Warren Buffett once said: “In the business world, the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield.”
For some time, I have been intrigued by the phenomenon of the elusive Generation Z (Gen Z) — the cohorts following the Millennials (Gen Y) — a group of consumers born and raised in the social media craze. A new research project conducted by my company in Holland was aimed at clearing some spots on our corporate windshield so we could look into the future of fresh produce marketing.
Gen Z constitutes a whole new generation that creates a global cultural commonality with a combined buying power in the USA of $43 billion, and an influence on an additional $600 billion of family spending, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Gen Z spends more money on (good) food than all other preceding generations. And yet, the fresh produce industry ignores this potential goldmine of consumers. Or maybe we simply don’t know what to do with them.
Modern technology has radically changed the rules of the marketing game. In this new world, fresh and healthy fruit has to compete with, for instance, rapper Snoop Dogg aggressively selling fruit-flavored energy drinks laced with chemicals on YouTube videos, as well as the “now you see it, now you don’t” messages on Snapchat. In the face of this seemingly insurmountable and unfair competition, how do we effectively connect to and market our “boring” fresh produce to Gen Z?
Our research project aimed to understand Gen Z’s sensibilities and sensitivities and tap into their hearts. First order of business was bringing in graduate intern Mathieu Hirdes, 21, who has worked in the produce industry since he was 15 years old, to set up focus groups as well as gather data and analyses to uncover the inside scoop on this omnipresent consumer demographic.
Hirdes found that according to an empirical study in web use, it takes Gen Z’s 8 seconds to decide if something is good or bad. To put it in perspective, the attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. For us as a company with sustainability firmly entrenched in our DNA, this was a disconcerting phenomenon.
At face value it seems this generation does not take anything seriously. However, Hirdes found Gen Z is far more attuned to the plight of world sustainability and creating a better future than the Millennials. Great news for us!
Delving deeper into how Gen Z thinks about fresh produce by orchestrating surveys and focus groups was not easy, yet the outcome was extremely enlightening. Inquiring into the produce purchase decisions of study participants, Hirdes found that “Ego” is higher than “Eco.” Gen Zs won’t just buy a product because it’s sustainable; they want to know the ways in which it will complement their lifestyle, add value to their emotions or embrace their convictions (e.g., vegetarianism).
Regarding buying patterns, it was found that approximately 34 percent of Gen Z buys their own fresh produce. A substantial 78 percent, however, said they are able to exert influence on their parents’ buying patterns, based on their own convictions and beliefs. The financial reach of Gen Z is greater than we think.
Another research conclusion is that Gen Z is not primarily brand-driven; they are immensely intrigued by the behavior of the companies behind the brands. A “good” brand owner can count on the support of and collaboration with Gen Z, but then it has to play the marketing game according to their rules.
Gen Z told us that if we want them as customers, our advertising spots must be short and appealing, and preferably with some humor. When we showed them our first attempts, they said we will fail because we were “trying too hard to be cool.” According to them, they prefer we be “boring and authentic” rather than “forced cool and not believable.”
Our biggest challenge in advertising was to limit our words and maximize our visuals, otherwise we will be deleted from Gen Z’s horizon before our 8 seconds are over. We had to find ways to capture their interest and make them laugh, yet back it up with real substance. We had to stop thinking advertising, and start thinking entertainment.
As a company, we found Gen Z consumers may be young, but are certainly not fools. They expect our products to help them build a lifestyle, or satisfy their conscience, or add value to their convictions.
Consequently, the main response from Gen Z in terms of our marketing communication was: “Stop trying to sell us stuff, and start telling us your story.” In this regard, we found communication in generalities with Gen Z is futile. We needed to speak their language. However, we failed dismally when we tried to speak “Gen Z.”
Hirdes’ solution was to involve and engage a group of Gen Z’ers, and get them to create corporate communication on our behalf. As a result, they created a jaw-dropping array of concepts that appeal to their generation — from website to in-store advertising, from branded clothing to 8-second promotional movies. Straight from the horse’s mouth.
This hugely interesting, emerging generation of consumers needs to be addressed, embraced and respected in a completely different manner. A serious message with a smile will start the ball rolling, but there is much more. Gen Z knows everything, sees everything and has an opinion about everything.
If the fresh produce industry wants to go out and play with these kids, it will have to climb out of its box of arrogance and discard its “know-it-all” attitude. Immerse yourself in their world, and enjoy the rollercoaster.
Nic Jooste is director of Marketing & Corporate Social Responsibility
for Cool Fresh International, based in The Netherlands.