Generational Marketing: Gen Z Goes to College

I’ve taught in colleges since 2005, and have shared my observations about Millennials in several Target Marketing blog posts. Recently, I realized that most of my current students aren’t Millennials, so my curiosity about psycho-demographics has me trying to observe the generational marketing characteristics of this new cohort of college students, arbitrarily defined as those born starting in 1997.

generational marketing, Gen Y and Gen Z

I’ve taught in colleges since 2005, and have shared my observations about Millennials in several Target Marketing blog posts. Recently, I realized that most of my current students aren’t Millennials, so my curiosity about psycho-demographics has me trying to observe the generational marketing characteristics of this new cohort of college students, arbitrarily defined as those born starting in 1997.

Of course, changes in generational attitudes don’t occur overnight, and so I didn’t walk into class one semester and say, “Wow, these kids are different!” The oldest Gen Zers were freshmen in 2015 and because the lines between the generations aren’t always distinct, I don’t have a large sample on which to base my generalizations. But here are some of my initial observations based on some recent classroom encounters.

Technology and Ageism

Unlike the students of five-plus years ago, the current group does not automatically assume that older people (myself included) are digital idiots. Perhaps that’s because their parents are more technologically savvy and their grandparents have social media accounts. Although most identified their grandparents as laggards when it came to smartphone adoption in a recent assignment on the Diffusion of Innovation Theory, they don’t automatically assume that older people are technologically clueless. (See my post from 2016 on “Millennial Microagression”).

Financial Awareness

The cost of their education is always top-of-mind. It comes up frequently in classroom discussions about their consumption habits. Their formative years were marked by a time of economic uncertainty. In a recent marketing class at Rutgers, we were discussing how the economic environment affects marketing strategy and tactics. When I referenced the financial crisis of 2008, I realized that most of the students were in elementary or middle school during that time. Whether or not they experienced a parent’s job loss or home foreclosure firsthand, most understood that times were difficult and the financial future was not always assured.

Social Media-Cautious

In a recent assignment about retargeting, I asked them to cite examples of how their online activity led to seeing ads about things they posted or searched. Most referenced Google searches, and one student claimed that she was disadvantaged in coming up with examples because she has no social media accounts. Some have abandoned Facebook and, while they use Instagram, most keep their accounts private. By contrast, my experience with Millennials is that they were, and continue to be, much freer with their social media activity.

Look for more about Gen Z in upcoming posts.

Author: Chuck McLeester

Chuck McLeester's blog explores issues about marketing and marketing measurement. He is a marketing strategist and analyst with experience in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, financial services, pet products, travel/hospitality, publishing and other categories. He spent several years as a client-side direct marketer and 25 years on the agency side developing expertise in direct, digital, and relationship marketing. Now he consults with marketers and advertising agencies to create measurable marketing programs.

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