It’s almost September, which means it’s the unofficial start of the fashion new year. It’s the time when magazines boast their big fall issues, New York Fashion Week is on the horizon, and brands make their plans for the months and year to come. For Scott Woodward, CEO and Chief Creative Officer of SEW Branded, a brand marketing consultancy, this means he’s helping his clients set the strategies and tactics to reach their consumers and, as ever, Gen Z is always top of mind.
“I’ve never seen the number of articles, research and coverage on a segment in my entire marketing career,” says Woodward of the marketplace focus on this generation. “I think brands, luxury fashion and otherwise, have quite an obsession with this generation because they are the first digitally native generation and there is so much to learn on how to speak to, and with, them. This matters because it informs how to speak to the generations who come after.”
An entrepreneur, marketer, and Adjunct Professor at Parsons School of Design, Woodward has spent his career at the C-Suite level of many of the world’s most recognized fashion and style brands such as Calvin Klein, Ray-Ban, and Movado Group and has helped A-list celebrities, such as Lady Gaga, achieve their communications goals.
In an interview, Woodward shares what makes Gen Z tick, which brands are actually connecting to them, and why authenticity is everything.
Gen Z Are More Savvy Than We Think
According to Woodward, Gen Z is smarter than we give them credit.
“They are very sensitive and aware, and they are very, very bright. They know when something is being greenwashed and know that putting a supermodel in an ad promoting a $9.99 swimsuit doesn’t change the fact that it’s fast fashion,” Woodward says. “They are about authenticity and genuinely living out their values—so much so that my students at Parsons didn’t even want the course syllabus printed on paper, they only want digital versions.”
This is all to say that Gen Z can see through a brand’s social causes and charitable collaborations which are designed solely as marketing tactics. They easily identify when a company’s actions do not mirror the values they profess and will see right through anything inauthentic.
Woodward cites the example of The Gap. “When you look at a company like The Gap, who may do a campaign that is empowerment-themed, but in practice the internal structure of the company fails in areas like environmental impact or labor conditions which, even today, lack transparency around the entire supply chain,” he explains.
“Living up to a brand’s values all they way to their executive management teams and across all a company’s brands in a corporation has to sync up and match what’s in outward consumer campaigns. Gen Z wants real and authentic, and they know when they are being told a story.”
Social Media: The Good Cop
Woodward is a self-proclaimed fan of thoughtful market research to help drive strategy. Although, in this age of social media, Woodward has seen how it can be used to effectively engage with a Gen Z audience to garner a level of understanding around actions, such as product launches, with immediacy.
“With interactions on digital platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, brands are able to have their questions answered more immediately than traditional focus group testing,” he explains. “Take, for example, Kylie Jenner and her cosmetics empire. In theory, she can post a question to her followers asking, ‘Which color?’, and she immediately knows which new nail polish to add to her line. All brands now have the capacity to do this through their channels.”
Social Media: The Bad Cop
While social media is a fast way for brands to engage with and measure audiences, for Gen Z it shifted the entire landscape and they are different people altogether as a result. As the first digitally native generation, their points of view on life encompass ideas such as ‘the individual as celebrity’ which led to the rise of the influencer. Although the side effects of social media aren’t always so rosy and the research clearly points to its negative impacts such as decreased and disrupted sleep, depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance.
“I’ve worked on youth empowerment programs to address the toll social media has taken on younger generations, including one with Lady Gaga when she launched Born This Way,” Woodward shares. “When I grew up, if there was bullying it was one-on-one in a hallway. It was not coming into my life at all hours through a phone as it does now. And ads were only on billboards or on the pages of Details and GQ. It is so much more complex, layered, and intricate now.”
The challenge, as Woodward sees it, is that while social media is a useful communication tool, its negative impact on mental health cannot be ignored. Yet, it’s still very important to Gen Z so there is a balance to be struck.
“When I listen to my students, they’re under a lot of stress when it comes to social media,” Woodward says. “So we have to create an environment for them that’s safe, that’s not mean, and that’s kinder to help them navigate all these new insights and changes in our society because we can’t escape that they use social media daily.”
Top Gen Z Consumer Traits
“They are all about high-quality, are very sensitive and aware, and require competitive pricing,” Woodward says. “Also, one of their North stars, absolutely, is saving the planet. They look to brands such as Patagonia which lives its eco-centric values at every touch point and whose founder gave the company away to a trust so its future profits could fight climate change.”
The Metaverse Is Not It, Yet
Woodward hardly denies the draw the Metaverse and its alternate realities have on its participants, although as far as Gen Z is concerned, they’re not moving to the Metaverse quite yet.
It’s not an all-encompassing world where the capital built online can be used across the entire space. For example, an outfit bought on Fortnite cannot be worn at a Taylor Swift concert in the Metaverse or in a Roblox setting. So what’s the point of having things there if it doesn’t carry meaning everywhere in the Metaverse? If you buy a Ferrari in the Metaverse then, as a possession you own, it should be able to be used anywhere and everywhere in the same way we use our possessions in the real world. These examples only scratch the surface of issues of commerce in the Metaverse.
“It’s also important to remember that Gen Z came up during the pandemic and they are hyper-aware of escapism. If you are transported to a runway show in a different universe, is it a way to escape what you’re experiencing in real life, and what does that mean? Gen Z wants to be present again in reality, not escape it,” he says. “It does seem that the Metaverse is worth exploring and has potential, admittedly we’re not there yet. Even if we were, it all comes back to how to explore it authentically.”
Who’s Getting It Right?
“When I became Global Director of Image at Ray-Ban, Nike was the model I revered when it came to advertising, branding, PR, retail and merchandising, and I still revere them today. They are authentic in their stand on social issues and stand firm on topics such as the environment, feminism, LGBTQ rights and racial issues. They do this with beautiful and strategic imagery and messaging such as standing behind Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee—whether you agree with him or not—and why he demonstrated his concerns. Their 360-degree print, tv and in-store ads are perfection.
Nike’s response to George Floyd’s death was breathtaking. It was a Don’t Do It slogan consisting of only words, no images, relaying their message against a black background. It was impactful and authentic and shows they stick to their brand voice with passion. As usual, the creative was flawless. Nike knows Gen Z commits to supporting brands that stand for equality and social justice and it’s not a reach for them as that’s been their voice since inception, so the authenticity is inarguable.”
HIMS & HERS
“I’ve watched this brand since launch and their team did a great job with Millennials and now they are focused on Gen Z through collaboration with relevant brands such as REVOLVE. Their communication feels authentic, like a natural extension of their values, while delivering on the promise to truly solve problems for this generation such as mental health issues. Their communications are organic and efficient and younger consumers are definitely responding.”
MARC JACOBS HEAVEN
“I can’t sum it up better than Vogue on how well Marc Jacobs appealed to this segment when he launched Heaven:
‘Those yearning for excitement in the fashion industry post-athleisure boom have managed to cultivate a community through Heaven, in a way that extends beyond double-tapping social media posts. ‘
This case study on Jacob’s approach to brand extension is an example of how he speaks the precise language of this consumer segment, who have responded incredibly. It’s a mix of imagery, pop culture, counter culture and zeitgeist which represent his brand and who he is as a designer which is a little bit of a rebel yet undeniably brilliant. I love the creative and what he has done to enhance his brand, name and image without diluting the main Marc Jacobs line.”