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Marketing Market Research North America

Forget the coasts, here’s what marketers need to do to connect with Gen Z in the heartland

By Paul Jankowski | Author

March 17, 2021 | 6 min read

There’s plenty of attention given to the coastals, but consumers in the flyover States are also spending trillions of dollars, and the influential Gen Z buyers there are not to be ignored. Here, Paul Jankowski gives us a primer on what makes the New Heartland Gen Z demographic different from Coastal Gen Zers, with four trends to keep in mind if you want to reach them in an authentic and effective way.


So much energy is put into appealing to the kids on the coasts when, in fact, Gen Z in the New Heartland (Midwest, Southwest, most of the Southeast) presents a massive and underserved target audience.

In many ways, Heartland Gen Zers just aren’t being treated like their coastal counterparts – and they expect more from brands. This cohort demands that marketers invest in knowing who they are and offer more personalized communications. They’ve made it clear that they prefer to see ads based on their lifestyles, online activities and interests, according to a recent study by Cognizant. They will, in turn, respond with their dollars.

So, get the map out and take a good look, because where Gen Z lives shapes both their worldview and their interactions with brands. That’s why it’s important to understand what makes this demographic alike and different depending on their zip code. Let’s start with the similarities:

The similarities

Whether they’re from Indiana or Oregon, Gen Z looks, acts and thinks similarly in the following ways, according to our 2020 New Heartland Generational Study (1,000 18- to 24-year-old respondents):

  • Family matters to them more than anything… this includes non-blood-related members, such as their broad circle of friends.

  • Their faith is still an important part of their identity, even if fewer Gen Z claim to be religious.

  • They are the most diverse generation, regardless of location.

  • Both groups are more likely to buy from a brand with a social mission, or one that practices social responsibility.

The differences

For all of the similarities Gen Z shares, there are stark and important differences:

  • Gen Z in the New Heartland disagrees on hot button issues like gun rights and voting for certain political parties.

  • When choosing between brands, New Heartland Gen Zers will choose the one with quality products while Coastal Gen Zers will choose the one that shares their social values.

  • New Heartland Gen Z and Coastal Gen Z spend their free time differently; the former is most likely to play video or app games and the latter is most likely scrolling through social media.

The takeaway? Gen Z New Heartlanders and Coastals are nearly identical in their culture and values but differ wildly in their attitudes and lifestyles.

The key realities

Now that you’ve got the basic context, let’s take a look at where things are headed. Here are four key realities to keep in mind if you want to win with Gen Z in the Heartland:

  1. They feel overlooked by brands based on where they live. Whether they’re longboarding in Long Beach or muddin’ in South Georgia, most of Gen Z view themselves as advertising outcasts. Whatever personalized content brands think they’re putting out isn’t resonating with over a third of each demographic in the New Heartland and the Coasts.

  2. Ads and sponsored content only sometimes relate to them personally. Gen Z feels more represented in the branded content they see than Millennials. Nearly 60% of New Heartland Gen Zers and 53% of Coastal Gen Zers think brands sometimes get it right with their messaging towards them, while just 49% of New Heartland Millennials and 44% of Coastal Millennials agree.

  3. Brands that appear to understand their values and lifestyle stand a better chance of attracting them as customers. On average, 50% Gen Zers will jump on a brand’s bandwagon if they demonstrate a knowledge of what they believe in and how they choose to live their lives. Gen Z finds this understanding vitally important to their relationship with a brand.

  4. Your data just isn’t translating. We’ve found that many brands are focusing too heavily on data without truly understanding who they’re targeting and what each audience wants from them. There’s emotion involved at every point in the sales funnel, and Gen Z needs to see and feel that brands know them. The nuances are even greater when targeting New Heartland Gen Zers, making it even harder to win with this important customer segment.

No amount of data will solve this challenge, but if brands take the time to understand Gen Z’s culture, values, attitudes and lifestyles, they’ll achieve a level of personalization unmatched by competitors.

While the outcomes of building more personalized communications may not be reflected in the results column in Facebook Ads Manager, brands will generate positive brand affinity and a long-lasting foundation from which to build generations of loyal brand advocates.

Paul Jankowski is the author of The New Heartland Speaks: The Marketer’s Guide To Reaching America’s Most Powerful Cultural Segment.

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