Who is the next generation consumer?

Advances in technology, the Internet of Things, and a belief in accelerating change – where the rate of technological advancement increases exponentially as time passes – mean the next generation consumer will be quicker, smarter and more connected than previously thought imaginable. In order for brands to reach tomorrow’s consumers, they will need to be more relevant and more compelling than previously thought imaginable, or risk being forgotten completely

“We cannot really predict what the next generation consumer will look like, but we can foresee the main trends that will shape the way consumers will behave and interact with brands within the next five to 10 years,” says Amel Rebbouh, media director at UM MENA. “This will essentially be influenced by new technologies in the market and how they will evolve and how fast they will be adopted and sustained by consumers.”

Everyone wants to know what’s coming, especially marketers. They want to plan, to prepare, to foresee in order to act accordingly. Successfully predicting future consumer habits – understanding how people will consume and interact with brands before they even know it themselves – is the holy grail of marketing. Hence the fasciation with ‘generations’ and the lumping together of people into digestible groups.

However, there is a problem. Most talk of ‘generations’ – of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964); of Generation X (1965-1980); of Millennials (1980-1995); and now Generation Z (born after 1995) – is sweeping in its generalisations. Millennials, for example, are widely ridiculed as self-absorbed, lazy and entitled narcissists who live at home with their parents. There’s no smoke without fire, of course, but to label millions of people with the same tag is ludicrous.

These stereotypes were humorously portrayed by Jason Gilbert in a March article for Fusion: “Last spring, as Beckett Delaney was hoverboarding to his office in SoHo, his man bun flailing behind him in the wind, he came to an abrupt halt. ‘I realised I just couldn’t work that day,’ Delaney recalled recently, in between puffs of an e-cigarette outside the Bushwick Sweetgreen. ‘Because I hadn’t finished binge-watching Master of None’.

“Delaney’s attitude is typical of his youthful cohort. Millennials – the demographic group also known as Generation Y, Generation Me, and Daesh – have found it difficult to balance duelling priorities as they exit their parents’ basements and enter the real world. They have stacked up record student loan debt, and yet spend thousands on frivolous items like Beyoncé concert tickets and groceries; they yearn for more than just a paycheque, and yet continue to be employed in jobs that provide them with paycheques in return for their labour; and they enjoy watching television and movies, but also Vine.

“‘For me, the most important thing is expressing myself,’ said Jewel Packard, 24, during an interview conducted via reaction GIFs in the communication app Slack. ‘Sometimes that means tattoos, and sometimes that means podcasts.’ Packard, who co-works at a bespoke underwear start-up, and whose hobbies include 7am dance parties and sexting, said that she values her ability to express herself almost as much as she values her parents’ Netflix account. ‘When it comes down to it, life is really all about finding a hashtag for yourself and sending hilarious emoji on Venmo,” Packard said, and then, after a moment of reflection, added: ‘Lena Dunham.’”

Agencies and brands are obsessed with Millennials, despite the fact that American stand-up comedian and television host Adam Conover recently gave a speech at Deep Shift saying they don’t actually exist; that all stereotypes associated with them are untrue. Conover stated further that: “The entire idea of ‘generations’ is unscientific, condescending, and stupid.”

Mennah Ibrahim, MEA director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, would tend to agree. “I’m often amazed at the confounding buzz and impractical commercial advice that’s shared, but it’s mostly the graphic and colourful monikers for this consumer that have always managed to faze me the most: ‘Digital Natives’, ‘iGen’, ‘Centennials’, ‘Screenagers’, the ‘Founders’ and my absolute favourite – the ‘Bubble-Wrap Kids’.”

Faris Yakob, author of Paid Attention and the co-founder of Genius Steals, adds: “Generations turn over faster and faster because of diminished cultural latency and media colonisation. By which I mean: generations aren’t a thing that exists, they are a description, made up by some people. They are, therefore, essentially bad ways to understand people. They are mostly lazy stereotyping.

“But, if we think about discrete media behaviours – the MTV Generation, the MySpace Generation – then we see new ones appearing faster, as new platforms emerge and young people seek to escape the gaze of old. The emerging generations are focused on the media they create not what they consume, in some ways.”

In his speech, Conover did away with all monikers, simply referring to everyone in all generations together as ‘people’.

However, as Rebbouh says at the beginning of this article, it is possible to predict future behaviour based on what we already know and the gradual emergence of trends. As 55 per cent of the Middle East’s population is below the age of 30, it is also safe to say that this youthful generation will be drastically different from the one that came before it.

Women shopping in clothing store using wireless technology

What will the next generation consumer look like?

Ibrahim points to The Future 100: MENA Trends and Change to Watch in 2016, a report by Innovation Group MENA that highlights important trends in the Arab world.

One such trend states that Arab societies are polarising into extremes, opening up a ‘social chasm’ between the liberated forward-thinking youth that is being discussed here and largely conservative cohorts in terms of attitudes, behaviours and financial inclusion. There is also gender-blending, the un-tabooing of womanhood, and a restyling of Arab heritage.

According to Ibrahim, many of the traits of the next generation consumer are considered ‘feminine’ – altruism, empathy, social conscience – and are shaped by the way the global zeitgeist has been evolving. “No wonder then that Arab women are catching the spotlight not only in the region, but on the world stage, as they shine across multiple sectors including business, fashion, tech and entrepreneurism,” she says.

Of the next generation of consumers, she says: “They’ve grown up in a world filled with consistent reminders of what is wrong and what needs to change, making them adamant about making an impact – not just a difference – towards better futures for themselves and their societies at large. And they are well on their way to solving real everyday life problems, where others before them have failed.”

Those born in the mid-90s, for example, are now ushering in a more progressive wave of start-ups. “Realistic, idea-driven teens are championing real causes through razor-sharp problem solving, volunteering, and activism, towards better lives for all,” says The Future 100. Amongst them – and in Tunis alone – are 19-year-old Aymen Mokadem, the founder of graphic design studio MKD; Sadok Ghannounchi, the spark behind e-taxi; and Sabrine Taleb, the founder of Underground Events, a concept store where independent artists and fashion designers sell their creations.

“They like ethical brands that respect the environment and embrace marginalised groups, and they will not let you get away with hiding or covering up your blunders – just acknowledge it, fix it and get on with it,” says Ibrahim. “They do not want you to spy on them, or abuse their personal data they have generously entrusted you with. So don’t screw up – they will create viral videos to expose you faster than you can say ‘I’m sorry’.”

For the purposes of this article, Amit Vyas, planning director at DDB Dubai, and Hend Raafat, strategic planner at DDB Dubai, take the ‘next generation consumer’ to mean Generation Z, with all the generalisations that that implies. “Everything does not apply to all,” says Vyas as a caveat. That said, Vyas and Raafat identify four key identifiers:

“They are digital natives but to describe Generation Z as digital anything, is frankly, superfluous. Social media is as much a part of their lives as TV was for their parents. They are, quite literally, unaware of a time before the smartphone. And growing up digital, as they are, they are also perhaps already more aware of its dangers. Social media brings its own problems and this generation has already experienced, earlier than any other, the downsides of easy accessibility. They are therefore, more likely to manage it better.

“The phrase ‘fit in and stand out’ holds more meaning than ever before. Growing up as they are, they will be under constant pressure to manage their personal brand. At one level, they will seek validation and peer acceptance, while simultaneously refusing to be defined simply by their social personas. This conflict between what they project and who they really are, can provide an opportunity for brands to connect with them more meaningfully.

“Not only have they already seen more upheaval than most previous generations, but their parents are Gen Xers who have experienced a more uncertain world. They have already witnessed financial meltdowns, conflicts and huge human tragedy. As such, some research studies point to how this Gen Z could seek more predictability and control over their future. If Boomers raised Millennials to believe that they could change the world, the parents of Gen Z are more likely to have taught them pragmatism.

“They will all be influencers. Connected as they are, each one will be influenced by and influence others in choice of brands, activities, experiences.”

How will they consume media?

“Faster, more,” says Yakob. “We spend more time in media than sleeping. The stream is becoming the dominant interface metaphor for media. Immersive media will take complete attention to begin with, but then Magic Leap-style interface-less interfaces will make our vision as cluttered as our inbox.”

Magic Leap is a United States-based start-up working on a head-mounted virtual retinal display which ‘superimposes 3D computer-generated imagery over real world objects, by projecting a digital light field into the user’s eye’. When it comes to the possibilities of future media consumption, it is easy to get carried away. And Yakob is the king of getting carried away. A previous article of his for Campaign looked at cybernetics – the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things – and imagined a world where science and technology live within you. While this may be far in the future, steps towards this scenario have already been taken.

“Media will be consumed anywhere and at anytime,” says Vyas. “There will soon no longer be a ‘prime time’. Media consumption will be on the go. Already, we see that streaming is growing faster than downloads. With content available anywhere, there will no longer be fixed times to watch programmes. Netflix has arrived in this region. OSN and eLife both offer the option of viewing online from anywhere. Expect this to increase.”

Warc research recently referred to ‘Generation swipe’, adds Rebbouh, where “consumers will consume less and less TV and print media and will have access to all their entertainment options on online platforms and most of it will be consumed on the go, through their mobile devices and tablets.

“The challenge is for marketers to identify when and where to start shifting focus and how to follow their new media consumption habits and better target them when they are most receptive,” she says. “In addition, they need to be targeted through messages that are innovative and provide added value to the consumers’ overall experience rather than being intrusive.”

But while it’s easy to get carried away with new technology and the rapid swing toward digital media, a recent edition of the IPA TouchPoints study in the UK found that the vast majority of people continue to watch TV on a TV set (93 per cent), listen to the radio via the radio (76 per cent) and read magazines and newspapers in print (81 per cent). These figures are for all adults. For the future, the habits of those born between 1980 and 2000 will be key. Still, even 82 per cent of this age bracket watch TV on TV and 48 per cent read newspapers in print.

For young Arab consumers the story is arguably different, not least because traditional media is tarnished by state control. That said, TV remains the dominant medium across the Arab world and will remain so for the foreseeable future, although it faces stiff competition from YouTube and other video streaming sites.

For example, Saudi Arabia has the highest YouTube watch time per capita globally, while the Middle East and North Africa ranks second after the United States (and ahead of Brazil) in terms of total watch time. Mobile watch time is growing by 90 per cent year-on-year, according to information supplied by Google.

“They’ve had internet access for as long as they’ve known, with a constant stream of the latest technology always close to home,” says Ibrahim of the Arab world’s young media consumers. “They are more comfortable in front of a computer, phone and tablet than any other medium and do not watch anything on a TV any more. They don’t read very much on paper, they don’t listen to the radio, everything they consume is through the worldwide web. Their attention span is in the seconds, so getting and keeping their attention is a rub. It also explains their preference for video and images rather than text. Agile communicators, they are accustomed to rapid-fire banter and commentary. They think spatially and in 4D (hello Virtual Reality). They have always known how to zoom, pinch and swipe. They’ve grown up with hi-def, surround-spun, 3D as well. 360-degree photography and film is their normal.”

Raafat adds: “There is little doubt that mobile will be the primary screen for Gen Z. According to a Pew Research study in the US, over 80 per cent of Millennials sleep with their smartphones. This number is like to be the same if not higher for Gen Z. They will use this not just to view content and stay connected but to make product decisions, stay informed and be entertained. Consumption of TV will certainly be lower for this generation but it’s not going to go away.”

“Simplicity and speed will become key in their media habits,” adds Vyas. “Research shows that attention spans are declining – with the current attention span of about eight secs, lower than even that of a goldfish (nine seconds). So the video taking time to load – move on. Not quite getting the message in first few secs – move on. Doesn’t grab me in some way instantly – move on. This is not a generation that is prepared to wait.”

Woman's silhouette in reflection of servers

How will they interact with brands?

This is where things get problematic. Basically, according to Yakob and many others like him, the belief that consumers wish to engage with brands is nonsense. They’ve got far more important things to be doing with their lives. They will interact only with those brands that add value in some way or make life easier.

“People do not want to interact with brands,” asserts Yakob. “Perhaps they used to, people like being heard, but we’ve become wary, hardened. Companies have shown us that they don’t care, that they lie, there have been too many huge trust violations – just look at Volkswagen.

“People have begun to realise that the customer simply doesn’t come first, shareholders do. The novelty of interacting with brands (which are big) in social, when we are just individuals, has very much worn off. I want brands to respond on Twitter and solve the problem with their service. Otherwise don’t bother. Engagement doesn’t fix services.”

Much talk over the past few years has been about holding ‘conversations’ with consumers rather than talking at them. But is this true? Will it remain so? For customer service, undoubtedly. For brand building? Well, the role of the epic television commercial is not going anywhere. It may be viewed predominantly online, but the ability of big, bold, beautifully shot film to influence remains strong.

“They don’t consume quietly,” says Raafat. “Their consumption is loud and visible. Facebook, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram are all vehicles for amplification of consumption. They will both seek and share opinions of brands and experiences. So brands need to be prepared to be talked about constantly – both positively and negatively. Word of mouth will be king.”

“They will select a brand that has a story worth following, adds value (in any form) and evolves through time,” adds Rebbouh. “They have such a mature outlook on marketing and have gained insight on what gets people’s attention, which will result in an increased level of creativity required for brands to engage with these consumers. The brands that relate to them and that have a great story to tell will grow organically as they will tell the story to their friends and family making them ‘brands advocates’.”

How should brands interact with the next generation consumer?

People will offer differing advice, but successfully interacting with the next generation consumer boils down to three things – co-creation, values and relevance.

Values is a big one. As mentioned earlier, ethical brands that respect the environment and embrace marginalised groups will be rewarded. As Yakob says “do actual things in the world and then communicate them. Actions speak louder than ads. Otherwise, value the diminishing resource that is human attention, provide value, somehow. Working out how is the key. Otherwise, complete attention collapse is possible”.

Vyas and Raafat agree. “Generation Z work in the spirit of collaboration and co-operation and extend that to brands. Brands that hear them and respond are the ones that they will be closer to. This generation will want to have a say in how the brand presents itself, what it offers and what it stands for. Brands need to understand this and enable co-creation to be successful.

“They are also more passionate about values and will embrace brands and businesses that reflect what they believe in. They are more likely to care about whether their food is organic, about whether the company pays a fair wage, about how a business serves the community it works in. Brands will need to stand for something more than just their offering to make a lasting impact

“Brands will need to stay relevant to their needs and respond swiftly. Take dining out for instance. This is no longer about just a good meal in a nice ambiance. It has to be more experiential. So now there is dining in the dark, food-trucking, dining naked (though we can be reasonably sure that isn’t coming here anytime soon). Brands will need to understand their desires, fears, aspirations and customise accordingly.”

Companies also have to be willing to hand over control, as Ibrahim points out. “When it comes to these consumers, it all boils down to how they receive your content. With so many screens at hand at any given time, responsive design is paramount, give them control over what, when and how they consume and allow for preference settings.

“Channel their ambition: tap into their entrepreneurial spirit. Make stuff and help them make stuff. Collaborate with them and help them collaborate with others. Get them involved in anything and everything. Educate and build expertise, they want to be experts. Help them to achieve it. Demand their participation (and therefore their attention). In today’s fluid multi-device economy, consumers are exposed to over 5,000 marketing messages a day. Brands that succeed are the ones enlisting active and real participation, to watch or unlock content across platforms.

“If you can recognise any of this, you’ll realise that the next generation consumer is already here – walking, living and breathing among us. They might not be the mass majority yet, nor the group with the most buying power, but their consumption patterns and behaviours will be the catalyst for big changes.”