Lessons from a 15-Year-Old on How to Market to Gen Z

How do you develop effective campaigns targeting teenagers if your teenage years are far behind you? If your campaign comes across as patronising, fake, or trying too hard, you run the risk of alienating - rather than engaging - your target audience.

At Alice, we're always keen to learn about and test new tactics to see what works best.

Fifteen-year-old Fionnuala Jennings is a Transition Year student at St. Columba's College (and the great-grand-daughter of our namesake, Alice Quinn!) and she has been with us on work experience this week. Here, she gives her take on how to successfuly market to teenagers.

Her top tips include:

  • Listen to what young people have to say; and involve the audience directly - give them a say in how your product, cause or organisation develops.
  • Keep things simple: teenagers are often over-stimulated; you need to reach through the clutter, rather than adding to it.
  • Be authentic: remember this generation is extremely politically and socially aware. "Fake" is one of their most-hated characteristics and can lead to cancellation.
  • Hire young talent: the people closest to their teenage years will be best at communicating with teenagers!

Appealing to Younger Generations - by Fionnuala Jennings

As companies become more aware of the growing numbers of teenagers in their audience, it is only natural for communications experts to make an attempt at reaching them through social media or other platforms. Unfortunately, what teens really want is often quite different from what companies present to them.

Millennials and Generation X often portray Generation Z as a foreign group of outsiders, whose only advantage is that they can be used as profitable consumers. If this attitude underpins your marketing approach, then teens will feel discouraged or even overlooked by brands they might otherwise support.

Because many advertisers only view young people as a “demographic that’s proven to be incredibly valuable for brands” - instead of actually trying to engage with them - the general understanding among my generation of Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat-users is that ads are mostly useless and annoying as well as simply disruptive.

This narrative could very easily be changed for the better if only big brands were willing to cooperate with their target audience and accept feedback from all sorts of different consumers. This approach is already quite common for some popular chains worldwide. An example of this is the American tortilla chips company Doritos, owned by PepsiCo, which has a large following among young customers, who seem to admire not only the product itself but also its recent commercials. This includes several advertisements during the annual Super Bowl, consisting of voting opportunities for customers to express their wishes about future product choices, such as new flavour combinations or the revival of discontinued ones.

This strategy of involving the customer in ongoing processes is one that can be extremely successful with a young audience, as it makes them feel useful and like they have some power over what they are consuming. By realising this, many brands could become very popular with teens, as advertising where a user is being asked to give their opinions on something or to rate it can be combined with another very important factor of modern day teenage life: social media.

The Power of Social Media

Social media platforms make for an easily accessible everyday tool where companies can interact with followers and present their brand the way they want to. They can create an image outside of the one people see on television or other media and this allows them to be genuinely transparent, as well as to engage in light-hearted conversations with customers online.

In the US, a YPulse survey from 2016 asked 1,000 13 to 33-year-olds what brand they thought usually had the best ads and the top three responses for this were Doritos, Budweiser / Bud Lite and Geico. At first sight, this selection of brands might seem a bit random or even unusual but, after taking a closer look at their ad strategies, one thing becomes very clear: all of them have an interactive outlook and put effort into listening to their customers’ feedback.

Taking Geico as an example: the insurance company was founded in 1936 and created its own advertising icon - a green gecko - in 2000 to make the brand more personal and to create brand affinity for their consumers. It is well-known that this strategy works greatly when the target audience is aged about 5-12 or on the other hand is above the age of 60. The public instantly loved the Geico Gecko and it quickly became one of the most famous brand 'personalities' of the marketing world, being voted America’s favourite advertising icon in 2005.

Future Leaders

If a company is trying to reach younger customers in their teens, it is now more important than ever to listen to their voices and adapt to their visions as they are the ones who will be in charge in the future. This is why many big brands nowadays are so keen on being “woke” or, in other words, being educated on current issues such as climate change, racism or gender inequality.

It often seems to my generation that these brands go way overboard with their mission to become a younger and more self-aware version of themselves because it simply doesn't come across as authentic. If we are being totally honest, it's just a bit unusual to see a popular company that never seemed to care much about plastic polluting the ocean suddenly claim in their commercials that all of their packaging is made out of 100% recycled plastic and “Oh, by the way, 30% of all profits also go to a charity in Thailand which organises plastic-collection events!”.

This is just one random example, but the amount of real-life situations where major companies completely rebrand their image, in order to fit in with their competition and please an extremely politically and socially aware generation, is striking. Ads are often a way of presenting the brand’s intentions to the public and sometimes the brand itself isn’t even quite aware of the image it is putting out there since teenagers often have a completely different judgement to how an adult would perceive something.

Keep It Simple

Advertisers should definitely make an effort to address relevant topics that teenagers can relate to, so that their ads gets through to the often overstimulated brains of adolescents who constantly get bombarded with new impressions and triggers from the outside. Thus, in the future, brands should be careful not to include too many different images clashing with each other as this will only ensure that the ad melts into the endless sea of already existing ones.

Rather than doing this, firms should create an original storyline with fitting pictures and an actual meaning behind the campaign. It should not in any way come across as staged or “fake” since this is one of the most hated words of our generation. And if there is one thing a modern-day company most certainly does not want, it is getting cancelled.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that - as a teeanger myself - I obviously cannot speak for all of my age-group. However, it is quite the popular opinion among my peers that companies should pay close attention to the latest topics around the world and try to incorporate them in their campaigns. Their advertising and communications efforts will work even better if they have a person working for them who is closer to their teens. Even if they're in their 20s, young adults would probably be more capable of understanding a teenager’s needs than someone in their 50s. It does seem like there is already a change happening within the rows of large firms as they realise how valuable this could be in the future.

Further Reading:

Fionnuala Jennings pictured outside Leinster House during her work experience with Alice