• Transform magazine
  • May 17, 2021

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Five minutes with Paul McDowall

Paul B&W

Paul McDowall, co-founder of branding agency Clarkmcdowall, speaks to Transform magazine about the ins and outs of branding for Gen-Z, from the challenges encountered when branding for this generation, to the role digital plays in appealing to the Gen Z audience, and how legacy Brands can best connect with Gen Z.

How is branding for Gen-Z different from branding for previous generations?

It is critical to remember that Gen-Z are digitally native and therefore they control the narrative for brands. If you look at the imagery and the UGC that comes out of their content, it's irreverent and quirky, but also has depth and irony. Values, politics, and inclusivity are all core to how they interact with the world and brands must have a POV and respond to build a meaningful relationship. 

So by definition, Gen Z is controlling the conversation. They want to actively participate in this relationship with brands and in some cases, they want to literally ‘talk’ with the brand. 

We’re also seeing a shift in aesthetics and tone of voice. The stereotypical millennial ‘insta-aesthetic’ of the projected perfect with ubiquitous codes and cues are ebbing as the next generation demands no BS - they want truth, transparency and action. In response to this, brands are taking a more raw and real approach to their branding and communication. We’re seeing bright, bold colors that reflect Gen Z’s desire to stand out and own their story. In verb al expression, brands are starting to be less filtered, more human and even idiosyncratic. 

Gen Z presents a big opportunity for legacy brands that have lost relevance with Millennials. They are looking for brands that connect with their personal story and are open to big brands - so long as they are aligned with their values.

What are the challenges encountered when branding for Gen-Z?

The fundamental challenge here is being true to self. If a brand is seen as disingenuous - that could be anything from greenwashing to superficial political statements or borrowed interest - they will lose trust and loyalty.

They are an activist generation and expect brands to participate in a way that is honest. Legacy brands especially need to look within to identify how their values align and tread carefully before “jumping on the bandwagon”. 

For legacy brands specifically, their challenge is to engage in a two-way conversation - that’s where you’ll start to build currency as a brand. Brands need to invest in their verbal identity and codify how they behave and express themselves across different touch-points, so consumers are engaging with an authentic, and cohesive experience. 

How can brands connect best with Gen-Z? What role does digital play?

Brands need to think digital-first. Gen-Z are born with phones in their hands. That’s how they talk and communicate so brands have to leverage all digital touch-points to meet them on their terms. 

Oreo is a great example of a legacy brand that is culturally attuned and authentic in the way they communicate with Gen Z - from clever social campaigns to disruptive innovations such as product personalization.

Social media aside, connections with technology are going to change in the next five to ten years in dramatic ways. AI will be a huge part of that. Digital cannot be an afterthought or a touch-point to translate the brand identity - it has to be built into the brand experience at the core. 

While packaging will remain part of the brand ecosystem, a relationship will be built in a much more dynamic way digitally through a series of small interactions. The importance of a strong brand identity (visual and verbal), creative storytelling and thoughtful brand governance will be key to success.

How can Legacy Brands connect with Gen Z? How does the approach differ to brands created for Gen Z?

There is a common misconception that legacy brands aren’t relevant and don’t have currency with Gen-Z and this is absolutely not true. In fact, they have a great opportunity to connect with Gen-Z as well trusted, established brands. The brands that are killing it with Gen Z right now (Oreo, Taco Bell, Motel 6), have done a great job of leaning into things like transparency, sustainability, inclusivity and becoming relevant in their world. 

With their scale and size, legacy brands can have a big impact and drive influence. We’re currently helping legacy brands that are in the process of doing that, of radically thinking about how to connect with the values of the next generation, even committing to evolving some of their standards and practices.

For new brands it’s a little different, they can design for their audience from the get-go, so it can be easier to connect from the start. Since they don’t have the same reassurance and reputation of a long-standing legacy brand, they have more to prove and more trust to build. It will be interesting to see which succeed and which don’t as the Gen Z “adorkable” template plays out.

Gen-Z is probably the most socially active generation of all times. They have grown up, and are growing up, with many social and political issues, from climate change to racism and inequality. How necessary is it for every brand that aims at a Gen-Z audience to embrace purpose?

Gen Z are creative activists and are not afraid to take a stance. They are looking to private companies and public corporations to do the right thing. For brands to appeal to the Gen-Z audience, they must take a role in society and culture and look beyond just profit. Brands must respond to social issues with measurable actions and be accountable. It’s a responsibility they must bear.

A brand will be increasingly measured by its character, its values and its actions. A brand without purpose is just a manufacturer or provider of service. It must be driven by something more than what it produces, and companies have a growing accountability. Gen Z’s could well be the fiercest critics of a brand but also loyal partners.