At this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, journalist and author William Bishop outlined the core concept of his new book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, suggesting a rising trend of individuality that coincides with a distrust of larger institutions. “Respect for institutions has gone and it won’t be coming back,” he says. According to him, likeminded citizens have organized into communities, and have “become so ideologically inbred that we can barely conceive of those people who live only a few miles from us.”
Bishop summarizes the sentiment by reminding us how it used to be–that you were born an individual and settle into a community–but that it’s now the other way around. Consumers, and young people, in particular, want individualism.
And yet, it’s not a drastically new idea. We certainly don’t need yet another conversation of how America’s last election, for example, was likely determined by “echo chambers,” as people tailor their online content to build their own truth and shut out opposing information. This new power the consumer has, however, spreads far beyond a distrust of an opposing candidate or a slanted news outlet. It creates individualism that inflates to a distrust of institutions in general.
The takeaway for marketers? Brand authenticity likely matters now more than ever.
Look to Google, who very recently released an online magazine that shows findings of what Gen-Z teens think is “cool” (aptly titled “Its Lit”). It only takes getting to the second page to be told modern “cool” is characterized by “just being yourself, embracing what you love, [and] rejecting what you don’t,” and that the “genuine” celebrities are the best celebrities.
As for marketing, it’s always been important for brands to take on a personality akin to their target consumers. With the upcoming generation, though, this strategy hits a paradox–in that to act like them means to not act like someone else. Appealing to Gen Z, it seems, is going to be a unique challenge.
Soon, accommodating consumer tastes, or merely meeting their expectations, likely won’t be enough. Brands will have to be more than a mere appeaser, and offer themselves in authentic, bold ways that surprise–perhaps even provide something consumers didn’t know they wanted. It’s a surefire way to hitch onto the plugged-in youth’s desperation for being the first to know what’s new, and the only way to dodge Gen-Z’s inherent skepticism that what they’re seeing is just more marketing.
We’re now faced with the no-rules generation, bombarded by campaigns day-in, day-out. Marketing will have to become a lot braver if it wants to pluck heart strings organically.