Avoiding the ‘Cringe Factor’ in Marketing to Gen Z

Effective marketing to Gen Z — a rising generation of digital natives with enormous economic impact — stays authentic and avoids cringe.

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Connecting with the next generation is an eternal challenge for businesses. But as brands consider ways to engage Generation Z, defined roughly as those born in the mid- to late 1990s through the early 2010s, they’re facing an unprecedented situation. Never before has a demographic cohort been so in control of their own media.

Dubbed “digital natives” because they have grown up with widespread internet access, social platforms, and mobile technology, members of Generation Z create content everywhere, from TikTok to Instagram to gaming platforms, and interact with one another in unprecedented numbers. Whereas previous generations watched TV shows and commercials designed and created by adults, Gen Z is well accustomed to having a wide array of online content creators in their own peer group — many of whom have morphed into a new kind of celebrity.

Meanwhile, this next generation’s economic power is difficult to overestimate. A recent report from Bank of America found that Gen Z’s combined income will reach a whopping $33 trillion by 2030, accounting for 27% of global income and surpassing millennials’ income starting in 2031.

It’s important for brands to start reaching them early. A study by the National Retail Federation and the IBM Institute for Business Value found that the number of Gen Zers who feel strong loyalty to a brand “increases dramatically as they age,” so there’s “only a short window of opportunity” to build strong connections with them.

My company focuses on reaching young people through influencer campaigns with leading gamers, as we did for the Biden campaign. We work with popular gamers who have devoted followings and a strong track record of engaging directly with fans. They discuss products, services, and issues organically as part of their content and livestreams.

Other companies do similar campaigns with YouTube or Instagram stars outside of gaming. Through these routes, marketers have influencers weave in brand messages without disrupting the flow of the content their followers are there to experience.

While this can be effective, any campaign aimed at this demographic can also run into a disaster-in-waiting, which can make marketing efforts not only fail but even backfire.

Understanding ‘Cringe’

In any era, millions of young people roll their collective eyes when older people try to speak their language. For Gen Z, this misstep, put simply, is “cringe.


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