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Talk it like you walk it: how to relate to Gen Z as a brand

by John Wheeler
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    Conventional wisdom says that actions speak louder than words — particularly with Gen Z. But when you choose the wrong words, you risk obscuring the intent behind your actions.


    In case you’ve been living under a rock, there’s a song making the rounds these days. The song is called “Walk It (Like I) Talk It” by Migos and it’s a massive hit with Gen Zers. More importantly, it’s the perfect distillation of the way Gen Z envisions itself (ideally) speaking — and the way it expects to be spoken to by the brands seeking its business.

    Actions and words matter equally to Gen Z

    Gen Z is a generation that values actions and words in near-equal measure. It’s hard to gauge which speaks “louder” than the other. On the one hand, actions are fundamentally important for engaging Gen Z. A recent study by IBM finds that Gen Zers, by an overwhelming margin, believe brands need to back up their words with actions that demonstrate continuity, credibility and integrity — or they risk losing their “realness” and authenticity.

    On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that you can neglect the words that you choose in your brand communications, either. Whether your Gen Z marketing is visual, written or some combination of the two, you need to have a flawless sense of their lexicon, their memes, their in-jokes and their values before you can make successful headway with them.

    Messaging that’s on-point for a Gen Z audience

    One key distinction between Gen Z and earlier generations is that the language you're speaking to them has to be as inclusive as they are. This might prove more difficult than it sounds. At its most extreme, it may involve taking a step back from societal norms and preconditioning that you, as a member of an earlier generation, grew up around.

    Take the case of  the Phluid Project, the first non-gender-specific store in America, who’s Gen Z-directed tagline is “You do you.” In a recent talk at Ad Age Next in New York, Rob Smith, the Founder of the Phluid Project, spoke powerfully about Gen Z’s take on gender classification. Regardless of how they identity sexually, Gen Zers feel less of a need to exhibit performative traits that traditionally were considered “masculine” or “feminine.”

    In the same way that Gen Z's classifications of gender are changing, the language used to describe gender is also evolving. Terms that once were common are now considered obsolete, inaccurate and — at least in some cases  offensive.

    By using outdated phrases and categorizations, brands risk alienating Gen Z audiences. Marketers need to take their cues from companies like the Phluid Project to understand how Gen Zers communicate among themselves on a particular subject before they go and interject themselves into the larger conversation. 

    Actions matter, but so do words

    When speaking to Gen Z, it’s critical you communicate through actions; to “walk it like you talk it.” But words and images matter, too. Don’t forget to “talk it like you walk it” either.

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