Brands through the eyes of Generation Z

Global Chief Growth Officer, Gonzalo Brujó interviews intern, Jorge Ohlsson about what Generation Z values in brands and how brands can reach the next consumer powerhouse.

Young professionals form an integral part of Interbrand, as their enthusiasm and fresh perspective is an insightful addition to the team. For me personally, they enable me to get my fingers on the pulse of their generation and garner first-hand insights to complement all the secondary research and studies we’ve read about their consumption habits.

This summer, I had the privilege of working alongside Jorge Ohlsson in the Madrid office. Jorge is entering his second year at the University of Exeter where he is studying Management and Marketing.

On his first day at Interbrand, we met to assign his first project: to examine and outline how Generation Z (people born between 1994 and 2010) perceive brands today.

Jorge shared some of his critical insights with me in the following interview:

Gonzalo: Tell us a bit more about your assignment. What did you learn?

Jorge: At first, I thought I needed to do some research in order to create a comprehensive outline, as I thought I had no idea about how my generation perceives brands. The funny thing was that, at the end of the project, I realized I innately knew most of the insights already, but just had never stopped to contemplate them. After all, each and every one of us are surrounded by brands and we subconsciously think about them and form our own ideas about them. To kick off the project, I initially talked to a few close friends and family members who were approximately my age or younger, and then I decided to create and distribute a survey to 30 people born after 1995.

The questions were the following:

  • Which brands represent you and why?
  • Which brands do you think will prosper in the future?
  • What are three brands that you use regularly or on a daily basis?

After collecting these results, along with my own primary research, I learned a lot about my generation’s opinions towards brands.

On that note, what would you say are the defining characteristics of your generation?

The oldest individuals in our generation are now in their early 20s, which means that most of us have not yet begun our professional careers. However, the definition of a ‘professional career’ is rapidly evolving, as many Generation Zs are starting to adopt a more entrepreneurial mindset and are looking to turn their hobbies into careers or start their own businesses. As opposed to working regular jobs, where one is simply an employee, having an entrepreneurial mindset means thinking about more than just income. It generally encompasses having the desire to create something that will help us to create a better, cleaner and healthier world. It means starting a company with social, economic, and environmental responsibilities. Obviously, this hugely depends on the moral values of each individual, but it is also an underlying value that define our generation. Most of us are aware of the problems the world is facing due to unethical business practices and are willing to make more sacrifices than any other generation to change them. This also has a drastic impact on which brands we favor over others.

From your perspective, please describe the relationship between companies, brands and Generation Z.

My peers and I stand out from the generations before us because we were born into the technological age. Rapid innovation is the only world we know. We are the first generation of digital natives. For this reason, many of the brands regarded as ‘cool’ by our generation are technological in nature. For example, some are famous for their software like Spotify, Netflix and Google and others for manufacturing hardware like Apple. It’s no longer news that many companies and brands are struggling to keep up with new expectations from younger generations, especially ours. Many of us have probably seen five-year olds mastering smartphones or tablets as if they were born with intrinsic IT skills. This trend will only increase amongst people born after the invention of the iPhone.

What stood out to you from your survey? Any key insights worth sharing?

As I surveyed many Generation Zs, I realized that when asked about brands, many of them limited their responses to brands in the fashion sector (men 50%, women 83%). They also expressed that the brands that represent them are a combination between those they use regularly (with the exception of social networks), and those that align with their values.

What was interesting to me was that these two can sometimes be contradictory. For example, nearly all of us like fair-trade brands of coffee and are willing to pay extra for them. At the same time, though, many respondents said they are frequent customers of and feel represented by fashion brands that haven’t always towed the line when it comes to corporate social responsibility. ,This divide supports the economic theory that our purchasing behaviors are often irrational. Despite our strong desire for companies to do good for the world, we often consume and feel represented by brands that don’t represent this. Another key example of this is how regardless of the fact that people want to be healthier nowadays, tobacco brands such as Marlboro or Camel are still regarded as identifiable for many Generation Z’s and even as ‘cool’ (in Europe, at least).

What about the role of social media brands?

Even though my generation may not feel represented by social media brands, they still play an integral role in our lives as digital natives. In my case, I’ve had social network profiles since I was about 13-years-old, and children are now starting to use social networks from a much younger age. We live in constant tension between the protection of our privacy and the need to share our point of view with the world. Consequently, it is this empowerment from the information that social networks have that makes us not identify with these brands.

The most widely-used social networks used among my generation are the newer ones: Instagram and Snapchat. Facebook is also a key player, but we use Instagram and Snapchat to actually interact with our friends. While we may still have a Facebook account, many of us don’t actively post on it, as it’s typically the social network where our parents are active.

You mention value systems when you speak about your generation. How do your values affect your perception of brands?

The brands my generation admire are those that do more than just sell a product or provide a service for profit. Tesla, Ecoalf and Deliveroo are all companies that are working towards a better future for our generation and the generations to come. Tesla’s focus on the development and production of electric vehicles is really important to Generation Zs, as we are very conscious of the fact that pollution levels are increasing at a rapid rate. Most of all, I believe that Tesla has garnered such success among younger generations because it is a company that focuses on innovation as well as maintaining social and environmental responsibilities. Obviously, most of us can’t afford a Tesla, but we still admire it from a branding standpoint. Other brands we actually use and consume that are starting to flourish are vehicle-sharing companies such as Car2go or E-mov. These two brands are the most popular in Europe and are easy-to-use and run on 100% electricity.

Ecoalf is a fashion brand that is thriving among Spanish Generation Zs as all of its products are produced from recycled plastics and materials such as fishing nets. In the world of apparel accessories, the power of marketing is crucial. In the case of Ecoalf, many people identify with the brand not only because it is cool, but because it aligns with their moral values. For the most part, though, fashion companies that want to be successful among my generation need to excel at both.

So what exactly does branding mean for your generation?

Brands are more than just brands; they represent lifestyles. Each brand image represents a certain societal demographic. For example, some people in my survey mentioned the brands Patagonia and The North Face as representative for them due to their association with the outdoors and mountain sports. People who prefer summer, surf, and the beach mentioned feeling represented by brands such as Quicksilver or Billabong.

Some brands, like Monster or Redbull, have managed to create an image that doesn’t limit itself to certain environments. These two brands are widely seen as ‘cool’ by Generation Zs due to their correlation with extreme sports. According to various studies, we are generally much less risk-averse than previous generations, both in our business and personal lives, and these energy drink brands have really tapped into this when targeting our generation.

Another brand widely chosen as representative within the survey was Coca-Cola. Aside from the fact that it is consumed and enjoyed by many, its brand image is associated with ‘good times’ and ‘positivity’.

Generation Zs also tend to prefer local brands as oppose to international ones, challenging assumptions about globalization. This has been clearly reflected within the survey as most Spanish Generation Zs mention at least two Spanish brands as representative for them. Some of these brands were Zara, Mango, or Kiff-Kiff in the fashion category or Cola-Cao in the food category.

What about the recent trend towards vintage or on-demand brands and products?

Many classic brands are popular among Generation Z, as we tend to value simplicity and comfortability. Two of the brands mentioned in my survey were Converse and Vans. They are brands that were fashionable for previous generations, are fashionable today, and are predicted to have sustained future success, as they represent aspects of youth that are timeless. Because they are heritage brands, they have developed a reputation of being trustworthy, high-quality and are relatively affordable.

We also look for simplicity as well as practicality, and that is not limited to vintage brands. Brands that try to make life easier will almost certainly be successful with my generation. As we are more prone to risk-taking, we are also more likely to try new or alternative products and services. I know previous generations tend to stick to what worked for them well in the past and not risk trying something new, but not Generation Z~ This has been the case with services such as Deliveroo, and Uber and their competitors in Spain and LatAm, Glovo and Cabify. These brands are projected to have a successful future, as our generation is trying their services, liking them and getting familiar with them. We are looking for agility and speed when it comes to responding to consumer needs, which means we are looking for brands that cater to on-demand. Due to the fast-changing environment we’ve grown up in, we expect to have everything available now. ” This is why these services and others like Amazon are and will be very significant for us.

How would you summarize your key insights?

To summarize, Generation Z is very different from previous generations as we have grown up in a very different environment. From a very young age, we’ve witnessed the rapid growth and development of technologies that did not exist 20 years ago but are now fundamental to how the world runs. Generally speaking, we are not interested in brands from banking, insurance, logistics or hygiene industries. As most of us leave our parents’ homes and become independent later, our parents still handle all of these things for us. This will likely change as we get older.

The brands that we are most interested in and that catch our attention are from the automotive, textile/fashion and technological industries. Due to our greater concern about social and environmental responsibility, we tend to choose brands that are eco-friendly or fair-trade. That being said, we can sometimes be contradictory and hypocritical when it comes to the brands and products that we find trendy and fashionable.


Global Chief Growth Officer