits different when they use their slang. 

Next, talk to them like adults. Just because they are the youngest working and spending generation, doesn’t mean that you must talk to them like they are kids. Many of this generation have lived through 9/11, the ’08 crash, and now Covid-19. They have seen a lot. Treat them like adults – not children. Finally, recognize that in living through all those things that they have developed their own set of values – values which shape most of everything they do and what they want to buy. 

I recently sat down with the folks at YPulse, leaders in everything Gen Y and Z. They helped me understand the 4 distinct values that impact virtually every microtrend behind Gen Z’s purchases and other behavior. I learned that in selling to Zs, one need not keep up with every trend (you’ll lose your mind trying to). You just need to understand their values because they don’t change. Plus, there’s only four of them.

The first value is Making the Most of the Mundane. Considering the dramatic, negative events that Gen Zs have lived through and watched their parents and older siblings struggle through, they have, as a group, sought, as a coping mechanism, to make the most of every situation – doing so by viewing their life through a cinematic lens. YPulse reports that 50% of the Gen Zs they’ve surveyed actively romanticize their lives. Because significant events in the lives of these people were canceled, postponed or looked very different than for earlier generations, they conditioned themselves to do things to make each moment special. This manifests itself in microtrends like “Main Character Energy,” “Hot Girl Walks” and “That Girl!” It’s a value that ensures that a generation that has lost so many special moments will find a way to make each moment more special. Brands that enable Zs to increase and/or capture the production value of their life will win more often with them.

The second value is Financial Responsibility. Gen Zs watched those older than them struggle through the crash of 2008 and then again in the pandemic-driven downturn, and they’ve concluded that they are not going to repeat their same mistakes. Think the microtrend of “Thriftcore.” They are frugal. Everything above $40 to this generation is seen as a splurge. They have a true belief that they do not need to settle to save money though. To them, luxury is a feeling, not a product. They find thrifty ways to save money without sacrificing the look or the vibe. According to YPulse, 60% of Gen Z say that they can (and will) replicate any fashion trend cheaply. Anastasia Pelot of YPulse told me, “Financial responsibility has become a flex for this generation.” To them, the look matters much more than the label. Where prior generations prided themselves on how much they spent on a purchase, this generation prides itself on how much it saves. Brands that help this Generation maximize their spending power and new brands (not those their parents and grandparents used) that help them maximize their wealth are perfectly positioned to win with them.

The third Gen Z value is Community. 61% of Gen Z say that on-line communities are a big part of their identity. Communities provide places where Gen Zs can be their genuine selves – gathering in safe spaces with others who share similar interests. Whether online or physically in communities on campus or at corporations, Gen Z is seeking diverse and inclusive communities of shared passions and interests. It’s one reason why Discord is a popular online community platform with Gen Z because they can connect and collaborate with others who share the same passion for a sport, music act, or video game, said Mark Beal, Assistant Professor of Professional Practice, Communication, School of Communication & Information, Rutgers University-New Brunswick. The microtrends of “Cottagecore” and “Goblincore” are uniquely tied to the value of Community. But Community goes well beyond trends related to lifestyle. Perhaps above all, this is a generation of activists; Generation Z sees themselves as having the responsibility to speak up and to actively play a role in making the world a better place. Its greatest sense of community is derived from the causes it comes together to advance. Companies that reflect an image of community and can create among these young consumers a sense of connection and belonging will win with them. It also matters that brands be seen as defending causes important to Zs – but truly and authentically so. Don’t rainbow wash your logo one month of the year and pretend you’re down for the struggle; this generation will see right through that and will not only stop buying from you, they’ll call you out for your shallowness. 

The fourth and final Gen Z value is Individuality/Authenticity. This value comes to life in the microtrends of “Antifashion” and “Mixed Aesthetics.” Think deliberately being off trend. Where for prior generations it may have been all about “the outfit,” wearing an entire look from a single designer, for this generation it’s about creating one’s own specific look – their own individual style. YPulse found that 58% of Gen Z would rather stand out than fit in. 78% say they don’t care about sticking to fashion trends; they just wear what they want to wear. It’s about actively curating the life they want to lead. With every trying on of something, they get one step closer to the ideal them.  “One of the reasons BeReal has quickly emerged as one of Gen Z’s favorite social media channels is because it showcases the authenticity they are seeking in people, brands and employers, added Mark Beal, “Gen Z has told me that one of the most effective ways for a brand to engage them or an employer to recruit and retain them is simply to be genuine and authentic. Instead of pretending to be like other brands or employers that are popular with Gen Z, be honest, authentic and leverage the characteristics and qualities that make your organization unique. That approach will resonate with Gen Z and engage them.” Their obsession with individuality is about being the best version of themselves … and about expecting the same from others. Brands that both stand out and enable them to stand out will win with Zs.

This all leads to an almost constant routine of trying out new everythings – from outfits to pronouns, to trends, to causes, to careers and side-gigs, to aesthetics – which they do at a breakneck speed. But as maddening as it may sometimes seem, it’s not something they will grow out of. Because it’s not just a phase. “Even though some may interpret this as a ‘me, me, me Millennial moment,’ said Anastasia Pelot. “It’s not a phase. These values have been consistent for Gen Z since we’ve known them.” Because of Covid and other life experiences, this group is not going to waste time on things that do not positively add to their lives or that do violate their core values.

Including when it comes to who they buy from. 49% of them, according to YPulse, once stopped buying from a brand because they didn’t like an ad. To some that might seem overly picky. But others would tell you, that’s what living by a set of values is all about.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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