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Gender neutral advertising: marketing for Generation Z

Generation Z has embraced the notion that gender and sexuality are fluid constructs that need not define individuals but how will this affect marketing? Learn more about the generation that has shaken stereotypes and how this affects how you will need to market your business in the very near future.

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Generation Z, Centennials or the IGeneration, is the cohort of individuals born between 1996 and 2010. That’s right, if they haven’t already, they will soon be entering the workplace – a scary prospect for the ever young millennials, myself included. This means that they will soon have purchasing power (currently valued at $44 billion – and continually growing). This will influence everything that your business needs to do in order for them to like you and therefore buy from you, including gender neutral advertising.

Who Are Generation Z?

This is the generation that doesn’t remember the flip phone. The IGeneration was born swiping and are distracted by tablets rather than TVs in their typical five screen homes. They write school assignments on Google Docs, become famous online as teens, and even start businesses before they reach the age of majority.

They are often condemned by older generations for having an eight second attention span but do not make the mistake of being fooled by this statistic. It doesn’t mean they are fickle and inept at retaining information. They are capable of absorbing information at an unprecedented rate but if you fail to interest them within eight seconds, you may as well not have bothered trying. And this is the fundamental point that you need to remember, they grew up with these technologies and so they aren’t as easily wowed by them as the rest of us are. They are much more pragmatic than Techno-Utopian Millennials.

One of the aspects of the IGeneration that I find fascinating is their endeavour toward absolute tolerance of gender, sexuality, race, age etc. To be honest, even using the term “tolerance” does a disservice to a lot of their behaviours and beliefs since they don’t tolerate difference, they embrace it. They are used to it, and in a lot of senses fail to even understand why it was ever controversial to begin with. What do they believe in?  Togetherness and unity – they really are the interconnected, online generation. (Remember, I’m talking generally about what the majority of people in this age group think but there are bound to be exceptions).

If you think about it, why wouldn’t they? They grew up at a time in which Obama and Hillary Clinton could be a candidate for president of the United States, an era in which declaring yourself a feminist is embraced (whether you’re a man or a woman), LGBTQ rights, multiculturalism, cosmopolitan cities, remote working, active volunteering… the list goes on. Why wouldn’t they be more open to change than previous generations? This is what we’ve been striving toward. Obviously, as with all generations, there are some aspects of it that we hope won’t stick (I’m personally thinking of Wiggle Brows) but surely having a more egalitarian, fluid society in which people feel free to be themselves is commendable.

Why Market to Generation Z?

It is of primordial importance to understand that Geneneration Z’s influence is two fold.

First, you have to think of their current impact on spending habits within their homes, which is estimated to be around $600 billion. They leverage what their parents and older siblings buy like no other generation before them. Their impact on household spend spans from the week’s dinner menu to toys, clothes and family holidays. Remember, they can also advise their families on the best technologies to use, so it’s unwise to forget their current significance in most market places.

Secondly, they are the future of the economy.  You can’t afford to miss the boat; they’re already at your doorstep as the older members of their generation are entering the workforce. According to a study by Vision Critical, their direct spending power will equate to $200 billion by 2018,.

Get to know them now and understand how your brand genuinely fits in with their values. If you learn to readjust your business to fit their lifestyles and needs, the payoff will be substantial.  Not adapting may be a great risk.

Don’t view this as a problem to overcome, humans are adaptable by nature. See it as a welcome challenge to shake things up and get new and lasting customers. This does not mean “jumping on the bandwagon” of current trends, you need to make your brand all about the people you want to engage with in order to build meaningful relationships with them. This may mean a difficult re-shifting of your brand but it is worthwhile.

What Does This Mean for Advertisers and Digital Marketers?

There are a couple of key factors digital marketers need to consider when marketing to Generation Z – messaging and technology.


This generation is very concerned with privacy issues, something that is translated in their use of social media. They prefer platforms such as Snapchat, Secret and Whisper, where messages, images and videos are deleted once they’ve been seen – and people are notified if  images are screen grabbed. They don’t want a permanent record of their online activities, unless it’s a very carefully crafted professional or personal profile. It’s not hard to understand why, they’ve grown up with cyber bullying, bloggers being discredited and seen online breaches of privacy such as pictures of nude celebrities going viral. Essentially, they’ve learnt from our cringe worthy mistakes. Remember Facebook pre circa 2008?

Additionally, this is a video and mobile first generation, so if you don’t advertise with mobile in mind you’ll be left behind. Think of YouTube videos, Vine, Instagram, and other visual platforms that will appeal to them. You also have to think about page and website speed which are of  optimum importance. They’ve grown up with technologies that work and because they don’t remember the painful days of dial up, they lack patience when it comes to slow or clunky technology.

Finally, they are expert online shoppers who really value reviews and are much less likely to visit your physical store. Some statistics show that most Gen Zers read four to five reviews before buying a product, so it is worth considering an online review strategy for your business.

Messaging and Values

A great opportunity for lesser known brands today is the fact that Centennials are much less interested in “Big Brands”. As a pragmatic and careful generation, they’re focused on price and on their own personal brand. The “You do You” and “Be Your Best Self” mantras along with the desire to assert their individuality are the cornerstones of this generation’s self perception. So, if you can tap into that market, there is a tremendous opportunity for growth for your company. Companies need to stop viewing them as a demographic of consumers of the same age bracket, location or other general common attribute but more as a group of unique individuals.

A word of caution though, their interconnected lifestyles guide their beliefs. They are no less impassioned by environmental issues than they are about social justice. They are champions of egalitarian movements, whether that’s women’s and LGBTQ’s rights, or immigration and racial tension issues. Not only do they expect their future employers to champion these values, they want their brands to as well. And this goes beyond basic corporate social responsibility. They want you to really believe in the cause as they want where they shop or work to reflect their beliefs. Keep this in mind but don’t be disingenuous, since companies and their reputations can be destroyed very quickly nowadays.

What is Gender Neutral Marketing?

As previously mentioned, this generation sees gender as a fluid construct that need not define your identity. They don’t believe in being restricted by the binary gender identities – male and female. They have grown up in an era where transgender or gender fluid style icons and celebrities such as Lucky Blue Smith and Ruby Rose are becoming the norm. As individuals, they have the right to be whatever they want, and the most fascinating and novel aspect of this is that for the first time, this is “allowed to change”. They don’t feel the need to confine themselves in a box of “Grunge”, “Emo”, “Goth” etc.  They believe I am “Me“, and I can be whoever I choose to be within society, entirely undetermined by a brand or another person – and the beautiful thing is that this is unrestricted, fluid and not constrained to one “look” or “attitude”.

Some brands have begun to embody this. John Lewis has already removed all gender specific labels on their children’s clothes, Cover Girl now has a Cover Boy who embodies all of their values, Zara has a gender neutral section on their website and even Barbie features a boy in their advert.

This is becoming so mainstream, that the UK’s advertising Standard’s Association report contains guidelines that require companies to comply with new advertising standards that will replace stereotypical gender roles and characteristics. Look at companies that don’t address these issues – such as Clarks Shoes and their controversial “Dolly Babes” and “Leaders”  marketing.

So companies need to be aware of this movement in terms of gender and sexuality. Traditional male/female splitting and gender stereotypes just don’t go down well anymore, and this is not going away.

Gender Neutrality and Digital Marketing

In terms of digital marketing, I see this as a massive opportunity for businesses.

First of all, it will mean that businesses need to look inward and understand what their values are and what their customer’s values are, and where the two meet in a concrete way that will add value to their lives. Surely that’s the point if having a product or service in the first place?  It’s time to get some pride, fulfilment and enjoyment back into our jobs. This will mean re-branding websites with new messaging and imagery, or possibly a complete refresh. It could be an excuse for your business to get that new, faster and better performing website you’ve been begging your CEO for.

Secondly, with there being more big data than ever before, I think it’s going to be incredibly interesting to work on client personas and audience lists. With generations changing, these will inevitably change. For instance, if you sell makeup, it may be disadvantageous to block male viewers in your remarketing campaigns and social media targeting – since they are now a part of your audience as another branch of gender neutral advertising. If your business focuses on home appliances, cooking or childcare accessories, it would equally be pretty limiting to only focus on targeting women as men now also do these chores. If you work in professional services, remember that more women now work in STEM and in decision making positions than ever before. It would be a mistake to forget them in your persona workshops and audience lists. Google used to be guilty of this themselves. Back in the day, they assumed that due to her interests and job title, Susan Hallam was a man. Tut tut, Google.

The introduction of GDPR will also present an opportunity for you to connect with people who actually engage with your content and opted in to your communications, so don’t limit yourself by not catering for these people.

Finally, companies cannot continue to create obvious adverts. This generation knows what an ad looks like and how to use adblockers and avoid clickbait. So, give them useful and engaging content instead. Be interesting, relevant and informative to the people you want to sell your products to.

So there it is, some of the challenges and opportunities that companies face as a new generation of consumers emerges. Take a leaf out of the Centennials book and embrace the change.


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