Data published today indicates that gen Zers are increasingly drawn to values-based communities – and that the brands who are garnering the most affinity among young people are those that engage with these communities in authentic, humanistic ways.
It’s no secret that Facebook is losing millennial users in droves; and to gen Zers, the social network is something of a fossil. Young consumers are increasingly flocking to – and defining themselves by – values-based communities, per the 2021 Belong Index, an annual research project put out by creative firm Sid Lee.
Released today, data on the Index's top ten community brands suggests that gen Zers broadly see themselves and their peers through the lens of communities, and interest-, lifestyle- and values-based communities in particular. 83% say that their community defines them as a person and 94% say that their communities feed their emotions – entertainment, joy and inspiration were cited among the top emotional benefits of belonging to such communities.
“Younger millennials and gen Zers are increasingly shaping their own sense of who they are not by where they grew up and who they grew up with, but by the digital communities they have chosen to belong to. And that’s a big shift,” says Andy Bateman, Sid Lee’s US chief executive officer. “The Economist ran a poster years and years ago around a headline that said, ‘Geography is history.’ And that’s really true today when it comes to millennials and gen Z and their identity. More often than not, we’re now being defined by who we choose to belong with.”
And the brands that participate in these communities like regular users – with humor, candor and transparency – not only win over consumer trust, but increasingly become the subject of gen Z evangelism, per the data released today. Using what it calls the Belong Quotient – which aims to measure the degree to which a brand has effectively become part of pre-existing communities – Sid Lee determined that Peloton, Roblox, Patagonia, Ethereum, Telfar and Disney have been among the most successful. But how did they become gen Z’s favorites, and how can marketers take a page from their playbook to win over young consumers’ trust and loyalty?
Gen Z’s bullshit detector: the need for authentic marketing
The ubiquity of platforms has lowered the barriers to entry for young consumers seeking like-minded communities, says Bateman. Gen Zers can now choose where and with whom they spend their time and resources online, from the Snaps and TikToks of the world to the more interest-based communities such as running and cycling community app Strava and livestream gamer haven Twitch.
And with an abundance of choice and unprecedented access to information, these consumers have become more discerning and more sophisticated in their decision-making – notably as it relates to consumerism. “That’s why we’re seeing them make choices around environmental, social and corporate governance, around social good. [They’re] choosing brands where there’s a backstory — more so than choosing brands just because they’re interesting,” Bateman notes.
This sea change creates a slew of new challenges and opportunities for brands whose aim it is to connect with gen Z audiences. For one, Bateman points out that many brands are still focused on owning their narrative – which sometimes impedes their ability to engage with young consumers in authentic, human-focused ways. “[Brands are too often thinking about] my market, my position, what we uniquely own in the market,” he says. “The whole language around brands and marketing has been ownership-based. The shift to make is: rather than consider this whole area in terms of ownership, consider it in terms of participation. What are you willing to do to engage? How are you going to participate? Are you being vulnerable and real? Are you being transparent and open? That’s a big shift and that’s hard to do. You have to accept that participating with millennials and gen Zers in their communities – not your communities – means you have to show up and be real, be open and potentially be the subject of their criticism as well as their support.”
Experts in gen Z marketing echo this sentiment. Charlie Naus, co-founder and managing director at gen Z marketing agency Carson+Doyle – and a gen Zer himself – says that for brands to connect with gen Z effectively, “it comes down to transparency and authenticity.” He says that Carson+Doyle – which counts Tinder, Snap and Google among its clients – often encourages clients to speak to gen Zers in ways they naturally interact online. “Something we’ve found to work really well is when the brand can be a little bit more funny or a little bit more self-deprecating than they had been with the millennial cohort,” he says. “Gen Z, particularly, wants to see brands not follow the rules, so to speak, and have a little bit of fun.”
That said, it’s obvious when the effort is a façade. “Gen Z knows when we’re being bullshitted,” Naus says. He says that marketers, struggling to maintain revenue growth with their traditional marketing mix, are increasingly flocking to gen Z-flooded social platforms such as TikTok and Twitch – but it’s not always a perfect fit. “[It’s important] to be sensitive in making sure that that brand can fit, and that it’s not going to feel forced.”
Plus, he stresses the value of platform-native strategies. “We have to spend a lot of time curating the content that we’re putting out to make sure that it doesn’t seem like it was just extrapolated across six platforms, and [the brand is] cutting corners on the budget,” says Naus. Oftentimes, the result is work that feels more like user-generated content than corporate advertising. “Using maybe just an iPhone for a full ad shoot [can make] it a lot more authentic ... [brands don’t need] a $30,000 film shoot anymore. But it comes down to each brand. It’s not a one-size-fits-all methodology.”
Tapping into an ‘exponential brand effect’
According to Sid Lee’s new data, the payoff is well worth it for brands who are able to participate in gen Z communities with authentic voices and relatable, transparent messages. The payoff, per Bateman, “is that elusive thing that we’ve all been searching for as marketers, which is brand advocacy.” In fact, the index finds that, for brands that are connected with their community, 79% of gen Zers would participate in an initiative led by those brands and 90% would advocate for the brand among their peers. “That’s huge. Multiply that by a network effect of people advocating on your behalf in a community, and you get an exponential brand effect.”
Alongside Patagonia and Disney, brands including Depop, Nike and Decathlon have also become trusted and well-perceived brands among gen Zers, according to the Belong Index. The key takeaway for brands, Bateman says, is: “Don’t behave like a corporation when you show up in those communities. Behave like a person. Show up, be honest, be open and be transparent. Think about what you can do to add value and help. If you use your own moral compass, if you behave like a human being, chances are you’ll be accepted and welcomed into it.”
The broader implications at play, according to Bateman, entail the large-scale shift toward platform-based businesses and how marketers should be thinking of engaging communities on these platforms. “You’d have to have been asleep for the last 15 years not to realize that all of the growth today is coming from platform-based businesses – whether that’s Amazon, Google, Facebook or eBay, [it’s about creating a place where] buyers and sellers are brought together, either willingly or unwittingly. We tried to understand that business model more and more from a consumer point of view, and what we learned was that communities are the fuel for those businesses – because the more buyers and sellers you can bring together, the more people with a common interest, the faster those businesses grow.”
At the same time, he says, we’ve witnessed a bifurcation of marketing at large: on the one hand are traditional mass media channels such as out-of-home (OOH) and TV; on the other is one-to-one marketing, which is based on individual targeting. Bateman says the market has neglected to realize the value of what lies between these two poles: community-based marketing on social platforms. “We’ve had influencers on their own platforms, we’ve had people promoting ... [viral videos] of tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos, but we [need to] understand what’s going on there. Community-based marketing – not marketing to communities, but marketing with communities – is a third, new way of doing marketing and thinking about marketing. If you can engage the community to advocate on your behalf, then you grow exponentially.”
However, the industry is only yet scratching the surface on the marketing science behind community-based marketing. With the ongoing proliferation of platforms, communities are evolving at speed. So too must marketers.
For more, sign up for The Drum’s daily US newsletter here.