Thought Leadership

When it comes to Generation Z are agencies and brands guilty of resting on unfair stereotypes?

In the second part of our BITE big question we ask agency leaders how to better connect with young consumers.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief



Could Generation Z be the most stereotyped generation in history?

While brands continue to invest in both their capabilities and cultural currency to better connect this audience, perhaps the bigger question is does this generation exist in the first place? Or has the marketing bubble, buoyed by generic statements on Gen Z’s collective psyche simply inventing an audience to buy both its products and its lofty brand purpose?

Across the industry, there is a growing awareness of the disconnection between brands and the lived-reality of their consumers’ lives. At the same time, traditional age-based segmentation are running out of steam. With this in mind, we asked industry leaders if agencies and brands are guilty of unfairly stereotyping Generation Z?

Sophie Marco

Sophie Marco, Croud.png

Senior Planning Manager


The obsession to capture a Gen Z audience is creating such a fluster amongst brands, that many are stumbling at the chance. Using Gen Z’s age and assumed TikTok addiction as the leading indicator in predicting their purchase intent feels wildly reductive. Often, we’ve seen the results of this ‘strategy’ to be mostly cringeworthy attempts to speak in the generations’ assumed lingo, which not only feels patronising, but can also feel inauthentic. In the last year, I’ve seen a lot of brands jump on viral trends only to fall flat, as they fail to grasp the context and evolving social discourse that surrounds many of these moments. In doing so, they move away from their own brand values.

Not every brand falls victim to this, and some have been able to successfully take the temperature of a younger audience and speak to them in a way that resonates, without telling them that they ‘slay’. RyanAir’s entire TikTok feed has been a great example of a brand capturing a huge Gen Z audience through understanding trends in the right context, and leading with their brand values.

Brands don’t have to throw their own rule book out the window and transform their tone of voice to speak to a younger audience, and steering away from describing your product as ‘lit’ is probably best.

Harvey Choat

Harvey Choat, Nexus.jpg

Managing Director

Nexus PR

Generalisations about consumer groups are an industry norm, from Millennials being entitled, to Baby Boomers being tech dummies but basing strategies on stereotypes leads to cliched campaigns.

A common trope is that Gen Z are the generation of climate activism. Challenging this, a recent study conducted by Nexus amongst 2,000 consumers, found that Gen Z throw away almost four times more food per week than those over 50 . Deloitte's Gen Z and Millennial Survey also revealed that the high cost of living significantly outweighs concerns about climate change.

Identifying the right category and cultural motivations for consumer groups is about being connected to them. Empirical data can validate and give direction – focus groups, digital panels and even credit card data can support channel and pricing strategies, but the cultural agenda is set live not by stereotypes. Whichever generation a consumer group sits in – all of them want to be entertained and represented.

Paul Greenwood

PAUL G we are social.jpg

UK Head of Research & Insight

We Are Social

As a cohort, there are macro behaviours and values that Gen Z engage in when defined against other generations. There is evidence that Gen Z drinks less, has less sex, cares more about the environment and sustainability, is more fluid regarding gender identity and believes in the power of the collective.

All individuals are multifaceted with their wants, needs and motivations, and people from one generation might have very similar attitudes and behaviours to another. This is why we look at the subcultures and wider cultural spaces around a brand to allow them to show up organically across generations to create meaningful impact. It’s also important to remember that right now, it’s easier than ever before to be part of several different digital cohorts - the internet gives us different paths into multiple subcultures.

One of the interesting behaviours we have identified in Think Forward, our annual trends report published next month, is that subcultures on social are complicating their identity, making it harder for brands to reach them - due to some brand activations being purely lip service. These communities now know that they have an outsized impact on emergent cultural spaces and are starting to recognise this value - so the balance is shifting.

What’s important for brands now is that they are fully immersed in and aligned with the values of the community and that there’s a fair value exchange between brand and subculture.

People still want representation but on a deeper, more nuanced and empathetic level.

Sarah Baumann

Sarah Baumann - Managing Director The Wild by Jungle.jpg

Managing Director

The Wild by Jungle Creations

Not being Gen-Z, answering this question purely from my pov is a potential minefield, so I did what any sensible advertising person would do and garnered a range of responses - both from individuals but also in terms of all the content we put out targeting Gen Z across our media brands at Jungle, and the work we make for our clients through The Wild.

A big theme that came back (apart from “yes”!) was that it’s a really hard (and quite frustrating!) question to answer: “I didn’t even realise I was Gen Z until I started working in an Agency….”  Another key response was “why do brands have to lean into the negative or unfair stereotype.  There are so many positives about our generation that don’t get dwelled on”.  This made me think about how brands and advertisers treat generational audiences more broadly.   Brands spend so long trying to understand the unifying themes of what drives a generation that it often sinks to the lowest common denominator. Brands (and agencies!) are often searching for a point of tension or humour to hook themselves into.  And as we sadly see in the world around us, it’s much easier to get people fired up about the negative than the positive. So I think yes, there is an element of unfairly stereotyping Gen Z - as there was with Millennials, Gen X, Boomers etc etc.

It’s crazy to continue doing this though when we have space - and data - to understand the amazing breadth and depth of our audiences via social in a way we never did before.

And brands are getting more and more that you can do this and the result is building your brand on social via community.  And it really explains the meteoric rise of influencer and creator marketing.

As the platforms have shifted from a social graph to interest graph,  building audiences and comms around people’s interests - where passions, behaviours, culture and identity coincide is an infinitely more powerful way of thinking about it and avoids the trap of stereotypes. 

If you aim to build community in this way, then it becomes impossible to stereotype.   And this is where creators and influencers are the antidote to stereotypes and why they are so influential and credible for Gen Z.  That - and having a whole diverse team and agency of people who understand your audiences are made up of very different people.

Jordan McDowell

Headshot, Jordan McDowell McCann.jpg

Strategy Director

McCann Manchester

Yes, probably. Truthfully there are fewer more generalised approaches to segmentation than generational, save perhaps sex. Still, as the pace of paradigm-shifting change is only going to increase, it’s important we understand the movement (and stasis) among people at different stages of life. In McCann Truth Central’s global study, The Truth About Gen Z, 24% of Gen Z told us at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that one positive thing they foresaw was, "there would be lots of good memes”.

As marketers, we have a choice when presented with a fact like this: to consider this further proof of a generation’s obsession with their online persona. Or, we could instead seek to understand how online communication – especially at times of difficulty – is a unique hallmark of a generation which does not remember a world before broadband. And when 76% of Gen Z globally believe that emotional connections today are weaker than they were in the past, maybe this isn’t a generation oblivious to the complications they’ve inherited either. Gen Z is no homogenous group, any supposed insight which fails to explore further than face value is a red herring worth avoiding.

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Gen Z industry