Don’t MARKET to Gen Z. PARTNER with Gen Z.

I had the privilege last Thursday of moderating a panel at the “PR Decoded” conference in Chicago, organized by PRWeek. It’s a top-level gathering of Public Relations experts representing a breadth of industries and companies. And wow — hats off to the organizers of this great event who made “Purpose Principles” the theme of this year’s convening.

As CEO of a youth-wellness nonprofit, I work directly with young people every day. Together with PRWeek, we pitched and created a panel focused on Gen Z — the demographic cohort right after millennials who are increasingly controlling the purse strings and decision making in the home.

This panel, Influencing The Now And Next Generation: How To Harness The Domino Effect Of Gen Z, explored topics that included why Gen Z are so different from millennials; why purpose matters so deeply; and lessons learned from Gen Z through collaboration. The panel’s discussion reflected what I have personally seen and experienced through my work and hearing it from my own four kids — that this generation possesses an inherent desire to leave our world in better shape than the world they inherited from their parents and generations before. And they have clear expectations that brands could and should be a part of that effort.

With that in mind, the consensus across industries is that marketing to Gen Z is a tough nut to crack. In this tempestuous time, it could be argued that blind trust on the part of ALL consumers is a thing of the past. But according to Business Insider “Getting a Gen Z’er in particular to be loyal to a brand is nearly impossible,” and Gen Z is “leading an evolution in shopping that could kill brands as we know them.”

Here’s why. What Gen Z doesn’t have is the somewhat less discerning optimism of Millennials. They post on social media in real-time but think long-term about sustainable careers; secure retirement; diversity and equality of opportunity; and respect for communities that care for EVERYONE living in them. And as a recently published Hill-Holiday/Trilia study put it, somewhat ominously, “Gen Z’ers align their spending with their beliefs.”

Gen Z is as informed as no generation has ever been — yet they’re highly skeptical of that information. Andrew, a senior in high school who shared his POV on our panel, demands that companies be transparent with consumers. To him, truth and individuality are the hallmarks of the Gen Z mindset. If marketers don’t tell us the truth, “we’re going to find out anyway.”

What that means is that the brand, as panelist, Michael Pankowski, a Harvard student said, “can’t just be talking,” they have to “be doing.” Part of this alignment comes through brand partnerships with marketing influencers that are both honest and relatable. If they can capture an audience simply by being who they are, it’s because legions of Gen Z’ers also see themselves through those people in some way. At a time when identity and expression rule, so will the brands that enable that expression through the lens of influencers because as Andrew said, “if it’s good for them, it’s good for me.”

If value connection doesn’t come through the shared values of influencers, the best place to start as a company is with a genuine purpose statement, which aligns with the actual good work being done by the company. Take for example, Sleep Number.

Panelist Susan Oguche, Sleep Number’s Senior Director of Communications & CSR and a true expert on purpose-driven marketing, said that her company’s whole value proposition is that sleep is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Together with GENYOUth, the organization that I am the CEO of, we partnered with Sleep Number to conduct a survey that revealed why Gen Z, a constituency we collectively serve, doesn’t get nearly enough sleep. In fact, the survey found that their sleep deficit was a whopping 1.7 hours a night or 8.5 hours a week. In other words, this generation goes to school 5 days a week on 4 nights of sleep. Sleep Number sought out these insights as a means of informing strategies to support young people in getting the sleep they so drastically need. Perhaps it’s because Sleep Number takes this active listening approach with its consumer so seriously, including Gen Z, that a whopping 94% of the company’s employees believe that their purpose is spot on!

Now that’s saying something, considering that Gen Z will not only make purchasing decisions based on companies that listen to and co-create solutions with them, they will also choose who they work for based on those same principles.

Panelist Michael Pankowski emphasized these points by encouraging marketers to make space for Gen Z’s voice to play a substantive role in social dialogue, reminding those in the room that the cohorts represent $40 billion worth of annual spending power and to leave them out of the conversation would be bad for business on so many levels.

At my organization, GENYOUth, we’re all about putting youth in the driver’s seat around big social issues in school and community environments and letting them be the problem-solvers and the solution-generators. We encourage them to have a lead role in demanding, creating, and participating in solutions that affect them. In my view, we need to communicate with GEN Z not as customers or consumers, but as allies, leaders and decision makers.

To my fellow CEOs, marketers, and PR friends, my primary message to you is this: think of them as your partners, not your customers. The old vendor/customer relationship doesn’t cut it with this generation. Involve them. In everything. From the get-go.

Involve them in the design of your product or service. Invite them into production meetings. Take them on a tour of your factories to see how your product is made — and from what it’s made. Familiarize them with your supply chain. Ask them what they think of your advertising and messaging. After all, they might one day work for you, and bringing them into the fold now could only help establish the trust that is a harder and harder commodity to come by later.

This generation doesn’t want to be talked at, marketed to, or have problems solved for them. A recent article in Ad Age put it this way: “Gen Z doesn’t just want to buy your brand; they want to join it.” Or as Ani, one of the students I work with, told a room full of executives recently, “If it’s about me . . . don’t do it without me!”

We had all better heed Ani’s insightful call to action, because the direct involvement of this savvy, and as my kids like to say, “woke” generation matters a great deal to our collective futures. Not just our bottom lines.


Alexis Glick is the CEO of GENYOUth, the national youth-wellness nonprofit.