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Finding the missing link between teenagers and adults

Originally written for Marketing Week, July 2019

Fractured skull fragments hewn from a rock on the Mani peninsula in the Grecian Peloponnese is, it’s been claimed, the oldest Home Sapiens fossil ever found outside Africa.

The jigsaw of cranial bits and pieces is supposedly over 200,000 years old, meaning the skull has rewritten known history – it would be older than the previous record holding Homo sapiens fossil found outside Africa by 160,000 years.

Initially found during excavations in the ‘70s, the Sapiens noggin lay entombed mere feet from another skull, this one, oddly, Neanderthal.

Tests found the Neanderthal skull to be at least 170,000 years old and the two species would most likely have come to rest in their rocky embrace by virtue of a mud flow that solidified leaving them in their Grecian tomb. The odd thing here is that we may now have over 150,000 years of uncharted interaction between Home Sapiens, our upstanding ‘intelligent’ forebears and Neanderthals - our stockier, shorter legged and now very extinct cousins.

Those seeking a thoroughly engaging analysis of what this means for human history should envelope themselves in the excellent book ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari whilst lounging on their Lilo this summer. For those who fear being sunk by the tome’s 512 pages I can save you some time – Home Sapiens and Neanderthal species were about as familial as the modern-day adult and their erstwhile teenage progeny.

Now I’m not suggesting for one second that the youngsters in this analogy are knuckle dragging thugs. In fact, evidence from my last visit to a Premiership football match suggests the opposite to be true, however there are undeniable and marked differences in the behaviours, attitudes, motivations, beliefs, desires, demeanour and communications style of those aged between thirteen and nineteen and the parental segment aged thirty + that set them poles apart.

These differences are as defined as they are longstanding and has meant that interaction between adults and young adults has always been a tricky conundrum.

In the marketing world, audiences that have value to brands tend to earn their own title. For young people, their custom ism so desirous we gave them two: -

Generation Y (AKA ‘Millennials’) are currently between 25 and 39 years old and have outgrown the trappings of teenage angst only to find themselves drowning in debt with about as much chance of owning their own home as Prince Philip has of tying his own shoelaces.

Then there’s the current youth crop Generation Z - the newest tranche currently aged between 4-24 years old. To add context, this Z list makes up 25% of the world’s population and as such shouldn’t be taken lightly - in the U.S. alone there are nearly 74 million of them, enough to make any Gen X marketer reach for the chequebook.

According to research by online bank Kasasa earlier this year, the average Gen Z human received their first mobile phone aged 10.3 years, grew up in a hyper-connected world and on average spends at least three hours a day on some kind of mobile device. Notoriously and rather unsurprisingly cynical of their Gen X forebears (they are their parents, after all) communicating with these teenagers is a minefield, leaving in its wake a cemetery of misplaced adverts, ill-judged products and cynically rejected politics.

It should be no shock to anyone in marketing and advertising that they think we’re dicks.

According to Kat Krieger from coffee brand Joyride: - “…authenticity may have been a buzzword years ago, but this goes way beyond that. Consumers today, particularly younger generations, are more aware and politically astute than ever before. […] Marketing speak just won't cut it anymore. Consumers want quality, but they also want brands with integrity”.

Look at disruptive brands like Tesla, Brewdog and Revolut - they offer solutions to today;s problems and market themselves with a healthy dose of 'zero bullshit' attitude.

In addition to Krieger’s unequivocal assertion in a 2018 report by Forbes, the following checklist is a good starting point if you want to earn trust and gain integrity with the Gen Z consumers:-

  1. Get Their Attention - Generation Z is known as the social generation and you need to cut through billions of bites of trash before you can even think of earning their attention.

  2. Tell the truth – counterintuitively to our marketing tutelage, brands that speak plain truth are achieving cut through faster

  3. Work with influencers - but be aware of how easy it is to burn money and integrity when this goes wrong (plus nearly 10% of Instagram accounts are Bots according to several reports)

  4. Treat them as individuals. 25% of the world’s population twinned with social media means that they are fervently struggling to express their individuality

  5. Practice what you preach – you’re speaking with digital natives who smell bullshit like you sniff a decent Pinot Noir.

  6. Focus on brand values - having brand integrity, humility and purpose is no longer desirous but absolutely essential

  7. Admit you don't know anything – this should be the start of pretty much any brief assessment anyway, but it’s always worth a reminder.

Media wise, we know mobile devices are the first port of call for Gen Z so it stands to reason that your content should be designed to sit comfortably on these devices (very comfortably – see points 1, 5 and 6 above). As a kick start, these are the big four destinations commanding attention from their eyes, ears and fingers: -

Social Media – Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and TikTok, Tencent’s QQ and WeChat and Sina’s Weibo in Asia and VK in Russia to name a few front runners. That said, despite reports of Facebook’s demise as the social channel for old people it remains the world’s favourite across the board

Streamed Video – Google’s YouTube remains the king but don’t discount other young upstarts, most notably the Amazon owned Twitch, a favourite of the esports community on which over 350 Billion minutes of streamed content has been viewed this year alone.

Music – Apple, Amazon and Google still have their claws deeply embedded in the music scene but smaller, more niche Apps and video streaming services have significant numbers of loyal Gen Z tribes amongst their followers.

Esports - In a recent study ‘From Nerdy to Norm: Gen Z Connects Via Gaming’ conducted by Whistle, 91% of Gen Z males regularly play video games, only incrementally higher than Millennials (84%). Among both generations, the stereotype of gamers has eroded. ‘Gamer’ no longer conjures the negative affiliation of a lazy guy in his parents’ basement but rather playing (and crucially watching) esports – it’s seen as an essential social interaction.

Gen Z is a misleading, buzz-phrase term – a chuck away line much better expressed as simply ‘young people’. They’re here in huge volumes, they’re fed up with their circumstances - socially, environmentally and financially and they are fed up with the patronising way in which they’re sold to. In the same way that many Gen X’ers would reject a pro Brexit rant from a far right 70-year-old UKIP member, Gen Z have their own opinions and have an expansive and eminently sharable means of sharing them.

In evolutionary terms, it’s all semantic anyway. In twenty years’, time Gen Z will be in our shoes and we’ll be the fossils. How we communicate with and market to this generation now will influence not only the world they’ll live in but also how they’ll act when they get into our shoes.

Generationally, they are the surviving sapiens leaving us, Gen X and upwards, as the shallow-browed Neanderthals facing inevitable extinction. In 200 Millenia our outdated tactics, strategies and campaigns might be dug up as digital relics to be analysed, discussed and quickly derided as outdated fossils of a lost species.

Harry Lang is a strategic brand and marketing consultant and founder of Brand Architects. You can get in touch with him at or via Linked In

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