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Conveying Authenticity Amidst Uncertainty

Brands across the globe are using the current pandemic and floundering economy to experiment with various marketing strategies. But with such a multitude of messages, which messages have resonated most with Gen Z?

Dr. Heather Dretsch, assistant professor of marketing at Poole College of Management, set out to discover what messages are getting through to this growing consumer population. Because Gen Z places a high value on authenticity, Dretsch surveyed these consumers’ views on authenticity in marketing this month. 

“Authenticity is a difficult construct to pinpoint, as both academics and industry experts define it differently,” Dretsch says, “But I was interested in what felt authentic to Gen Z right now.”

Dretsch found that in many ways, Gen Z’s perception of authenticity was consistent with traditional perspectives – with transparency as a key component. Brands with clear packaging and a “no hidden secrets” motto, like KIND, stand out to Gen Z-ers as honest and credible.

“To Gen Z, an authentic brand is what it is on face value,” Dretsch says. “They want to trust that what they see is what they get.”

Many Gen Z-ers, like Millennials, also cited big brands as authentic. While Millennials often point to brands like Apple and Nike as authentic, Gen Z also adds Amazon, Lay’s, John Deere and Google to the list. “I always find this big-brands-as-authentic thinking surprising,” Dretsch says. “But for the Gen Z population, they find that many big brands consistently perform as expected and advertised – and that makes them authentic.”

In many ways, this is connected to Gen Z’s search for reliability in brands. Brands that have become household names, like Kleenex, Ford, Rolex, Jordan, M&Ms, Cheerios, Coca-Cola and Chanel, have proven to be reliable over time – and provide comfort in a season of uncertainty.

“I always thought the mission-driven firms would be the first that anyone would think of as authentic, but that’s not exactly the case with the emphasis on big brands,” Dretsch says.

Still, Dretsch finds that some of these mission-driven firms are valued by Gen Z and Millennial consumers as authentic as well. Many think of brands that publicize their values, like Burt’s Bees and Patagonia, as authentic – as well as brands that never stray from their core values, like Disney and Chick-Fil-A. Similarly, they point to companies like Warby Parker and Toms that seek to “do good.”

However, when it comes to defining authenticity, Gen Z departs from Millennials in a few ways. Like Millennials, they defined authenticity as real, genuine and true – but unlike millennials, they added two definitions: original and unique. 

“Viewing authenticity as originality is a new development,” Dretsch says. “But for the majority of Gen Z-ers, they view these brands that offer something original, uncommon and innovative as more authentic.”

This, too, explains how Gen Z-ers often refer to big brands as authentic. They view Apple as a “trailblazer.” They think of BMW, Audi and Tesla as “innovative.” And when it comes to Disney, they find that there’s nothing quite like it. 

In their quest for originality, Gen Z-ers also emphasize the concept of co-creation, the collaboration between consumers and marketers to create unique value. Spotify seeks user input, while Dove uses real people in its advertisements – and both offer highly personalized, relevant marketing that appeals to Gen Z-ers.

Likewise, Gen Z emphasizes the importance of storytelling. 

“Gen Z-ers say they are looking for brands that speak like a human and have authenticity that isn’t forced or fake, but comes naturally,” Dretsch says. “For Gen Z-ers, stories are powerful. They advise brands to tell the ‘why’ behind the brand and the journey of the creators.”

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Gen Z has particularly connected with brands that connect with societal values. Survey participants referred to Cottonelle’s #ShareASquare commercials and Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” advertisements as two campaigns that resonated with them, as they linked their products with community support and their brands with societal values.

Local brands, too, resonate with Gen Z by taking care of others in their communities. Trophy Brewing Co. in Raleigh, N.C., attracted the attention of Gen Z by offering free groceries to hospitality workers. Dretsch’s study found that these brands communicate with the empathy, positivity and confidence that Gen Z values most.

As various brands seek to convey authenticity to Gen Z-ers during the pandemic, one survey participant offers one final suggestion: “Be honest, show outreach and stand out to look like the first in a sea of many.”