Brands are just getting around to figuring out how Millennials tick. Now it’s Gen Z’s turn.
Gen Zers aged 16-21 are already pushing around $143 billion a year and if the retail-pocalyse and near-total desensitivity towards social media ads are any measure, this group is spending sums in ways very different from previous generations. It also counts 2.5 billion people (aged seven to 21) among its ranks.
Naturally we’re getting out there and speaking with Gen Zers — not just “experts” — to get a better pulse of how all that spending is going down. And being the curious cartographers that we are, Grit Daily met with Gen Zers Liz Toney and Larry Milstein — the duo behind PRZM — to tell all so we can suck just a little bit less when we market to them.
Grit Daily: You two had your own (ad)ventures before PRZM. Share those.
Liz Toney: My adventure into the Gen Z space started back in 2015. After overseeing marketing strategies for Tommy Hilfiger, I went on to create and launch one of the first Gen Z-driven, direct-to-consumer fashion lines with dancer and model Maddie Ziegler, who had amassed a massive next gen following. In close partnership with Maddie, we developed a core group of Gen Zers to provide insights in real time and contribute to the collection and content, as well as built a community of over 1M young shoppers.
It was critical for me to understand the ways in which Gen Zers were engaging with brands and the new ways they were shopping, which I quickly recognized was dramatically different from earlier generations — even diverging from Millennials. We were building the brand just as the attention towards Gen Z was beginning to develop and it was exciting to discover how informed, globally-connected, and creative this emerging generation was shaping up to be.
Feeling super inspired, I created more Gen Z fashion initiatives for national retailers, and began consulting on both Gen Z and Millennial brands within the fashion and fragrance space. Larry and I shared this mutual fascination and passion for next gen brand strategy, and there was a lot of synergy to combine my experience leading these kind of brands with the authentic perspective of a Gen Zer. We decided to form our business — PRZM — which provides the kind of next gen advisory support and community cultivation we saw companies desperately needing. And it’s been an incredible adventure so far.
Larry Milstein: My path to Gen Z strategy started in China, where I was one of the few American students working at the Alibaba in 2015. I was part of a program created by Jack Ma called “Global Dreamers,” which brought next gen interns to the company headquarters to strategize and consult on the future of the company in a massive way. At the time, the education around Gen Z was still in very early stages, but I recognized the power that came from being vigilant about innovation and how a huge corporation like Alibaba was proactively engaging the perspective of its youth consumers — and therefore aiming to stay ahead of the curve.
My passion to spearhead Gen Z innovation strategy was fully realized when I returned to the US and started working full-time at American Express, as part of the internal Strategic Planning Group under the Chief Strategy Officer. As part of the first cohort of Gen Zers entering the workforce, I saw first hand that an education gap existed about post-Millennial consumers and the eagerness for senior-level marketers to better understand this.audience.
As a result, I pitched and co-lead an innovation day specifically on the topic of Gen Z, which then led to a series of presentations on the topic to senior leaders throughout the company. In a short amount of time, I became the unofficial “Gen Z Guy” at Amex and was receiving emails from a bunch of folks throughout the organization. It was validating to realize that my perspective was pushing forward the thinking at a century-old company and that a firm of this size was eager to innovate.
With the full support of my team, I decided to co-launch PRZM with the recognition that many companies — particularly heritage brands — were in need for this kind of strategic insights and thought-partnership in the Gen Z space. Given my experience working from the inside of these companies as a Gen Zers combined with Liz’s executive experience launching Gen Z brands, we felt there was no one better equipped to offer this kind of perspective and advisory service in a sophisticated way.
GD: What’s behind the PRZM name?
LM: So the PRZM name comes from Marfa, Texas of all places. Liz and I had struggled for weeks on locking down a name, had a list of hundreds of potential ideas, but couldn’t quite find one we loved. After officially leaving my corporate role and having a few days free, I decided to check off a bucket list item: travel to West Texas and experience Marfa.
I was fascinated by the works of minimalist artist and famous Marfa-resident Donald Judd, who described his art, not as sculptures, but as “specific objects” that interacted with the space and environments they inhabited. One such set of objects were his 100 Aluminum Boxes, which depending on the time of day, interacted with the natural light in different ways: refracting, diffusing, and displacing it to create different visual meanings — much like a prism.
We loved the idea of a prism as metaphor, which felt analogous to what we were trying to do as a company. Gen Z is far from single dimensional — we are the most globally-connected, diverse, fluid, and technologically-savvy generation in history.
Like a prism, our company draws from the light and energy of this cohort, breaking it down for others to understand the full spectrum and component parts of this multifaceted group. We then stylized the spelling to PRZM since we’re the generation that has emphasized community and the collective over the singular, so dropping the “i” felt appropriate.
GD: Why should brands focus on “Gen Z” at all? Don’t most have their hands full with other generations?
LM: Gen Z is the largest population by size in the US and will soon be the largest spending force on the planet. By 2020, Generation Z will account for 40 percent of all consumers in the U.S — not to mention the $600 billion in family spending we already influence. Dollars aside, we are already asserting our social influence through activism efforts — like the recent climate strikes led by Greta Thunberg — and driving viral trends with millions of engagements through platforms like TikTok.
Brands that do not proactively embrace Gen Z now and understand the nuances of our preferences will be caught on the back foot — especially since the playbook used for Millennials no longer applies. While every consumer segment is important to sustaining a business, Gen Z is primed to be the most disruptive in the immediate term, so taking the time to understand this audience needs to be top of mind for most companies.
GD: Let’s talk Gen Z by the numbers. What can you share?
LT: We’re massive: Gen Z will be a 2.56 billion population by 2020. We’re experts at filtering: Gen Z’s attention span is 8 seconds. It’s an authentic generation: 67% of Generation Z prefers seeing “real people” in ads.
We care: 50% of Gen Zers are influenced by whether a company is socially conscious when making purchases.
GD: What’s one conventional wisdom about this generation that’s just plain wrong?
LM: One conventional wisdom about this generation that’s just plain wrong is that Gen Z is so tied to technology that in-person experiences don’t matter. While it’s true that many of us have grown up with a phone in our hand, the importance of “IRL” engagement is now even more critical. We’re seeing teens and young adults crave experiences that excite them and break through the tech noise, and brands that are bridging these kinds of personal interactions and micro-communities from online to off — Depop, Glossier, Supreme, Kith — have seen massive success as a result.
Looking for more on how to market to Gen Z? Check out these 19 tips from Columnist Mark Beal.