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Marketing and Sponsorship: A to Gen Z: As graduation and the workforce loom, the terms, expectations and brand choices change

By Terry Lefton

Commencement season is imminent, so Gen Z expert and Rutgers University assistant professor Mark Beal thought he’d check in with that generation again, to study how those born starting in 1997 are coping with life after high school and college and are surviving the rigors of entering the workforce, a process they’d call “adulting.”

Call it “Gen Z Grows Up,” although that’s not the title. “Gen Z Graduates to Adulthood” is based on more than 60 interviews with 22- to-26-year-olds, the third book from Beal, following “Decoding Gen Z” (2018) and “Engaging Gen Z” (2020).

Over the past 18 months, regardless of what subject we’re inquiring about, the most pressing topics marketers want to discuss are employment vagaries, and COVID’s impact on consumers’ psyches. Let’s start with the latter.

While it’s too early to ascertain with assurance what impact the pandemic had on this or any group, Beal cautioned it will be profound. “For many, their milestones — whether it was graduations, family weddings or funerals — probably happened through a video screen,” said Beal. “It sharpened and expedited their adaptability and resiliency skills, because they had to learn how to do so many things from home, starting with learning.”

So, as some employers try to reestablish the pre-COVID five-days-in-the office work week, this generation, along with millennials, are pushing back with force. Turns out that hybrid is that “new normal” everyone was seeking for the past 26 months.

“Plenty of Gen Zers say to me, ‘They aren’t going to make me go back [to an office] physically, or I’ll find another job,” said Beal. “That’s surely not exclusive to Gen Z, but it’s stronger with them, because they feel it’s already been proven that they can do everything remotely. So, it’s WFA [work from anywhere] for most of them — or two days a week in the office at most.”

As interview subject “Summer D.” explained, “We are no longer working in a society that needs to be in a physical office. … Gen Z wants work/life balance.”

Gen Z is the most demographically diverse yet, so even more imperative than prized balance is working for a company that values diversity and inclusion. More than a third of those interviewed for the book ranked those principles as more important than competitive salary and benefits when deciding on an employer. This group has been dubbed the “Purpose Generation” and they look for that in prospective employers and in the brands they buy regularly. Around 90% said they will research a brand to find out about its purpose before making a purchase.

Gen Z Dictionary

Gen Z speak from Mark Beal’s Gen Z Glossary:

Bruh: Gender-neutral term used for a friend  
Cap/Capping: To lie. “This person is capping.” 
Cheugy: Lifestyle trends associated with early 2010s, the opposite of trendy 
Draking: Feeling emotional, sad 
Fire: Anything that looks good, sounds good, is good or really cool 
Gloup/Glowup/Glowingup: Someone who has gone through an incredible transformation, more mature. Confident, attractive 
No Cap: No lie, for real. “No cap, I got a 100 on my exam.” 
OK Boomer: Meant as an insult to a member of an older generation after they make some sort of ignorant "out-of-touch" comment 
Piping hot tea: Really big gossip 
WFA: Work From Anywhere 
WFH: Work From Home

 

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Another area of growing import for this segment is for their employers to address stress by offering “mental health days” to workers.

“Those didn’t exist three or four years ago, but now they are more common, and prized,” said Beal, whose research found older Gen Zers rating mental health as a top career goal, widely outranking physical health, financial wellness and career development. “For any property or brand looking to engage Gen Z, mental health would be a big area to explore,” Beal said.

You’ve no doubt been advised about millennials’ attraction to experience over material goods, but that’s even more true for Gen Z. For sports properties, that means providing “Instagrammable moments” from parking lots to exits.

They want access and experience, and it doesn’t have to be directly connected to the game,” said Beal. ‘For a Gen Zer, riding a Zamboni at a hockey game is probably more important than the hockey. To them, it’s unique and, of course, it’s a great social media moment.”

Leading brands for Gen Z embrace purpose as essential to their positioning. Those most referenced: Patagonia, Target, Lululemon, along with Barstool Sports, Spotify, and YouTube, for everything from DIY videos, to movies and music. “You probably had the radio on when you were doing homework,” a student told Beal. “We have YouTube on all day.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com

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