In this interview, Motivate’s Executive Vice President of Youth Marketing, Gregg Witt, discusses how brands can build sustainable and relevant engagement strategies with their Gen Z consumers. Nate Cusick, Marketing and Business Development at Discuss.io, leads the interview as Witt explains the power of cultivating relevance with tween, teen and young adult audiences.

Nate Cusick: Gregg, you have been in the marketing and insights world for over a decade, how does today’s youth consumer differ from previous generations?

Gregg Witt: My perception, and I know I repeat myself often, is that every new generation reacts to and evolves from the generation before, and today’s youth consumer (for now), aka “Gen Z” is no exception. There are undoubtedly differences, but there are also many similarities and shared values across generations. Millennials, formerly labeled as “Gen Y,” in many ways paved the way as the tech-savvy young people who transformed the world of social as we know it. Now as technology continues to advance at unprecedented speeds, Gen Z is has become the first generation of digital natives.

They can’t even imagine living without smartphones, interconnected gaming devices, high-speed internet, live streams, bot efficiencies, and access to everything on-demand. That said, all generations are experiencing the challenges and opportunities of going through life connected to tech like an oxygen mask. I think the most significant difference is that young people today don’t even view the real and digital worlds separately, it is all one ecosystem– and cultural alignment still remains the tie that binds.

NC: What should marketing and insights teams keep in mind when crafting strategies to connect with young consumers?

GW: Three critical pieces of advice immediately come to mind:

First, don’t go it alone; strong audience connections are developed and reinforced through collaboration. Brand-specific youth advisory crews (boards/panels), mobile video research and ideation using design thinking methodologies are two very effective ways we do this at Motivate.

Secondly, place the focus on value creation and ways to contribute or enhance what young people are already doing. Let’s face it, most of the time Gen Z doesn’t need your brand.

And third, have a clear understanding of your brand/organization’s “Why”, and what needs you serve in the youth market. Then humanize your brand in ways that young people care about. If that’s not working, go back to the first point (above).

NC: What part does technology play in Gen Z marketing?

GW: Technology is the catalyst to help create positive change, it enables relationships to develop faster, and supports community building. It is also a frenemy at times when it adds friction and fatigue in the pursuit of consumer engagement. Knowing the technologies to utilize, when to use them, and in which context is the key to winning.

NC: How can brands build a sustainable social media persona?

GW: It all comes down to establishing a clear and recognizable brand identity, one that truly reflects the essence of what the company is about, and of course one that offers value to the young people you are trying to build relationships with. A consistent and memorable social voice is an extension of the brand identity and key to building relationships with youth audiences. Your followers and community should be able to recognize your content even when they don’t see any branding because the voice becomes as familiar as their real-life friends.

The persona or voice should always remain the same, but tone changes depending on the context. You know, humanize the brand. For instance, you’re always the same person, but your expressions and language should adapt to the social platform. When creating content that appeals to Gen Z, it’s vital that you develop and fine-tune your brand persona, voice, and tone across social media. So, how do you maintain it? Rigorous training in an ongoing capacity until it becomes a natural extension of the people maintaining the social accounts, brands who don’t take this seriously are the ones who struggle the most.

NC: How do the Gen Z and LGBTQ segments collide?

GW: In my experience, there is more harmony than ever before in history. Depending on the data source over 40% of Gen Z self-report as fluid. I think the main collision, if that’s the right word, is with older generations of people stuck in their ways after years of closed-minded social conditioning. My observation is that acceptance of all human beings is a growing trend and that is a beautiful thing if it holds true.

NC: And how does your agency help brands reach the GEN Z and LGBTQ consumer segments?

GW: By helping them understand the cultural nuances within each segment and developing purpose-driven strategies that are aligned with targeted cultural groups, subgroups, etc. Then we find the convergence of these cultures that match the brand’s DNA in order to tell relevant stories to make positive connections. Once we do that, we can develop and activate programs on the right channels, using the most effective tools and technologies to generate powerful ROI.

NC: You talk quite a bit about transparency when marketing to Gen Z, can you tell me more about that?

GW: Telling real stories about who is behind the brand and the “why” behind certain types of decisions. For example, a global non-profit client of ours in higher ed has experienced a ton of backlash from teens commenting harshly saying “you’re getting money from us, there is nothing non-profit about that”. The going thought for years was that haters are gonna hate, but when we tested new messaging that was transparent such as: educating students on what a non-profit actually means, demonstrating the hours that go into the work, and having students conduct unfiltered interviews with the organization–the tides started to change and paradigms are slowly shifting in a positive direction. Earning trust is essential, only then can all the rest of the magic happen.

NC: What does the Gen Z consumer want to see from brands?

GW: Well, that depends entirely on which groups within Gen Z, but a few of the important standouts include: brands that help them reach their aspirational goals (pushing them to reach further), brands that are truly committed to the lifestyles they are targeting, and brands that create worthy opportunities/content that help elevate status. Ask yourself one question before you invest in a campaign or new content — will sharing it make them look cool?

NC: What sort of qualitative research are you seeing brands do when working on gaining insights on Gen Z?

GW: My team has a mantra: collaboration leads to actionable insights and new ideas. For lifestyle brands, this is typically par for the course. But brands in other sectors are also now getting in tune with the many nuanced frequencies of Gen Z by shifting to “always-on” research and ideation programs vs. traditional studies. You knew this next one was coming!

After years of tracking patterns of parents gaming the system (taking surveys claiming teens did them) with old school online surveys, we found that only mobile video surveys or ethnography in the field deliver authentic, real life youth consumer stories and feedback. The kind of feedback you can rely on coming from an actual human that meets your criteria. That’s of course because you can actually see the person giving feedback, you can screen, qualify and cast people for your research, ensuring that they will connect to or represent your target audience. This also provides quality control and limits the “survey gamers”.

NC: What are some common mistakes brands make when it comes to Gen Z consumers?

GW: The biggest mistake is to treat all of Gen Z like one big herd of sheep and then stereotyping them like the cohort is one monolithic being. As humans, we love to organize things into boxes, and that’s cool, but just identify and organize the actual groups of people or tribes, and commit yourself to aligning with them. You’ll be surprised how effective this for cultivating authentic consumer engagement and driving business growth. Other than that, common mistakes include: brands often struggle to establish a relevant brand voice and maintain it when they do, it’s real common for brands just entering youth culture to try too hard with their messaging and visual communications, and the worst is when brands treat their social feeds like ad inventory — they are literally leaving cash on the table and letting their competitors dominate the conversation.