Speaking candidly about the origins of her successful brand, 22 year old Instagram guru Blue narrates the brand building landscape that lives on Instagram. Blue graduated high school and gained a following online, which she used as a launching pad for her two-year-old brand Lonely Ghost.
Some will mildly deplore the influx of young DTC companies looking for data aggregation tools. They’ll bemoan their youth and lack of experience, and one can only wonder about the conception of this new age group of business owners. Post-graduate students, fresh out of their business schools, gung-ho on their aspirations to create their own successful DTC companies. And while these young twenty-somethings may have an abundance of intrepid hope and lack of experiential industry knowledge, they are doing something right, and very well: engaging their brands with over 40% of the DTC consumer population - Generation Z.
Distinguishing Zillennial and Gen Z and Why It Matters
The digital world is occupied with the need to categorize consumers by generation. Just take a look at Snapchat, who has spent their latest ad campaigns focusing on the copy of “The Snapchat Generation.”
The zillennial generation is an unconventional and fairly untouched term to refer to those born between Millenials and Gen Z.
The term arises out of those born roughly between 1995-2000. Acknowledging this microgeneration is necessary because it signifies a portion of the population that grew up with the dawn of the Internet but not with iPhones or tablets in their hands before the age of 10. It’s important to distinguish an age group that experienced their childhoods untainted by the pressures of online personas, even if they do identify themselves with Millennials who have created social media channels later in their adult lives.
As a zillennial myself, I find the most marking qualities to be growing up on Spongebob and still reading the back of cereal boxes before mornings were defined by scrolling through Twitter. Zillennials remember MTV reigning king before solely streaming services and the saturated world of reality television of today. The very beginning of the age group might have still started on MySpace. While Gen Z’ers grew up in a world totally defined by digital landscape, Millenials are shaped by events such as the Great Recession and 9/11. Zillennials fall somewhere in between.
Zillennial brand owners have more in common with Gen Z than Millenials, making them most suited to brands towards this consumer base. As D2C brands emerge from this age group, there are recognizable qualities and touchpoints that orient branding towards Generation Z.
New Wave of Consumers, New Wave of D2C Brand Builders
A new wave of consumers signifies a new wave of D2C business owners.
Forbes has been writing on the new wave for years now. But who are these companies and brand builders marketing towards the new wave, and what makes them so suited to the Gen Z consumer?
It’s a simple formula when broken down: the typical Gen Z consumer that lives their life online and in online social spaces, especially within the confines of our socially distancing reality of COVID-19, is directed by purpose-driven consumption. The new wave of consumers is interested in spending as an expression of self, therefore ethical consumption is a gateway to a sustainable future for these adolescent Gen Z’ers. When the entire eCommerce world is accessible through a phone in their hands, the Gen Z consumer gravitates towards purchases that increase their financial wellness, accessibility to social spaces, and expresses their identity (conscious consumerism).
It explains why sustainability and social-awareness is important when building a brand. Consumers are looking for a company that holds ethical and empathetic values such as their own. Mad Happy, a Los-Angeles based streetwear D2C brand, crafts their apparel around uplifting rhetoric and graphics that encourage a positive outlook. Words like “Optimisim” or “Peace” are featured on their hoodies and sweats in bright, cheerful colors.
When elevating a brand beyond product into ethical values, content follows. Brands that are most successful in eCommerce these days most always have accompanying blogs and focus their marketing efforts on content-heavy initiatives. The Local Optimist is Mad Happy’s blog, which aims to stimulate the mental health conversation and normalize it on a digital level. Like Blue’s Lonely Ghost, some brands begin with content before the product. Model Koreen Odiney began an Instagram page called We’re Not Really Strangers that grew to a 2.2 million following. The page features thought-provoking questions and statements in bold red fonts to encourage viewers to understand and explore their relationships on a deeper level. The content evolved into a popular card game that’s sold on her D2C website.
The online lifestyle forces these Zillennial brand owners to question; what strengthens the brand community as well as product sales? Transparency, content, and ethical concerns.
Social Media & The Influencer Effect
The biggest denominator that categorizes this group of D2C brands is their use of social media as marketing avenues. Tik Tok, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat have completely altered the digital landscape when it comes to branding.
Let’s take a look at Blue’s Lonely Ghost again: the brand’s Instagram boasts 80.1k followers with record high engagement. The feed features product photos of streetwear apparel in addition to original graphics and “mood” photography. The overall effect is a conglomerate of both brand and community. Blue often claims that her Lonely Ghost community is what makes her brand so strong.
Zillennials and Gen Zers tend to equate social media to lifestyle as a means to access new brands and companies that they resonate with. This is why Instagram influencers are so important in eCommerce, and has Boomers shaking their heads. They are the ambassadors to accessing a niche Gen Z audience. The first-person point of narration from these public figures has allowed for micro megaphones that echo across social platforms. Brands can reach out to someone with a following, and the influencer can promote their products to their audience. This audience is made up of followers who likely have built trust and even online relationships with influencers from months to years of following them.
The influencer effect has further narrowed down the Zillennial and Gen Z brand to consumer dynamic. Mostly Gen Z consumers live on these platforms and increase clicks on D2C brands that advertise on Instagram.
Authenticity fuels influence, and pairing a well-suited influencer to promote your product considers both brand fit and voice.
Important TouchStones for Connecting with a 1995+ age range
1. Niche Branding
Niche branding refers to a type of marketing/advertising that strategically reaches to a specific audience.
Melina Flabiano refers to this phenomenon on Curious Commerce in “Consumer Goes Niche”: “In the world of D2C holding companies, many niche brands can drive more sales than one brand designed to appeal to a wider audience.”
We can look at companies that are intentionally not growing at all costs in order to access this minute consumer base. Arfa collective recently launched State Of, a beauty and self-care brand particularly oriented towards women going through menopause. Looking at a more Gen Z focused brand, Jolyn swimsuits craft their bikinis specifically for the female athlete. They supply water polo teams, swimmers, and lifeguards with slip-proof one-pieces or bikinis.
Bryan Mahoney of Arfa says that “niche is necessary.” He claims that the pressure to grow at all costs is a strategy of the past, and that brands that are capped at a certain size but more in touch with their consumer base will be more likely to sustain an evolving eCommerce timeline.
2. Exclusivity and Access
Creating hype around the product is key for reaching a Gen Z consumer. Brands like Jiberish, a Denver-based snowboard apparel D2C, launch exclusive drops for limited time only. It’s a sign that the brand is deeply engaged with their audience, who is looking forward to the next drop.
The way the brand represents the drop is important too. It shows exclusivity and staying on trend, and that the brand can sustain a period of relevance.
3. Personalization of Product
Singling out a consumer makes the audience feel recognized and that their needs are met. Brands that personalize and tailor their products specifically to the consumer’s needs are likely to excel. With the success of Buzzfeed quizzes in the last five years, quiz marketing strategies have helped single out the consumer and offer them interactive content.
Prose hair care offers personalized products for the consumer’s particular hair type and what they’re trying to achieve in hair growth. The website leads the consumer to take a quiz to find their perfect formula. Paired with promotion sponsorship with Tik Tok star Addison Rae, Prose has accessed a Gen Z consumer base that is narrow yet bountiful.
Similarly, the acne medication and skin care brand Curology runs their business model on a personalized quiz as well. Their products are promoted all over Youtube and Instagram by public figures. Backed by a personalized formula, Curology denotes an especially Gen Z-heavy consumer base of adolescents struggling with acne.
Rage, Rage, Against the Dying of the Amazon
At Yaguara, we work with the most forward thinking brands. From the practical and urban sofa lovers at Burrow, to the thoughtful and environmentally conscious cook at Caraway, it’s evident that niche branding, personalization, and careful attention to data gets a brand closer to a particular consumer.
And perhaps most importantly, content is what’s bridging the gap between media and product. Inclusions of blogs, declaring and upholding ethical values, and cultivating a transparent brand identity portrays that a brand cares about what they’re putting out into the world. Conscious consumerism is the wave of the future, and whether bearable to Jeff Bezos or not, the aging Gen Z consumers probably care more about the brand they choose to purchase from rather than the product itself.
With Zillennial brand owners like Blue of Lonely Ghost, the future of eCommerce is a host of characters on a reality show with rich personalities. Shopify stores and brands across industries are becoming more niche and more personable, as opposed to the omnipresent Amazon and Walmarts of the world.
So if you dive right in and start sh*t, make sure you’re appealing to a particular consumer.
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