25 April 2019 Courier Apr/May 2019

Selling to Gen Z

A more progressively minded, ethically conscious and discerning generation than ever before is now turning 18. How can brands capture the spending power of this new consumer?

Namrata Kamdar, founder of skincare company Plenaire, explains what it takes to launch a brand for Generation Z. ‘We’re not trying to push people a certain way,’ she says, ‘and one of the things we’ve been absolutely paranoid about is not patronising them.’

It’s understandable why Kamdar, 42, is so conscientious. Born from the mid-1990s onwards, Gen Z cannot remember a time before the internet, social media or smartphones, while they can research, communicate and critique like no other.

It is also a generation of consumers radically different from those that came before them. A generation that would rather shop for designer fashion and streetwear via their favourite Instagram model’s Depop account. A generation that meticulously views influencer reviews online before making a purchasing decision. And a generation which considers the products they buy as an extension of their personal brand. An Ipsos poll found that 26% of Gen Z won’t buy brands if they have been found to exploit workers.

Already, they influence $166-$333bn of household spending indirectly, according to Barkely, a Kansas City-based agency that completed a survey of 2,000 teens under the age of 18 in 2017. By 2020, Gen Z will represent 40% of consumers and have an estimated spending power of $143bn (£109bn) in the US – over double that of millennials.

Such economic clout is having an impact across markets from low to high. Notoriously inflexible luxury brands are being forced to rethink the ways in which they communicate to a generation focused on truth and transparency.

Exploring the re-framing of brands like Balenciaga, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent as utilitarian, democratically accessible forms of expression, the fashion and media brand Highsnobiety reported: ‘The new luxury consumer seeks inspiring brands over aspirational products. Free from the once- captivating spell of opacity used by luxury brands to attach a certain je ne sais quoi to their products, consumers began to hold transparency in higher esteem… The young luxury consumer is looking for new ways to qualify items as luxury.’

Brands are increasingly no longer packaging themselves as just functional, but as entities that connect the buyer to something bigger – as if a product represents a movement – and make them feel better for it. Take Plenaire, the youth-centric brand soon launching with a range of hydrating masks and blemish serums and in pretty pink formulas. Plenaire has an uncompromising ideology on diversity and body image, much like SPKTRM Beauty, which launched in late 2018 with a range of foundations that come in over 50 shades. One of SPKTRM’s founders, Jasmine Glass, has already been promoting these ideas for several years through her publication Glassbook, which quickly gained a 50,000-strong following across social media.

Recent brand success stories include TomboyX, a women’s clothing line with a masculine streak, founded by Naomi Gonzalez and wife Fran Dunaway. The brand experienced 2,049% growth in the past three years, and generated revenues of $5.4m in 2017, after focusing on underwear – in particular, its range of boxer briefs for women. And Nudestix, founded in 2014 by sisters Ally and Taylor Frankel (then aged just 14 and 17, respectively), with a makeup line focused on ‘enhancing your natural beauty’. Nudestix is stocked in major retailers and has annual revenues of $9.5m. Speaking to Teen Vogue, Taylor described the brand’s ethos as: ‘Be comfortable in your own skin. Wear enough makeup to get outside the door, but don’t make a mess of it. Feel like yourself, but better.’

For Plenaire’s Kamdar, reaching Gen Z means constructing a brand that doesn’t hard sell, doesn’t trade on shame or insecurities and takes action on the social battles championed by young people today – from environmentalism to representation. The products are yet to launch, but the brand has already amassed close to 4,000 followers on Instagram with a stream of posts featuring the likes of Rupi Kaur (famed for her Insta-post poetry) and Nia Pettitt, Youtuber and a leader of the ‘natural hair movement’. Other posts feature inspirational quotes from the likes of actress Sophia Loren: ‘Beauty is something you feel inside, and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical.’

Plenaire – which Kamdar is positioning as a ‘beauty tech platform’ rather than simply selling skincare items – fits within a growing movement
to create beauty products that are cruelty free, don’t contain harmful chemicals (like parabens, a group of chemicals commonly used as a preservative in cosmetics that have come under scrutiny recently), and communicate to customers with a greater deal of transparency and intellectualism.

It’s a movement pioneered by brands such as The Ordinary, with minimal packaging, simple ingredients and scientifically accurate language to describe how the products work. Crucially, this new wave of skincare and cosmetic products are promoted as items that will help you feel good and not as something that you need to look good.

These values underpinned almost every beauty brand hosted at an incubator organised by US retail giant Target last year, such as Adwoa Beauty, ‘a socially conscious brand with products for curly and kinky hair types’ and YUNI Beauty, ‘natural products developed mindful of social and environmental sustainability’.

Further bolstering its commitment to the next generation, Target announced a new accelerator programme specifically focused on developing ‘progressively-minded business concepts from Gen Z entrepreneurs and creators’. The move, in October, is part of Target’s strategy to tap into a demographic it says has proved ‘elusive’ for many major retailers.

Target’s decision to proactively engage with this demographic is wise. Introducing a report on Gen Z and its implications for major companies, analysts at McKinsey & Company wrote: ‘The possibilities now emerging for companies are as transformational as they are challenging.’ They added: ‘Businesses must rethink how they deliver value to the consumer, rebalance scale and mass production against personalisation and – more than ever – practice what they preach when they address marketing issues and work ethics.’

Gen Z is not a demographic that holds back when it comes to asserting its values. Kamdar recounts meeting a teenager – an ‘Orange County surfer girl’ passionate about the environment – who reprimanded her mum for spending $60 on an Estée Lauder makeup remover. ‘“I can buy you virgin coconut oil that’s going to take off your makeup better than this crap”,’ the daughter told her. ‘“These women at the makeup counter just make you feel bad about yourself, Mum. I don’t know why you go there!”’

For Kamdar: ‘Everything we’re doing with Plenaire is a direct result of what we’re seeing with these girls.’ She describes the desire to make every product ‘feel’ amazing – psychologically as well as physically. ‘We don’t use the word “acne”,’ she says. ‘We try and frame acne as a rite of passage – there’s nothing wrong or shameful about it.’

Kamdar started her career working with corporations ‘pouring money into consumer habits that may not be the best ones’. Aged 23, she found herself riding Pepsi trucks through rural India ‘telling people who barely had any income they should spend their last fiver on a sugary beverage’. Going on to work for Unilever, Indian lipstick brand Lakme and Dove, Kamdar witnessed capitalism take o in a post-liberalised India.

Later she would take a lead in developing campaigns and products for beauty and baby care, gaining an in-depth understanding of raw ingredients. But it was ultimately an extended period of stress leave, and therapy, which led her to re-think what she desired from her career.

‘What I learned from that whole experience, as a before and after, is 100% reflected in Plenaire,’ she says. ‘Not comparing yourself, leaving toxic situations, teaching girls how to care for themselves… being vulnerable. Maybe all the messages I should have heard as a young person.’

It was down to the experiences they had while growing up that led sisters Bunny and Taran Ghatrora to launch Blume. The US-based feminine hygiene brand was founded in June 2018, when the sisters decided to re-launch the organic tampon subscription service they’d founded two years earlier.

Blume was conceived as a critical response to the way products have been traditionally marketed to teen girls and presents a limited set of teen products – including tampons, sanitary pads and facewash for acne – all of which are chemical-free and sustainable. It seeks to ‘validate puberty’, advocates for better education (its founders point out that sex education is mandatory in just 24 US states), and offers an illustrated ‘guide to first periods’, free to download on its site. The homepage is minimal, with muted colours and statements such as: ‘Don’t wage chemical warfare on your vagina’.

‘I think the industry is really lacking [when it comes to] treating our bodies in an holistic way,’ says Bunny, listing everyday hygiene products that contain synthetic chemicals that can be absorbed into the body.

Blume fits within a movement to reframe of lifestyle products as self-care, while also taking a strong position on issues such as sex education and the environment. The age of brands being apolitical is over.

‘With the platform we have we think it’s important to stand up for causes we care about and our customers agree,’ says Bunny. ‘Gen Z customers have the same access that we have in terms of information about politics and the environment. And, not least because they are going to live the longest, they’re also most concerned about the impact companies and corporations have.’

Sustain Natural is another brand offering a holistic, eco-conscious approach, with its range of environmentally friendly sexual wellness products that include chemical-free tampons, natural latex condoms and aloe vera lubricant. According to co-founder and CEO Meika Hollender, 31, its brand identity is a fusion of ‘sex positivity, radical transparency and activism.’

‘Gen Z has come of age in a time of immediate access, constant connection, and with an innate nature to question everything,’ she says. ‘Being bold, persistent, and taking on larger social issues in the space have been critical components to our success.’

Teen fashion – which includes outspoken icons such as the drag queen and model Aquaria (who has over 1.2 million Instagram followers) and Khoudia Diop, a model and activist who has been outspoken about the practice of skin bleaching – is also being influenced by these ideas.

Gender neutral streetwear label ¢HNGE, launched in the US in April 2018, is built on a manifesto to ‘give consumers who care an outlet to make a positive impact in the world through their purchases’. It uses sustainable materials, is transparent about its production line (using factories in Turkey that pay its workers a living wage) and donates 50% of net profits to NGOs. It features a diverse range of models; one campaign, ‘Smashing Stereotypes’, was shot by photographer Peter Devito, who raises awareness of issues such as body-shaming.

Its founder, Jacob Castaldi, wants ¢HNGE to impact on the wider fashion industry, describing how he hopes to inspire larger brands to be more responsible, as well as encouraging consumers to be more conscious.

Another new lifestyle brand developing sympathetic, eco-conscious products for teens is 31st State, which produces vegan grooming products ‘for guys’ and aims to challenge the assumption that coming of age as a man means buying a can of Lynx and a tub of Clearasil.

‘I have two teen boys (and one girl) very into their appearance, style, sports, and what’s marketed to them as cool is Lynx,’ says Stephanie Capuano, 48, who launched 31st State in autumn 2017. ‘I was interested in the growing body of evidence looking at the chemicals in all these products that can create long-term health problems. There was nothing on the market that was non-toxic, cleaner and safer, and made specifically for teen boys.’

Teenage boys are not traditionally likely to care if a product is eco-friendly or non-toxic, but Capuano believes this is starting to change. ‘There’s a massive shift in this demographic,’ she says. ‘They are super environmentally aware. Veganism is becoming huge and has been one of our biggest USPs. We pitched to Asos (which now stocks us) – it told us it’s really hard to find cool vegan brands for this demographic.’

From demand for vegan and chemical-free products, to a refusal to engage with companies that patronise, mistreat, or discriminate, Gen Z signify a distinct (and uncompromising) evolution in the tastes of young consumers.

‘It’s not good enough to just say we support a mission,’ says Kamdar. ‘Don’t say you’re donating to a self-esteem charity, just feature diverse faces. Don’t say you’re sponsoring cancer research, just don’t put cancer-causing chemicals in your products. Don’t say you’re doing good. Just be good.’