• Bex Highfield

Decoding Youth Identity in the Social Age


By Dominic Weiss, Chief Strategy Officer, ZAK

Gen Z. Teenagers. Adolescents. 16-24s. Whatever you want to call them, they will make up 40% of US consumers by 2020. You want them to buy into your brand? You need to show you get them first.

Here at ZAK we’ve identified 16-24s as an audience on the turn. Growing up native to social media, perpetually under the gaze of their peer group, has far reaching consequences for brands. We’ve spoken to expert neuroscientists to understand how the social brain evolves, we’ve commissioned our own ethnographic audience research (not a two-way mirror in sight) and we’ve validated our findings with quant. Here’s a flavour of what we found.

Can you remember what it was like to be 16? Chances are you can. That time of life is hard wired into our long-term memory. Psychologists call it the ‘reminiscence bump’. What you experience then, stays with you long after.

Take note brands, this is a potent time for you. The original Air Jordan dropped in 1984 and his last game in the NBA was in 2003. Yet PSG can put the logo on their kit in 2018. It’s still powerful today because that generation remember it like it was yesterday.

It’s the time of life you start to care about what other people think of you. As these young people adapt to the idea of branding themselves, real brands step forward. They act as conduits, as bricolage signifiers of who they are and who they want to be. Converse and their rock star heritage, Adidas pushing their hyped street culture or Boohoo’s empowered fast-fashion. These brands are lending identity to these young people.

During adolescence the social brain goes into developmental turbo charge as it struggles to deal with all these new inputs. Guilt, shame, embarrassment, pride… they’re whizzing around the youth brain and it’s cognitive chaos! The technical term neuroscientists use for this period is ‘sensitive’ and it means we are exceptionally prone to the effects of peer pressure. We take undue risks, we behave irrationally, we do things out of character. You might recognise this, it’s called being a teenager.

Same as it ever was? No, not even close. The idea of teenagers becoming adults is not new news. Identity, independence and rebellion are established constructs. However, the 21stcentury digital condition is providing a fundamentally different environment.

The presence of our peers is no longer something you drift in and out of. It’s ALWAYS there. Commenting, liking, viewing, reading, sharing. Someone is always watching. Their hyper-sensitivity to their peer group is colliding with the mass social connectedness of our world. They are creating their identity in an environment unlike any we’ve seen before.

So, what has changed? Technology is liberating and galvanising rebellion, the idea of aspiration is being overhauled and identities are in a state of flux as they react to a stream of dopamine hits.

45% of 16-24s say what they post on social media is not a true reflection of who they are. They also talk about self-realisation, and finding your passions, authenticity, and being yourself. They are not being disingenuous here. There is a rift emerging for these young people between the personal brand they curate using social media, and the real person that lies beneath.

Brands can play a positive role here. Cut the BS, don’t perpetuate it. There’s a reason meme culture is so ubiquitous with this generation, it’s because they speak the truth. Young people are crying out for brands to do the same.

Boohoo have got this on lock down with #doyourthing. Yes, they do aspiration. The beautiful models, the insta ready locations etc. But they go further. They show real women, of all shapes and sizes. They have embraced meme culture to speak truthfully to their audience. They laugh at themselves, and encourage their fans to do the same. They’ve created a community where it’s cool AF to be you.

Young people are using brands to help them build their identity. That’s the value exchange. If you don’t get that, you are one swipe away from obscurity.

Authored by Dominic Weiss, Chief Strategy Officer, ZAK - the next gen creative agency.


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Marketing Island is an award-winning online marketing magazine set to inspire those in the digital industry.

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