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Q+A with Digi: Brand discovery in Gen Z

Digi x Forbes discuss how Gen Z discover brands, make purchasing decisions and determine the trends that matter


We spoke to Forbes on today's brand discovery landscape – from what brands are capturing the hearts and minds of the next gen to Digi's fave aesthetics of the moment – and how really understanding Gen Z is key in knowing what products and trends alike will capture and keep their attention: 

Forbes: Is there anything about trendiness itself that is different for Gen Z vs. other gens? For example, it seems like the last two decades have seen a movement toward fragmentation with the result that trends were occurring in silos. Are you seeing any movement towards really widespread cultural touchpoints that hit a majority of an age group (like Gen Z)?

Digi: If anything, the internetification of aesthetics and inspiration pushed by TikTok have siloed trends even more. With Gen Z’s digital agility (having been brought up by the internet), this generation has also created a trend literacy bubble, wherein their hyper-awareness of the trend cycle and the cultural significance of different trends can cause overwhelm or fatigue. This bubble also gave rise to trend analysis content as a genre on social media as a key vehicle for Gen Z to practise their critical eye – setting their canny trendiness perception apart from other generations. 

Also, fast-moving trend cycles perpetuated by social media have developed a sense of urgency to trendiness, where everyone (especially Gen Z, who tend to lead or learn about these trends first) jumps on the hype around New Things that pop up in multiple siloed niches. So while there are countless -cores and aesthetics that seem unique, this bandwagon mechanism also means that everyone ends up referencing the same thing anyways.

Forbes: How do you think the adoption of digital that’s so pervasive so early on among Gen Z changes how they think about aesthetics and, as a result, what they want to buy? 

Digi: As constantly covered by the media in the past few years, self-expression and individuality are mega-values for Gen Z as they explore and communicate elements of their identity with conviction – arguably miles ahead of their older counterparts. This is because they were brought up with the right tools to do so: during their birth years, social platforms reached maturity to streamline online discovery of brands (or anything, really). By the time a smartphone was in their hands, they quickly learnt that inspiration was always on-demand and ever-changing – setting a precedent for how they would go on to consume digital information. Then TikTok entered the chat to enable countless micro-communities and trends to take off, creating a robust environment where Gen Z could browse and affiliate with certain aesthetics and sub-cultures as part of their identity-building. To them, this process is not only natural – but a fun, gamified practice that allows them to experiment with style and culture noncommittally. All this to say – this generation is agile, responsive and fluid in how they engage with the internet and subsequently, internet aesthetics. 

ForbesWhat’s your favourite Gen Z trend right now?


Forbes: When it comes to trends, what signals to you that a trend is really about to pop among Gen Zers?

Digi: While Gen Z may be over influencers, the cultural credibility around an influencer’s taste-making and knowingness remains aspirational, as illustrated by the way they consult online sources or check social media before making a purchase. So, a good signal is when a Gen Z tastemaker like Emma Chamberlain or Devon Lee Carlson wears it; more and more moodboards pop up around it on TikTok/Twitter and the comment sections are full of people asking what to search to participate in the trend or questions like, “what aesthetic is this?”. Sometimes, it may even seem soon or shocking for the trend to return – but it is these slightly exasperated or funnily confused reactions that the trend gains traction to drive the cycle onwards. 

Forbes“Here to stay” OR “fad”…

Metaverse fashion?

Digi: FAD. We did a TikTok on this, and most of our audience did not respond enthusiastically towards it. As with the hype around the metaverse, virtual fashion is currently a fad diluted by fashion brands jumping on the bandwagon. 

Forbes: Live Shopping?

Digi: HERE TO STAY. The interactivity of live shopping aligns well with Gen Z’s need for dynamic online experiences, so it will not only stay but gain more traction as brands learn to refine their live shopping interfaces. Not to mention, live shopping has been a mainstay in Asian regions (especially China) – providing best-case examples for the West to emulate. 

Forbes: Coastal grandmother v. Cottagecore v. Gardencore?

Digi: FAD. The idyllic, romantic spirit of #cottagecore acted as refuge for lockdown-fatigued consumers, who have since moved on. Similarly, coastal grandmother and gardencore are defined by a few clothing pieces and silhouettes that will reach its peak and fade away in the trend cycle. 

Forbes: Anti aesthetic?

Digi: HERE TO STAY. We discussed how attention grabbing clothes were historically what did well on TikTok in our Fashion’s New Algorithm report – which echoes the values of anti-aesthetic we would say anti aesthetic fits this category.

ForbesYou’re an expert in Gen Z. How do you think Gen Z discovers brands, and is it broken at all? Does Gen Z respond to celebrity collabs/influencers the same way as millennials? What do those partnerships have to look like in order to deliver the authenticity Gen Z expects? 

Digi: When it comes to discovering brands, Gen Z are mostly driven by the network effect, having ads via influencer content delivered to them on social media via the people they follow and the aggregated likes of their friends. As ads have moved from being standalone posts on brand-owned channels to influencer marketing and sponsored posts, Gen Z have become accustomed to discovering brands through personalised influencer content, which isn’t necessarily broken, but is becoming less effective if the brand itself isn’t behaving like a content creator itself. Influencers are gateways to brands initially, but Gen Z expect brands to sustain that interest via their owned content. Gen Z want to see brands in places where they make sense, with little disruption to the flow and themes of the content they actually want to see, which makes the act of “influencing” for brands more complicated and nuanced. Creators need brand partnerships that make sense for what their audience expects, and brand-owned channels becoming the place for more disruptive and unexpected content. 

Forbes: I’ve been fascinated by the way some legacy brands have captured the hearts of Gen Zers and younger kids. For example, Goldfish snacks, Starbucks, Converse, Air Jordans. What legacy brands have you seen get the courting of Gen Z right? 

Digi: Some of the biggest brand equity gains we’ve seen among Gen Z are ones that are leveraging social media to communicate both purpose and play, and inviting Gen Z to be brand co-creators. Timberland is a great example of this, using their TimbsTrails campaign to gamify interaction with Gen Z, while also landing their sustainability message through a take-back programme to recycle shoes for a good cause, leveraging Gen Z love and awareness for circular and secondhand fashion. 

On top of this, we’re seeing that some of these legacy brands are also gaining attention and love from Gen Z simply for becoming more TikTok literate, getting closer to their audiences by more actively participating as creators themselves on social media. We sort of call this the “Ocean Spray Playbook,” referencing the brand’s down-to-earth response to an organic viral trend that featured them back in 2020. They leveraged their one-second of fame into an opportunity to create a whole new brand voice, and they’ve shown that trends can really buy long-term love, as they’re still gaining equity with Gen Z, two years on, through their TikTok presence. 

Forbes: You’ve written about drop culture in the past and the tension between inclusivity and exclusivity. Where do you think this will shake out for Gen Z?

Digi: With Gen Z’s natural curiosity around the new and niche, drop culture remains an effective mechanism: it can amplify hype around new products for those in-the-know, and entice attention for new audiences. It is important to note that while elements of fashion drops – bots hiking up prices, gatekept launches, VIP-only access – do make drop culture feel over-exclusive and elitist, it is a landscape that is changing. This is largely due to Gen Z, who have high digital expectations and are not afraid to question the status quo (i.e., why tf do the designer’s friends get sent those trainers first?). In response, disruptive brand initiatives such as Telfar’s bag security programme and TelfarTV, and emerging blockchain-powered technologies that ensure authentication and traceability come to the fore – evolving drop culture and doing away with rudimentary product drops that only serve a small group of consumers. 

Additionally, the very meaning of ‘exclusivity’ is being reshaped by younger generations. Aspects such as wealth or identity no longer define exclusive circles. Rather, being part of the ‘if you know, you know’ crowd is cool. In other words, having knowledge, creativity and taste – things that you cannot necessarily pay your way into – gives you cultural credibility and social status. Brands who are successful in being inclusive of previously marginalised demographics, while maintaining the allure of aspiration and exclusivity are the ones who nail the magic of curation and storytelling.

ForbesWhat are the biggest challenges to engaging with Gen Z and really getting their attention today? Has this changed at all post pandemic?

Digi: The business of getting Gen Z’s attention is really a multi-faceted one, which echoes the earlier mentioned point around balancing themes of purpose and play: on one hand, they seek joy and fun as part of their digital experiences, hoping to be tickled or even roasted. As such, nailing Gen Z’s spirit of light-hearted self-awareness and tongue-in-cheek humour will continue to be a big challenge for brands, especially when Gen Z do not want to be pandered to. They will cringe at attempts of brands at co-opting their vernacular and memes (when executed badly), and also quickly sniff out ulterior motives behind misaligned tone-of-voices. On the other hand, they are navigating a post-cancel-culture world as they learn to hold space for both morals around social good and “less ethical” things like fast fashion and using plastic straws. Within this tension is also their expectations for brands – who have more reach, more power, more influence – to take the reins of making the world A Better Place through their storytelling and offering. The challenge for brands, then, is balancing this expectation – justifying their right to take up space and conversations of certain social issues while staying authentic to their brand rationale. 

Forbes: When you think about Gen Z, what sets this group apart from Millennials – and have you seen that evolve in any interesting ways in the last few years?

Digi: Gen Z’s biggest differentiation from Millennials (or any other generation) is their agility around online discovery and content creation. While Millennials pioneered the curated Insta feed and polished YouTube vlog edits that seamlessly incorporates sponsored content, it is Gen Zers who had to live with this online landscape for longer – making them more critical of things like influencer marketing and branded social campaigns. So while they have a wide-net approach to discovering internet trends and such, they are more selective in the brands they commit more love to, and the products they put their dollars towards. 

Aside from online consumption, Gen Z have more life tools that are digitally native, cultivating education and awareness around getting ahead financially in a tough economic environment. New aspirations such as considering influencer careers or becoming “bedroom entrepreneurs” illustrate this generations’ enlightenment, carving out more opportunities to do well for themselves. However, that is not to say that success comes easily in today’s climate. Beyond their differences, Gen Z and Millennials have some similar values and aspirations – linked together because of certain overlapping life stages at the moment: workforce entrance, property ownership, relationships and marriage. And as Gen Z learned from Millennial mistakes or struggles around savings and buying homes, many have developed a more conservative mindset around life as a whole – focusing less on experiences and travel and more on getting ahead. This conservative spirit is also echoed in this generation’s values and lifestyles, from the rise of conservatism in both the East and West, the death of binge-drinking (Digi was quoted in this article) and heavy partying, TikTok’s #tradwife community and the emerging rejection of sex positivity

Read the full article by Aubrie Pagano here.

✨ Contributing Fairies

  • Biz Sherbert, Culture Editor 
  • Karen Correia da Silva, Director of Strategy and Head of Futures
  • Rachel Lee, Research & Insights Analyst

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