Reaching Gen Z: 'It has to feel organic, and it has to feel natural,' says IRI

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Photo Credit: Getty Images / Tom Werner
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Tom Werner

Related tags Gen Z Iri tiktok

Accounting for 20% of US consumers with an estimated direct buying power of $143bn, Gen Z is not a generation to be glossed over by brand marketers, says IRI, characterizing this young cohort as technologically savvy with an underlying practical streak that emerges in their purchasing decisions.

Often referred to as the generation of "digital natives"​ who have never known a world without the internet, social media, or Amazon, Gen Z (referring generally to those born between 1997 and 2015) are among the most committed to social and environmental causes than the previous generation of millennials, said IRI principal, Lynne Gillis.

"I think the biggest difference we see with Gen Z is that they’re more likely to vote with their dollars or likely to take action for or against things that support whatever it is they value,"​ Gillis told FoodNavigator-USA. 

"Underpinning all of it, is this focus on doing something about it."

With millennials, by contrast, she said, "We saw more of a focus on value, and rightfully so with three big recessions in their lifetime."

What also sets Gen Z apart from previous generations is its cultural diversity and commitment to individuality, noted Gillis.

According to 2020 Pew Research​, 52% of Gen Z is non-Hispanic white (compared to 61% of millennials and 82% of baby boomers), one in four are Hispanic, 14% are Black, 6% are Asian, and 5% are another race or combination of two or more races.

"The cultural intersectionality that defines this generation is hugely different in how it spurs them to action,"​ she said. 

As IRI describes in its report​: "This is a group of people whose focus is not binary; it is inclusive. It isn’t about choosing A or B, it is about having the option to choose A and B. Or, when it comes to identity, it is about having the option to move more fluidly through a vast network of possible options — or declare no option at all."

The whole, authentic package

When it comes to packaging, Gen Z is a highly visual group of consumers keenly aware of the product packaging and the messages it sends, stated IRI. 

"The very first thing they see and evaluate with packaging is whether or not things are overly packaged... The product can be perfectly what they want, but the [over] packaging can be a turnoff in that way,​" said Gillis, who added that Gen Z is driven by a commitment to minimalism. 

In other words, don’t be the brand that touts sustainability and then uses multiple layers of plastic in packaging; these “tells”​ immediately undermine a brand’s credibility with Gen Z, said IRI. 

The broader goal brands across the CPG landscape should strive for include "authenticity,"​ which can seem vague but is actually surprisingly straightforward, said Gillis. 

"Authenticity isn’t prescriptive. A brand needs to not try to be everything to everyone and be true to that brand promise, whatever it is,"​ she said. 

A company that does this well is Trader Joe's, noted Gillis. 

"Trader Joe’s is often cited as this icon of authenticity where everything aligns. There isn’t a lot of 'extra' that surrounds it​." 

Authenticity is the underlying link to brands that resonate successfully with Gen Z, said Gillis, who added that a brand can also be loud, fun, and bright if that's most authentic to who it is.

For example, PepsiCo's bubly sparkling water, Bang Energy, and Pop-Tarts score highly in purchase intent among Gen Z consumers, said Gillis. 


TikTok -- the social media platform known for its short-form video content often presented in a spontaneous, unscripted fashion to users -- is an effective way to reach Gen Z consumers who rank TikTok videos as one of the top ways to get them to buy a product, after recommendations from friends/family and seeing a friend/family member using the product.

According to IRI, the appeal of TikTok is highly aligned with Gen Z’s overall desire for less "manufactured”​ engagement and more “real people”​ organic content.

For instance, take the unlikely Ocean Spray and skateboarding TikTok video mashup set to Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" track that went viral last year, which successfully hits on the organic product promotion that didn't come from a corporate playbook:

Another brand taking note of the power of TikTok is Chobani, said Gillis. 

"Chobani’s been hugely successfully on TikTok with this generation," ​she said. 

Chobani introduced its #SwitchTheChobaniFlip TikTok challenge inviting users to post their video shorts on the social media platform using the hashtag for a chance to win a case of a limited edition Chobani Flip flavor only available through TikTok.

In its first week, the yogurt giant's TikTok campaign which utilized both influencers and paid media dollars generated 2.6 billion views, according to Digiday reporting​. 

"What worked for Chobani was to find those TikTok participants that are already mentioning their brand organically, and then they will invite them to participate ​[in their campaign], and that keeps it feeling really fresh and really original, because it is,"​ said Gillis.

Gender neutrality? Don't force it

While 35% of Gen Z respondents said that breaking down gender barriers is important for brands to be relevant to their generation (slightly higher than millennials at 33%), just 3% named gender-neutral marketing as the most important characteristic (beyond taste and price) when deciding which brand of food/non-alcoholic beverage to purchase. 

The consistent feedback heard from Gen Z was that gender in marketing isn’t as much about whether brands are portrayed as male, female, or gender-neutral, said IRI.

Rather, it is whether the entire “package”​ for the brand — everything from what the product is, to how it performs, to how the packaging looks, to its marketing and social media — is simple and authentic, and makes sense for what the brand is, according to the report. 

"It has to feel organic, and it has to feel natural, or they’re not going to go for it,"​ added Gillis. 

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