How to market to Generation Z - by understanding them better

By Daniel Nolan



On Wednesday 22 May, we hosted a breakfast meet-up for brand marketers at London’s gorgeous Charlotte Street Hotel all about understanding and marketing to Generation Z. Joining us at the sold out event was an expert panel made up of

  • Jessica Kneller, Head of Marketing at the University of Westminster

  • Meg Ellis, Marketing Director at Honest Burgers

  • Tamara Castelli, VP Data and Insights at UNiDAYS

In conversation with theEword managing director Daniel Nolan, the panel shared their wealth of knowledge, along with tips, insights and ideas on how to stand out among the competition when it comes to grabbing the attention of Gen Z.

As we know from these Generation Z insights, this audience is becoming increasingly important due to their social influence and spend, which is why it is crucial that brands find ways to connect with them. Gen Z care about issues such as privacy, society and politics; they crave authenticity and, perhaps most importantly for marketers, need to feel real affinity for a brand’s values and story – what it stands for. On top of these needs, their finely tuned attention filters are always switched on and ready to filter out irrelevant noise, so how do you cut through this?

Meg Ellis from Honest Burgers, a brand which enjoys popularity among Gen Z, revealed the restaurant’s connection with this demographic had come about as a by-product of the brand’s quest for authenticity rather than a deliberate marketing ploy, telling the audience there are few shortcuts to reaching Generation Z – they will either see your story as legit, or see straight through it.

UNiDAYS’ Tamara Castelli explained that their strategy is more deliberate, and focused specifically on connecting with Gen Z, as this is their single biggest audience. Jessica Kneller from the University of Westminster was in agreement, revealing her team is also very focused on this segment.

What kind of identifiers come to mind when you think about Gen Z as a demographic? Meg revealed that only about 13% of their customers fall into the Gen Z bracket but the next largest pool is millennials, with who they do share qualities. You need to home in on the characteristics of Gen Z and understand them – the way they live their lives – in order to better reach them. She cited a McKinsey study into Gen Z consumption behaviour, showing a trend for the generation consuming things in an unlimited/on-demand way (think Netflix, Spotify, Deliveroo). Services on tap, hire cars, Airbnb – these are the types of things digital natives are growing up with. Understanding how Gen Z consumes things is of obvious value to a restaurant brand, but all marketers could benefit from knowing more about these things.

Next, Meg cited the importance of being ethical and personal, but again stressed both need to be done in an authentic, simple way, to avoid being seen as just paying lip service. Honest Burgers achieves this thanks in part to its founders, who are invested in their brand being real, simple, focused on quality and most importantly Honest, to eliminate the usual customer frustrations. Gen Z don’t want to associate with the sort of cookie cutter rollout seen in the past from companies like Starbucks, so brands need to do all they can to show an independence and uniqueness to their cause. In this respect, Meg says, Honest Burgers is trying to take an ‘anti chain approach’, despite being a chain themselves (personalisation and doing things authentically rather than by facsimile are important in this).

UNiDAYS have to consider not just their own marketing but also how they then work with brands to form partnerships and engage the audience in a meaningful way. Again, these partnerships need to be authentic and in no way harmful to the audience. If UNiDAYS associated with a brand who then went on to let Gen Z down, this would reflect badly on everyone. Over the past few years, the brand has noticed that just providing the best discount isn’t by itself enough to get people buying in – there has been a shift. Authenticity, brand values and diversity are all important - Gen Z want to see brands being as diverse as they are, reflecting the makeup of their audience.

Jessica from the University of Westminster explained it was vital for them to capture the audience and make sure their university stands out. Previous marketing plans in the sector had been quite vanilla, whereas today, brands need to be much more creative and personal to reach the audience. This has led to them looking at each of the individual courses being marketed and tailoring the messaging for each one and its intended audience. When you add in the fact the university is trying to reach students from 168 different countries, it’s quite the challenge.

Meg says Honest Burgers is lucky as Gen Z is spending about a fifth of their income on food, so they’re starting from a good place. They have developed five customer personas to understand what ‘Rosie’ or ‘Joe’ would want from their experience. They make decisions based on four pillars – simple, best quality, collaborative and preserving independent spirit – and have identified certain channels that Gen Z are particularly engaged with – social being the key. They have used film and video tactically, however, to keep in line with their authentic approach, they are happy for people within the company to upload their own self-shot content - less is more in terms of production value, as long as the content is useful, interesting and entertaining.

As for how UNiDAYS reaches its audience, there has been a shift in communications tactics over the past few years. They used to have a physical student card, which has now moved online. The purpose of UNiDAYS has always been to help students get more out of their relationships with brands, whether through special discounts or unique experiences. Building collaborations with brands is important, especially where they include experiences (Tamara cited a design competition collab with Nasty Gal, which gave people the opportunity to test and showcase their creative skills).

The ambition of this generation is clear, but so too is their appreciation of quality. It seems Gen Z is willing to spend money, as long as what they’re buying represents good value. The University of Westminster has noticed that increasing importance is placed on value for money, as students today have to pay so much for their degrees. They are worriers and realists – they actually care about the education they are receiving, not just the university lifestyle. Westminster uses content to try to get these messages across. Jessica recognises it is up to the university to demonstrate value to their audience and it has to do so in the right way. Reflecting this and the shifting priorities of the audiences, Jessica shared how the type of content they produce has changed in recent years, being now more focused on issues such as mental health, financial responsibility and other matters close to the hearts of Generation Z.

With so many nationalities attending the university, inclusivity and diversity is a key topic – they want to show prospective students that Westminster is an environment where everyone is included and can enjoy a sense of belonging. As part of this, University of Westminster use their own students as ambassadors, to tell the story of the university in their own, real way.

This, like Honest Burgers' insistence on genuine sustainability and ethics, is another example of a brand benefiting because they put authenticity before marketing, and it’s a point Tamara from UNiDAYS is keen to stress – there are lots of issues Gen Z care about, but you can’t just pick things like LGBT rights or the environment up for one day a year, as if Gen Z won’t see through it as a desperate ploy. Brands should look at what their values truly are, and see how these values align with important causes, before just adopting trendy issues as window dressing. This puts you on the front foot for reacting to social and political issues, if your brand already has a voice in that conversation. Take the recent story of Asos using the picture of a woman who had been trolled on Tinder in one of their product galleries. It was great PR for them, but they’ve got a track record on diversity and body positivity, so it didn’t come across as too contrived. Tamara recommends brands take a tactical approach to engaging with news and events, rather than just jumping on periodic bandwagons.

Ultimately, the event revealed how authenticity seems to sit at the heart of a brand’s ability to reach Generation Z. But – and here’s the kicker for some – there is no shortcut to true resonance and the audience will see straight through anything that’s clearly contrived for marketing benefit. That said, there is lots you can do to better reach and connect with this audience, so we asked our panel to wrap things up with some final words of advice.

Jessica, University of Westminster: “Develop customer personas to create a content plan. Ground these and everything else in reality.”

Tamara, UNiDAYS: “Make a stand, find opportunities for collaborations and work with your data teams to understand segmentation.”

Meg, Honest Burgers: “Rid yourself of the marketing rubbish. We’ve seen great growth by keeping real.”

Is reaching Generation Z important to you? We'll be putting out more content to help you understand and market to them soon, so stay tuned. As ever, if you have any specific challenges around engaging this audience, or even if you’d just like to pick our brains, you can call us on 0800 0149 884 or send us a message here and we will be in touch.