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Gen Z blah, blah, blah

Published by ESOMAR

by Hunter Thurman

This article originally appeared in Research World

Oh good. Another article espousing the secrets of persuading young consumers. But let me assure you that this article won’t spout isms, herald blandly regurgitated trends, or include the word “authentic” in any form at any point.

Rather, I’d like to share the thing that’s bugging Gen Z so that you may apply it in your marketing efforts. And this thing that’s bugging U.S.-based humans 18-25 is not based on anything other than the fundamental cocktail of behavior: psychology.

In lay terms, as they meander through daily life, people experience feelings based on the contexts through which they navigate – personal life, work, school, driving around, etc. These feelings are processed in the subconscious mind, which translates them into thoughts. The most salient thoughts jump to the front of the mental line and drive behavior.

And Gen Z is having two juxtaposed feelings that are strongly flavoring this mental process. Let’s begin with feeling 1: “This all kind of sucks, so I just want to do/buy things that will help me feel better right now.”

A unique database of psych-based measures (called the Psych-Pulse), created and run by neuroscientist T. Sigi Hale PhD and team (just saying so you know I’m not making this up), reveals that this feeling has been growing over the past two years. Big time.

This is fueling the need for some tension release – foods, drinks, products, experiences – that let the consumer blow off a little steam, just for them. As a result, categories like soft drinks, chocolate confections, salty snacks, and QSR are performing incredibly well.

And this is not just observation; it’s neuroscience. One’s ability to “emotionally self-regulate” (aka make themselves feel better) is foundational to psychology and mental well-being. Which explains why even resource-constrained households (not uncommon among younger consumers) continue to spend healthily on categories that serve this need. As many headlines still espouse a Chicken Little “The sky is falling” mentality with regard to inflationary pricing, categories and brands that empower their consumers to blow off a little steam have thrived.

A growing pressure

OK. So you’re a young consumer, going about your life and loyally buying things that afford a little virtual vacation to keep things feeling easy breezy. Here’s the rub: more and more, you’re having to think about the needs of other people. And not just because you’re a caring person; rather, it’s because you probably have a relative living with you (other than a significant other, which is 94% more likely compared to Gen pop) or a roommate (which is 91% more likely). And/or you’re around them more because you work from home (33% higher occurrence than Gen pop) or at least hybrid (21% higher occurrence).

It seems like there’s always somebody around. And this is creating that second feeling that I mentioned above: “I need to make choices that will make the other people I’m around happy, too.”

Those same neuroscientists I mentioned above are seeing this feeling steadily increase, beginning in about the Fall of 2022. So let’s put them both together:

On the one hand: “This all kind of sucks, so I just want to do/buy things that will help me feel better right now.”

On the other hand: “I need to make choices that will make the other people I’m around happy, too.”

These two feelings, occurring in combination, are a recipe for tension. How can a person follow their impulses and make themselves feel better while concurrently looking out for the needs of others? It’s mentally taxing, and it’s starting to have a major impact on the brands consumers choose. Marketers that recognize this tension – and ease it with strategy and marketing activation – will hit the bull’s eye and sell their stuff.

The Gen Z Behavior Equation

Alright. So there’s a core feeling that’s making Gen Z tick: do what feels good now. And a growing feeling that’s basically messing that up: provide for the needs of others. But despair not; knowledge is power, and now that we know what’s going on, we can prescribe the equation to serve the needs of Gen Z – thereby selling said stuff, as referenced above.

At the simplest, this means winning approaches will let the consumer:

  • Follow my gut
  • Let me provide for the tribe
  • Without having to think

McDonald’s achieved this with the Cardi B & Offset Meal. High sensory feel-goods. Check. For me and someone else, without having to think about what they’d want. Check.

Conagra is driving this with the renovation to their PF Chang’s frozen products, moving from entrees to complete dine-in-at-home meal bundles like orange chicken, fried rice and eggrolls. Great for me AND great for us, with minimal effort required. Check, check, check.

Other marketers have come close but often trip up on a few common mistakes:

  • Requiring too much work or mental math to provide for the group.
  • Focusing on the group and overlooking that the purchaser needs THEIR needs met first.
  • Highlighting the logistics (e.g. meals for the group) over the sensory feels (think delicious food and drink imagery) that are required in the equation.

So winning with young consumers may not exactly be easy, but it is simple: let them feel better and effortlessly bring the group along with them.