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Photo credit: CoverGirl

Marketers are now looking beyond Millennials and shifting focus to Generation Z, the cohort born between 1995 and 2010. It’s a logical move given that this generation’s purchasing power—currently valued at $44 billion in the U.S.—will grow as Gen Zers enter the workforce.

With more brands trying to appeal to teens, one notable Generation Z marketing trend is emerging: the blurring of traditional gender roles.

Fast-fashion leader Zara, for instance, launched a genderless line earlier this year targeting teenagers. Coca-Cola is another example with its ‘Dude or Diva’ campaign, which encouraged teens to share both the masculine and feminine sides of their personalities by picking specially designed cans. Earlier this year, actor Jaden Smith modeled skirts for luxury brand Louis Vuitton. Even the toy Barbie has recently attempted to go gender-neutral by featuring a young boy in an advertising campaign.

The latest—and perhaps boldest—example of this trend comes from CoverGirl. The beauty giant recently announced its first ever male model: makeup artist and social media star James Charles. The brand’s first male ambassador will appear alongside pop singer Katy Perry in print and TV ads.

Why marketers are throwing out traditional gender norms

The rise of gender-neutral advertising is a direct reflection of Generation Z’s attitudes and values. A growing body of research suggests that Gen Zers, more than any other generation before them, are rejecting traditional gender stereotypes. A 2015 study shows that 82 percent of Gen Zers think that ‘gender doesn’t define a person as much as it used to,’ and 56 percent say they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns (like ‘they,’ ‘them’ and ‘ze’).  

The rise of gender-neutral advertising is a direct reflection of Generation Z’s attitudes and values.

The 2016 report The Everything Guide to Generation Z confirms the progressive leanings of this cohort. According to our research, 81 percent of Gen Z are passionate about gender equality, and 63 percent care deeply about LGBT issues.

Marketing leaders admit that these gender-bending campaigns are driven by customer insight. For instance, Coca-Cola’s ‘Dude or Diva’ campaign was inspired by research showing that teens don’t like the traditional labeling of gender.

“The [campaign’s] concept recognized that teens view self-expression as a vehicle to have fun with their identity and individuality,” Nelson Freitas, chief strategy officer at Wunderman, Coca-Cola’s advertising agency, recently told Digiday. “Sometimes they feel more like a dude, and other times more like a diva.”

Coty, Inc., which owns CoverGirl, sees its decision to feature James Charles as a natural evolution of CoverGirl’s brand.

We’ve always been an inclusive beauty brand that’s partnered with a diverse roster of talent based not only on looks but on personality—boundary-breaking and unapologetically individualistic,” Laura Brinker, director of global communications and social media at Coty, tells The Globe and Mail. “James Charles fits perfectly with this mentality. We encourage people—you do you! And we’re here to help you express whoever that is through your makeup.”

Gender ambiguity as the new marketing norm

As more young consumers recognize the wide spectrum of gender, more brands will follow CoverGirl’s move. Featuring diverse spokespeople and models, however, won’t be enough to win the business—and hearts—of Gen Z. Companies that want to embrace gender ambiguity must first develop a holistic understanding of their target market.

“In crafting an effective brand strategy that is gender ambiguous, marketers should begin by sketching out a brand muse: a personification of the brand where the company's values meet the consumer's aspirations—aspirations that are not limited to gender," Ruth Bernstein, co-founder and chief strategic officer at advertising agency Yard, tells Adweek. "A brand muse takes you beyond a demographic to create gender-neutral marketing. It allows marketers to develop a voice that resonates with an entire lifestyle rather than being confined to the limitations of gender."

Campaigns also need to be authentic. Much like Millennials, Generation Zers support brands that are transparent and ‘real.’ Gen Zers demand authenticity from brands, and 77 percent of them appreciate ads that are well done. 

You still have to be authentic to what your brand is and who your brand is,” says Jason Stein, founder and CEO of social media agency Laundry Service. Companies that have a deep insight on Generation Z and can authentically translate that understanding into compelling marketing campaigns are much more likely to resonate with this generation.

In the end, the emergence of gender-bending advertising campaigns is a reminder that brands need to invest in getting to know this post-Millennial generation. Generation Z has characteristics and expectations that differ from previous generations, even compared to Millennials. As Gen Zers exert their economic muscle in the next decades, marketers can’t afford to operate on outdated assumptions or speculation. Now’s the time for marketers to prioritize authentic engagement with Generation Z—tomorrow’s most important cohort of consumers.

The Everything Guide to Gen Z

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Kelvin Claveria

Kelvin Claveria was the former Content Marketing Manager and was responsible for Vision Critical's blog and social media marketing program. Before joining Vision Critical's global marketing team, Kelvin worked at Dunn PR, a Vancouver-based public relations firm. His experience includes working with lifestyle, real estate, and non-profit clients to develop social media marketing and PR strategies. Kelvin has a Bachelor of Business Administration from SFU's Beedie School of Business.
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