It’s widely understood that social media has fundamentally changed our culture—so rapidly, and in so many ways, that it can be difficult to gauge. For example, many still struggle to understand the role that social media plays in the lives of young people, an important segment of the market that enjoys increased purchasing power and exemplifies a radical shift in consumer values.
A new white paper from IMA, our brand activation and influencer engagement team, seeks to demystify Gen Z’s impact on culture, and provides key learnings on how today’s brands can retain relevance and build impact amidst shifting cultural values. Titled Anticipating Culture & Changing Behavior, the white paper lays out what separates Gen Z from those that came before it, and how influencers are key to reaching these community-obsessed consumers.
Surveying Today’s Social Landscape
Anticipating Culture & Changing Behavior opens with a look at the current state of culture and how it is shaped online. A key change that’s emerged in the past few years is that influencers have stepped in to replace brands as the intermediaries of culture, “bringing innovations from the margins of society into the mass market.”
How, or why, have influencers risen to take on this role? IMA’s describes a phenomenon called “crowdculture” to describe the new ways that younger consumers—most notably, Gen Z—are reshaping the way we gather together, build identities and discover or engage with brands.
Crowdcultures operates in two different ways. First, they include subcultures built around passions and hobbies. Second, they include “art worlds,” or the “loose network of overlapping subcultures held together by a belief in art,” according to IMA. The former includes niche interests, while the latter addresses the fact that individuals in such communities inspire and compete with one another, fueling an exchange in ideas and content that is amplified on social media. It’s within these new environments and networks that brands must learn to engage with audiences authentically.
Understanding Gen Z
If anyone is embedded within crowdcultures, it’s Gen Z—and forward-thinking, future-proofed brands across industries are eager to understand this unconventional consumer base that has largely eschewed labels. But IMA has one useful name for them, which gets at the heart of what they care about: they’re “the truth generation.”
With digital fluency and the ability to research products and brands, Gen Z is always in the pursuit of the truth. This includes expressing their own individual truths or connecting with those of others—such as experimenting with different identities.
Gen Z’ers are always in search for authenticity, since they believe it generates greater freedom of expression and greater openness to understanding different kinds of people.
Communication and dialogue are key for this type of exploration. “Gen Z’ers are always in search for authenticity since they believe it generates greater freedom of expression and greater openness to understanding different kinds of people,” reads the white paper. “They value connecting to different truths,” whether it be investigating diversity, environmental sustainability or more.
IMA’s work in casting and producing influencer-driven content illustrates this well. Working with audio equipment brand Marshall, they partnered with influencers to develop content for the brand’s Guided by Music social content series—a digital city guide through the lens of music and rock and roll—IMA developed a multi-tier influencer strategy for both reach and engagement. Giving influencers like musician Charlie Barker and professional skateboarder Boo Johnson creative freedom to produce content (backed by the help of professional assistance), Marshall was able to develop a full-year framework for authentic content.
Where to Begin Your Influencer Marketing Strategy
To evolve your digital strategy to accommodate these cultural shifts, first understand that influencers today are not just popular users, but innovators in their own right. They embody a new set of shared values and have risen through the ranks as leaders in their own respective art worlds and subcultures. Challenge yourself to extend your view outside of the conventional influencer “image” and recognize that they are authorities whose insight and opinions are trusted by today’s consumers.
What’s happening now is that brands are facing a structural problem, not a creative one.
Second, understand that consumers want to engage with other people—not faceless brands. “What’s happening now is that brands are facing a structural problem, not a creative one,” notes IMA’s paper. “They have the budget and the creativity to go above and beyond, however, they fail to arouse consumers’ interest and attention because they do not immerse themselves in their culture, their community, and their ideologies.” In a drive to become more customer-obsessed and assistive in their audience’s lives, brands would do well to explore how influencers can fit into their marketing mix to build relevance.
Driving online conversation and bolstered by increased purchasing power, Gen Z has fundamentally changed our culture. Brands that refuse to acknowledge shifts in younger consumers’ values and how they affect engagement with brands risk falling behind into obsolescence. For those that need guidance for integrating influencers into their marketing mix, Anticipating Culture & Changing Behavior is a great starting resource.
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