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Generation Z – winning their hearts, minds and spending power

Phil Fraser   —   12 April 2019   —   Opinion

When your marketing roundtable event begins with a quote from the audience you’re trying to target (Generation Z): “How can marketers understand us when we don’t really understand ourselves?”, you know you’ve got an interesting discussion to follow.

And it didn’t disappoint.

Chaired by Channel 4 Research Manager Zoe Bowen-Jones, our event set out to garner insight into how companies are currently successfully marketing to Gen Z, to explore the main challenges brands are facing when trying to reach and appeal to this hugely diverse and complex audience and whether brand purpose, CSR and ethics influence trust, engagement and loyalty.

The round table was chaired by Channel 4 Research Manager Zoe Bowen-Jones

Marketing to Gen Z has opened up new challenges for many brands and businesses, and how to successfully reach and influence this audience is something everyone around the table was keen to learn more about.    

At Channel 4 the research team implements an ongoing initiative called UK Tribes - a project commissioned by Channel 4 and created by Crowd DNA that takes a deep look into the hearts and minds of young Britain, and has done since 2005. It quizzes young people about their lives, their media, aspirations and brand preferences and the results are published on its website that’s full of honest reviews of young people’s attitudes and affiliations. This research is proving vital to help Channel 4 stay relevant to younger audiences and, in particular, Generation Z. 

Our very own Phil Fraser and Leanne Ledger, who have each been exploring the needs and nuances of Gen Z for some years, also shared more research insights. Some of their findings can be found here. Access’ indepth research into Gen Z also formed the backbone of a hugely successful campaign for UCLan that has delivered groundbreaking results for the university.

Probably one of the most prominent facts highlighted from initial statistics presented about Gen Z was just how long this audience spends online – up to 10.6 hours a day streaming across various devices (especially those studying). An interesting point made about this though was that, while the obvious place to reach Gen Z is online, ‘offline’ media can actually cut through the noise to great effect – and marketers should look at integrated campaigns if they want to build brand awareness as well as click-throughs.  

Anecdotal evidence shows that out of home advertising carries more weight because it’s ‘unusual’ to this screen-obsessed audience and it’s also seen as a tactic employed by larger reputable brands that they already respect.

Similarly, click marketing isn’t as memorable as more traditional forms of marketing. While both have a role to play, putting money into clicks isn’t building a brand – something that Gen Z will buy into. Brand awareness is still an important metric and important to building a Gen Z brand.

With all research considered, the panel concluded that while ongoing, real time research into Gen Z is crucial, in fact it is still extremely difficult to generalise about this audience. Trying to shoehorn them into an audience segment – and find ‘catch-all messaging to engage with them’ - is more challenging than any predecessor segments, such as millennials and Gen X.

A valid point was made that fundamentally young people per se haven’t changed, it’s the context and world in which they living that has changed. This is what marketers need to understand and respond to.  Underlying marketing principles still apply. 

Personalisation was a key theme that flowed throughout the debate.

This part of the discussion began highlighting the common pitfalls of personalisation; that getting personalisation right has to go beyond greeting audiences with their name – you have to get to know exactly what they like and dislike, and treat them as individuals. If you’re going to do personalisation do it well or not at all.

Services like Netflix and Spotify have increased people’s expectations – and to a certain extent Gen Z has grown up with this as a norm and expect this level of personalisation. Many assume that when they arrive at a site they will be presented with exactly what they want to see, and not have to search out the content or products they have come for.

It was agreed that, for businesses with a deep understanding of their audiences, personalisation has shown itself to be a great way to get individuals to do something.

Another point made on this topic was that when getting personal with Gen Z, their “bullshit filter” is higher than many other audience types. They see through lazy personalisation very quickly and are quick to slam down brands getting it wrong, shouting out poor marketing in their social and peer to peer communications.

So it’s not just that you need to get the data in order to personalise, it’s how you manage the data that matters. And just investing in a personalisation tool isn’t going to cut it; you need to understand the whole journey.

Discussion around personalisation raised the question, “how do you attract Gen Z audiences in the first place, to then be in a position to drill down and deliver meaningful personalisation?” 

Advice was that at the start of a marketing campaign you have to generalise first, then move to more personalised messaging as soon as you can. 

Gen Z is very open to giving their data, because they’re actually confident that they can also control it.

General campaigns can still feel personal. For example, Emma Saddler from Prime Student Living outlined that her marketing proposition “Be the best you can be” enables audiences to tailor the theme to their own personal needs, which works well for them. Straplines like “be part of it”,  “make it count” and “time to thrive” can mean different things to different people but they are all empowering to this audience. If you get the acquisition message right you can enable audiences to personalise it themselves.

Everyone around the table agreed that reaching this audience in their beloved social channels is becoming more challenging (and expensive), where social platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are being used less and less by Gen Z for sharing content. Although much more difficult to measure, dark social (interacting directly and privately with friends and contacts) is taking over with this audience as the favoured means to communicate; and while we think most audiences “Google it”, Gen Z YouTube it. But they have an obsession with being connected, with people and this is important for brands to accept and build into campaigns.

Digital vs Physical Brand experiences

Our roundtable participants began answering the question of ‘how should we talk to Gen Z and engage with them’ with their thoughts on Chatbots and AI.

Again, Gen Z throws up conflicting ideas for this. They want authenticity and the human touch, but don’t really tend to talk on their phones, favouring text and fast efficient services for their needs.

As brands move towards Chatbots and AI, it will be important that they closely mimic human behaviour and meet Gen Z’s needs for human-like interaction and efficiency.

Zoe highlighted that the Tribes research had shown that younger audiences don’t want to replace physical experiences, they want to share their physical experiences via social media.  

There is a place for physical pop-ups stores too, something that Finn from The Robert Street Hub highlighted that they are planning, but not in a typical way. They are creating a pop up that meets audience’s digital needs and expectations. 

The third discussion point was the extent to which brand purpose, CSR and ethics matter.

Research has shown that brand purpose resonates more with younger audiences than older generations – a reason given for this is that they are more aware of global issues via global news as well as social reporting.

Taking a stance on something is also important for ‘brand me’ – it’s cool to be seen to care and they can latch onto organisations that ‘do good’ without having to do much themselves.

However, Gen Z is increasingly showing themselves as a group where ‘what they say they care about and what they do’ differs. Zac Williams of Gradtouch concurred highlighting that there was little evidence that the ethics of a company are ever considered when it comes to job search among this age group – salary and location are still much more important.

More evidence of this disconnect between Gen Z ‘doing good’ and saying they want to do good was also illustrated with reports that more grassroots charities are increasingly struggling to get young people to get involved. 

So how do organisations reach, engage and influence this complex audience? Keep experimenting, keep learning and keep understanding was the conclusion.

There is lots of research emerging about the wants and needs of Gen Z but there is still more to learn. Findings need to be taken with a pinch of salt – because the world is continually changing, and so is Gen Z.


The round table attendees included:

Zoe Bowen-Jones, Research Manager, Channel 4 (chair)

Stacey Anderson, head of marketing UA92

Phil Fraser Access

Simran Whitham, Manchester Gamers Unite

Leanne Ledger, Access

Finn Christo, The Robert Street Hub

Zac Williams, Gradtouch

Emma Saddler, Prime Student Living

Jon Dutton, Rugby League World Cup 2021 team

James Mulvany, &

Representatives from our technical partners Acquia also provided advice and commentary on how Acquia is helping businesses reach and target Gen Z audiences. 


For more on Generation Z read our other posts 

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