The generational war: Millennial vs. Gen Z buying myths
Listen to this article
If you’re a millennial, you must know by now that your side part looks ridiculous.
Those skinny jeans you wore before the world transitioned to sweatpants? Deeply uncool.
And don’t even think about sending that face-with-tears-of-joy emoji the next time you want to laugh over text.
Faster than you can say, “Okay, boomer,” millennials grew up. The oldest millennials are now 40. Along with them, gen Z grew old enough to have a voice … and mock older generations with that voice.
Just like every generation has done before them.
Gen Z buying behavior: The truth is likely the simplest answer
Regardless of when you think gen Z began—some say the first gen Z were born in 1996, others 1997, still others 2000—true digital natives (i.e., not millennials) are starting to make significant buying decisions. If the oldest gen Z cohort is 25, brands should pay attention to that buying power.
But before you invest in a TikTok ad strategy under the assumption that gen Z will buy on the platform, brand and growth marketers alike should ask themselves much more basic questions:
- Are gen Z buying habits that different from other generations?
- Which product categories are gen Z most attracted to? Are there any problems and pain points that are specific to gen Z?
- How do new channels like TikTok and Twitch influence buying behavior?
- What does a non-linear buyer’s journey look like for gen Z? What can be directly measured … and what can’t?
Many marketers forget the fundamentals of marketing when they’re chasing after a shiny new generation of buyers. While some growth hacking tactics are valuable considerations, never forget your marketing basics:
- Product: Solve a real problem and do it well
- Price: Choose a pricing strategy that reflects your product’s value
- Place: Be where your ideal customers are
- Promotion: When and how you target audiences with your message
Gen Z isn’t exempt from these tactics. They don’t have special powers that trigger immunity to marketing tactics that have worked since advertising was invented.
Rewind: What did people say about millennial buying habits?
Gen Z marketing predictions sound oddly familiar.
When millennials were in a similar up-and-coming position, marketers of all ages were obsessed with analyzing their buying habits. Here are some of the statements they made between 2007–2009:
August 5, 2009—Engaging Millennials: How Marketers Can Break Through: “No one wants to be told what to do, what to like and what to think. That is especially true of Millennials, who have an instant aversion to anything that smacks of ‘marketing.’”
2008—Y and How: Strategies for Reaching the Elusive Generation Y Consumer: “There are numerous things that Generation Y [millennials] will not accept from companies and marketers. One thing that they will not accept is a hard sell from marketers. Once they feel that they are being sold to or told what they should do, they stop trusting that brand and move on to the next brand.”
March 12, 2007—Can Calvin Klein seduce the 'millennial generation with its CK in2u fragrance?: “‘They have less brand loyalty," said Lori Singer, a vice president for global marketing for Coty. ‘They don't want to feel that they are being marketed to or spoken at. They are much more empowered, but they are unshockable. They have seen everything from 9/11 to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears without underwear. They see everything instantaneously that goes on in the world.’”
While some of these predictions ring true—millennials do have less brand loyalty than generations before them—others underestimated the power of social media and data sharing to sell to millennials in new ways.
On the one hand, millennials may have been the first generation to feel true cynicism about digital marketing. On the other hand, revenue generated through digital marketing doesn’t lie—if you’re selling something millennials want at the right price, they’re open to being sold to.
The same principles apply to Gen Z … with some nuances.
2021 Gen Z basics
- In 2019, gen Z outnumbered millennials, making up 32% of the world's population.
- As of 2020, gen Z makes up more than 40% of U.S. consumers.
- Gen Z streams videos for about 23 hours per week.
- More than 76% of gen Z says they follow an influencer on social media.
- One in four gen Z women says they learn about new products through influencers.
But don’t let the sexier stats fool you. While it’s valuable to know that gen Z watches more video content and follows more online creators, that’s only one piece of the puzzle—the brand awareness puzzle. While remaining top of mind is extremely important for brands long term, the staples hold when predicting actual conversion to buy.
According to a global survey of 15,600 gen Z folks, 66% say that the high quality matters most to them when making a purchase.
Gen Z is also known for its budget-conscious attitude, having grown up amidst the aftermath of the 2008 recession. So it’s no surprise that 65% of them see value in coupons, discounts, and rewards programs.
Whereas millennials came of age when “personalized” marketing was hailed as the next big revenue driver, gen Z is acutely aware of how their data is used post-Cambridge Analytica. Less than 30% of gen Z want to share personal data online.
What does this mean for brands targeting gen Z? To find out, we spoke to one high school student, Mikey Taylor, and one university student, Cassia Attard, who shared how they make decisions to buy.
Old fashioned SEO is still #1
When young people need answers to a question, they Google it. They want those answers immediately—ust like everyone else.
“Most of the time, I'll just do a quick Google search to find the best version of a product,” says Cassia Attard. “I'll assume the two top articles are probably good because I don’t want to spend 30 minutes figuring out which product I should buy. I want to make a decision and move on with my life. As a consumer, I just want the products that I'm looking for to have good SEO.”
Gen Z may also be resistant to a “hard sell,” but they’ll double-down on top ranking sites that serve them exactly what they’re looking for as quickly as possible.
Gen Z don’t check email regularly—but that could change
Email is a marketing darling. The conversion rate for e-commerce brands via email was about 15% in 2020, much higher than paid and organic social.
Given the changes to personalized targeting on social, more marketing experts recommend owning the land you build on rather than renting it—meaning that owning your list via email rather than building it on social media may soon mean the difference between revenue growth and stagnation.
Gen Z folks who don’t yet work full time may not check their email regularly, but that will change once they enter the workforce (which many of them are). Email will remain an important touchpoint for brands because of two things: data privacy and choice to opt-in.
“You don’t feel like you’re giving up anything private by giving someone an email because … you give everyone emails,” says Cassia. “I like that aspect, so I don’t mind giving my email to lose professional connections. And I do subscribe to newsletters.”
Online reviews are taken with a grain of salt
One standout difference between millennials and gen Z is how much they trust online reviews. Whereas 89% of millennials trust online reviews, some gen Z folks say they’re now hyper-aware that some companies pay to generate positive reviews.
“The thing about gen Z is that we're very skeptical,” says Mikey Taylor. “If we read reviews online, we think there's a chance that the review is fake. We think it could have been written by a person who is maybe paid to write fake reviews.”
Ditch the emojis?
Emojis aren’t going away, but their use is becoming more niche and ironic as time passes. Gen Z loves using emoji in strange ways to express sarcasm, which is probably why they’re coming down so hard on millennials’ overuse of the 😂 emoji—it’s too earnest for them.
“On Twitch, there are thousands of custom emotes which all have different meanings, and on Discord [a gaming and chatting app], you can make your emojis,” says Ryan Broderick, who writes the Garbage Day newsletter. “So I think we're entering an era of really, really niche emoji use online, which is cool but also might be confusing.”
If you’re running ads or sending emails that use emojis, be careful: Gen Z has been overexposed to them in ads, and they may not have the effect you think they’re having.
“Older people have overused emoji,” says Cassia Attard. “I’ve seen emoji pillows and random ad campaigns that market to young people. It became kind of cringe.”
Final thought: Word of mouth will never die
It’s tempting to analyze gen Z buying habits on a granular level and lose sight of the big picture: Word of mouth about a solid product will always be your best marketing channel.
“Mario Badescu is a skincare brand that has a drying lotion that's supposed to be good for your skin,” says Mikey Taylor. “I heard my friends talking about how good it is and how much it helps them. For something like skincare, something I'm putting on my face, I trust my friends’ opinions.”
To capture the hearts and minds of gen Z, start by surrounding yourself with them. Show up to their Twitch live streams. Chat with them on Discord. See what they’re saying on Reddit.
Then determine what they need to solve a real problem they have and make a product they’ll want to talk about.