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Column: Gen Z Marketing From a Gen Zer’s Perspective

Column: Gen Z Marketing From a Gen Zer’s Perspective

Michael Pankowski

illustration of hands making shadow puppets against background of pattern of burgers and shakes

What it’s like to be a marketer and member of the industry’s most coveted audience

Like many members of my generation, I have a morning routine that starts with the most important meal before breakfast: checking my social media. Instagram first, then Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok. If I’m not busy, I’ll do another lap through them. There are always new posts to see, which makes it hard to ever look away.

In addition to these endless posts, there are countless ads. Google a product, and the item suddenly pops up in a sponsored post in your Insta feed minutes later. Twitter’s full of branded accounts launching memes hoping to go viral. Snap puts ads at the end of one friend’s story, making you tap through it to get to that of another friend. Even TikTok—in its infancy a Gen Z sanctuary from the constant inundation of ads we endure—has been blitzed by brands sponsoring video challenges on the platform.

As a marketing consultant, I enjoy analyzing how companies attempt to connect with my generation. But as a member of Gen Z myself, I more often annoyingly scroll through poorly executed branded memes instead of laughing at the truly good ones.

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Ads have become so omnipresent to my generation that they’re difficult to recognize. It’s not a classic TV commercial asking us to “Buy now, while supplies last!” Instead, it’s Wendy’s roasting McDonald’s on Twitter. Or Chipotle encouraging Gen Zers to make a #GuacDance video on TikTok. Or influencers promoting a product and sneaking in a subtle “#ad” at the end of their caption to admit to their followers that yeah, this is a paid advertisement. But you might not have known that if you didn’t read the whole caption (or, in the approximately one second we spend looking at each post, didn’t read it at all).

@brentrivera

When guacamole is free chipotle when you order online/in-app on July 31st😍 #GuacDance #ad

♬ The Guacamole Song – Dr. Jean

As a marketer and Gen Zer, I’ve found that the ads that perform the best (going viral on the macro-level, or making me laugh on the micro-level) are those that camouflage themselves best.

Ads that resemble those of decades ago—think “here’s our product, now come buy it”—are completely ignored by Gen Z, and cause eye rolls as we scroll past them in our feeds. But those ads that are camouflaged in a brand account’s funny meme, roast of a competitor or video challenge—these are the ads that catch fire with our generation. Whether we as a generation don’t notice them to be ads in disguise—or simply don’t care—is up for debate. But one thing is certain: The more an ad blends in with our generation, the more we accept it as just another social media post.

I’m impressed by how well some brands have learned to blend in with us Gen Zers. We had a great time keeping up with the #ChickenWars last summer among Popeyes, Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s. It’s interesting, as a Gen Zer, to see my contemporaries willingly tweeting in support of these brands—acting as unpaid brand ambassadors, even if they don’t realize it (or don’t really care).

But does it matter? I’ve retweeted my fair share of funny branded memes as well—and if I think my followers will find it funny, too, does it really matter if it’s technically an ad? Do any of us care anymore, as long as it makes us laugh?

My answer is no. Like in any era, brands do what they can to connect with their target audience. Of course, many brands fail miserably, wasting our time and clogging our feeds with memes from the Stone Age and lingo your grandma would fine lame. But for the brands that have taken the time to understand us, Gen Z is willing to reward them with social media exposure and love. As a Gen Zer, I love a good meme, no matter who posted it. And as a marketer, I’m looking forward to seeing what brands come up with next.

And for the record, Popeyes won the #ChickenWars.

Illustration by Bill Murphy.

Michael Pankowski is a student at Harvard University and head of Crimson Connection, a Generation Z marketing consulting firm. He's also a nationwide speaker and author on Gen Z. You can reach him at crimsonconnection.net and by email at michaelpankowski@crimsonconnection.net.