What shapes the identities of teens today? California ad agency BSSP wanted to reach beyond data-driven assumptions to find out, going deep into the minds of Generation Z. Using mindswarms mobile video surveys, they captured teens’ unfiltered responses. What they learned is that Gen Z’s attitudes center around purpose, authenticity, and technology. (Oh, and transparency.)
Seventeen interviews with 17 seventeen-year-olds—it’s our initial exploration into the lives and minds of teenagers today. It’s our attempt at digging beyond data-driven assumptions to get to their mind-sets and motivations.
Much has been reported and debated about Generation Z, this new breed of future consumer that marketers are trying to familiarize themselves with before their spending powers become fully realized. We wanted to get past the stereotypes and statistics. We wanted to get to know them as distinct individuals with their own unique stories and points of view, not just as a collective demographic cohort. To do so, we partnered with mindswarms, a mobile video ethnography firm, and interviewed 17 seventeen-year-old participants from across the states through a series of mobile video surveys.
In some ways, not much has changed. It’s still about human biology, after all. Seventeen-year-olds are in that transitional phase between high school and college, with their teenage years disappearing into young adulthood. They are increasingly independent, and starting to think about the future. They are social creatures whose lives revolve around family and friends.
In other ways, it’s completely new territory. They are entrenched in technology and living out these progressive years online, under intense scrutiny.
I. Exposure to global issues drives their sense of purpose.
Being queer, I’d like to give out help to other gay people… So, I decided I want to be different in the sense that whenever I come out, I want to do it to help others. I’m very, very vocal about it online because that is worth more than money to me.
Basically they would think that maybe I was racist because I’m speaking out about it [police brutality]. It’s scary that there’s a lot of people out there that can’t even go to the store at night without worrying about dying, and there’s people who can get pulled over, and pull a gun out, and maybe because of their skin color or their background they won’t even die…
When something crazy happens—like when Trump does something, or someone dies at the hands of a police officer—during those times I’m probably on social media the most, because I know people are saying crazy things and I want to have my input on it
1. Be aware of the diversity of today’s teens. They are different from previous generations and expect brands to recognize this. Some brands have, and are taking steps to banish stereotypical portrayals of gender in advertising. Unstereotype Alliance is a collective comprised of Unilever, UN Women, and several of the world’s largest advertising and tech players working together to eradicate outdated stereotypes in advertising.
There’s been particular progress in the beauty space, with both CoverGirl and Rimmel London signing seventeen-year-old social media influencers James Charles and Lewys Ball, respectively, as brand ambassadors, recognizing their efforts in shattering gender-based beauty ideals.
2. Stay off the purpose bandwagon unless you are actively involved in resolving the issue at hand, or if it is intrinsic to who you are. Otherwise, Gen Z will see right through you.
3. That said, you don’t have to be a purpose-driven brand in order to succeed with them. Offering a high-quality product or service, supported by good customer service with a real human touch, is significantly more important.
A lot of the older generation, they feel like my generation is too attached to their cell phone, and I really don’t feel like there’s a problem with it. I know a lot of older people, they’re not really in tune with technology, and they don’t understand what technology can do, so in the classrooms, I remember I would have teachers who didn’t want us to use our phones at all, and then we had some teachers that actually let us use our phones to look up stuff and actually incorporate in classrooms. They need to do that. I don’t really find it invasive at all.
I really only use it if I have nothing else to do. Nothing to do and nobody to talk to. I scroll and scroll… If I know I’m about to go somewhere and I’m not about to know anyone, I’ll probably bring my phone because you don’t want to just be awkward in the corner staring. I feel like everybody is staring at me so I’m like I got to have something to look down at… Half the time I’m not even reading what’s on the screen. I just need to look like I’m doing something.
Like when I was [in] Europe, I would have hated to not have my phone, because there was so many pictures I wanted to have taken of me that it would have really sucked if I didn’t have my phone. All those memories, because I’m definitely going to [get] those printed out and put up somewhere. I think it’s really important to get stuff off your phone and onto some paper, or something.
1. Don’t be too quick to judge. What looks antisocial to older generations is another way to be social for them. Brands can help facilitate these live social sessions. For example, the popularity of augmented reality app Pokemon Go saw people hunting for Pokemon creatures in real-life environments on their smartphones, with their friends.
2. Do more to understand not just what teens are doing on their phones, but with them. Create tools or work with other partners that empower them to explore and exploit their passions. Coca-Cola partnered with Musical.ly, a lip-syncing and video-sharing app with a core audience between the ages of 13 and 24, for its Share a Coke and a Song campaign. Users shot videos of themselves sharing a Coke with friends or family.
3. Remember that they are true digital natives who don’t appreciate being interrupted. Annoying advertising can be skipped, and the next best piece of content is a simple tap, click, or swipe away. Your communication needs to be compelling enough to be sought out.
1. Today’s teens expect more for their money. They’re skeptical of advertising and tech savvy enough to see through marketing BS. When asked for reasons why they like the brands they do, they pointed to functional product benefits. While we don’t recommend losing the emotional story, today’s teens may need to be given the practical reasons to choose one brand over another.
2. Maybe it was Millennials who championed the art of borrowing (e.g., Rent the Runway), but it’s teenagers today who are demanding it across verticals. Brands that offer access will win out over those that offer ownership. The simple reason: accessibility has less risk than ownership. Consider the following ways to allow them to try before they buy:
a. Subscriptions like Spotify allow consumers to pay month-by-month so the product can continue to prove its value to gain reuse.
b. Personalized trial boxes like Ipsy give consumers a sampling of things they may like, bringing the Sephora experience home.
c. Make buying and returning easy, with free shipping. If it arrives and doesn’t fit, last, or work as expected, teens need to know they can send it back for free and without hassle.
d. Of course, there are some purchases that can’t be sampled. For these, consider ways that virtual reality could give prospective buyers a sense for what’s to come, as IKEA did with its virtual showroom.Have we cracked today’s teens? We hardly think so. Do we know what it takes to reach and engage them? We have some ideas. To truly understand them, we encourage brands and marketers to go out and have real conversations with people, as opposed to relying too heavily on generalizations. Instead of interpreting some ambiguous data point, spend time with them and ask them.
BSSP is one of the largest independent agencies on the West Coast. Adweek named BSSP Small Agency of the Decade, and Outside magazine recognized the agency by naming it one of the Best Places to Work in America. For further information, please contact Patrick Kiss at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.bssp.com.
The mindswarms community provides people all over the world a platform to easily share authentic opinions and experiences through self-recorded videos to impact the creation of some of the world’s most innovative products and brands.
Special thanks to the people who shared their personal stories and insights with us as part of this mindswarms study.