Marketing Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

Accepting mistakes and ceding control: how is youth culture affecting brands?


By Laura Blackwell | Content Executive

May 3, 2023 | 7 min read

Is it possible for a brand to maintain control of how they’re perceived by Gen Z? Not according to five Drum Network leaders who came together to discuss youth culture’s impact on marketing.

Young adult woman sat on bench in baggy t-shirt & sunglasses against blue background

How much control do brands have over their identity in 2023 and beyond? / Roland Hechanova

With ever-evolving platforms and a backdrop of emerging trends, how do younger generations impact the messaging that is projected back at them?

A recent roundtable discussion with leaders from The Drum Network touched on an increasing disregard for traditional marketing practices, skewed attitudes toward younger groups, and a more democratized brand-consumer relationship.

Gen Z identity & the demise of personas

We talk a lot about Gen Z, but who are they, really? The demographic, in the words of Luke Hodson, founder of Nerds Collective, “is incredibly polarized”, incorporating various segments that correlate with sometimes contrasting ideologies.

“If you take the idea of sustainability; that's a pop trend that is being touted across most press”, says Hodson. “It’s something that a lot of brands trade on and use as a connection point for younger generations. But even the idea of being sustainability-focused or -motivated requires you to have a set of privileges that most young people can’t afford”.

He points out that the younger adult generation is “still concerned with getting the right clothes – basic material things”. There’s a duality to Gen Z whereby they are increasingly conscious, while still trying to fit in.

It seems that appealing to younger generations is more complex than some marketers realize. Personas don’t work anymore; identity is more and more multi-hyphenate and decentralized. In short: consumers can no longer be tied to “traditional identity markets”, as Hodson calls them.

Missing the mark: relevance & cultural bias

Truly knowing audiences is largely about context. As Sam Coates, social intelligence lead at Ogilvy, puts it, “It’s more about where those people are in those communities. I think we're very guilty of falling into the traps of simplifying things to make it easy from a marketing perspective,” he says. According to Coates, when brands fall into this trap, they risk not being able to create something that actually works and is relevant on the ground.

A problem with reaching Gen Z specifically is that “half of the age group isn’t even on social,” according to James Poletti, strategy partner at 33Seconds. “The half that isn’t on social doesn’t have a lot of spending power, has a lot less disposable income, and certainly has no children.”

How do agencies get brands to trust them?

If brands want to resonate with younger people, they must be willing to make mistakes. This is the perspective of Norman Yuen, vice-president for accounts at Wasserman Next Gen. “A lot of times when talking to brands, they say ‘hey, we want to approve a post before it goes out because we’re paying for it’,” he says. “I go: ‘no, you can’t do that. That’s not the point here’.”

It’s understandable: for as long as we can remember, we’ve lived in a world where brands want to have control over their audience. But as Yuen notes, “this [younger] audience doesn’t allow them.”

Lucia Frances, social content manager at Jellyfish, adds that brands fail to understand that marketing to younger audiences – particularly Gen Z – is quite the opposite of traditional marketing best practices. “For example, you see Ryanair or Duolingo, and sometimes they are even trashing their own brand,” she says. “It’s difficult to explain to clients how these things work.”

So, how do they get over the hump? For Hodson, it’s about relinquishing control; communicating that the essence of a brand isn’t born from their marketing efforts, but how the brand is appropriated within communities. “Let your brand be taken into the spaces in which it is naturally being pulled,” he says. “And then look at facilitating that further.”

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Our panel’s discussion points to the resounding conclusion that brands no longer dictate their image on their own – and, if they want to remain relevant, they have to grasp shifting consumption trends. “Take alcohol for example, the old way [to market it] was ‘look at how much fun you can have with it’, whereas it’s not about going out and getting drunk anymore,” says Coates. It’s about what brands can offer to those communities.

Brands are now co-creations – amalgamations of shared values and cultural ideals. As Louise Millar, strategy director at Gen Z-focused agency Seed, reiterates, the increasingly circular creator economy essentially means, “someone will create something, other people will adapt to it, then it will evolve and it will come back up to the creator again.”

Marketing Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

Content created with:

NERDS Collective

NERDS Collective was founded by Luke Hodson In 2013 as a specialist agency that places brands at the frontline of street culture through hyper-nuanced consumer insights, cultural strategy, and creative content. In addition, the collective intended to spotlight and champion inner-city individuals and grassroots communities by finding ways brands can play a more meaningful role in their world.

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Ogilvy UK

Ogilvy is all about depth and breadth - we have London's broadest and deepest skillset in communications our award-winning teams work fluidly across our core capabilities Advertising Brand & Content, Experience, PR and Influence. And we have the UK's largest dedicated team of award-winning behavioural scientists in-house.

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Wasserman is a global sports, entertainment, and lifestyle marketing agency with expertise in creating connections between brands, properties, talent, and consumers.

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Jellyfish is a marketing performance company for the platform world, where success demands a creative, multi-platform mindset. We help brands thrive, by navigating, connecting, and harnessing the platforms that drive growth.

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We solve problems.

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33Seconds is an independent, award-winning communications agency, specialising in climate, technology and lifestyle.

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