Op-Ed: Brands That Score On Social With Gen Z Will Win Wall Street, Too
Meredith Chase, VP of client strategy at Swift, explains what standout social media means for a brand's bottom line with the rise of Gen Z consumers
Our industry knows social media is the dynamic force on the cultural landscape: the driver of innovative strategy and the laboratory for sharp content, forging connections between individuals and cultures—and between brands and consumers.
But how much is great social worth? And why is it valuable?
Well, Wall Street has certainly answered the first question, validating the importance of social strategy to a brand’s bottom line. In one recent report from the investment firm Evercore ISI, the dire scene for traditional apparel retailers revealed one gleaming bright spot: fashion brands showing great moxie and engagement on social media. Gucci and Adidas both more than doubled their social media engagement year-over-year. Canada Goose saw direct-to-consumer sales surge 191% after turbo-charging its social channels with blue-chip influencers like actor Daniel Craig, director Paul Haggis and charismatic images of its haut-rugged outerwear in its chilly natural habitat.
Each company saw its Wall Street prospects improve, as did other apparel brands with ace social strategies. Less nimble rivals struggled. For agencies who’ve long championed social media and digital-native storytelling, this is obviously great news. The business world’s most visible arbiter of success is now on board. Investors and analysts now count likes and monitor hashtags in their quest to understand a brand’s fortunes.
What took them so long? That’s a question for another day. The most interesting takeaway is why Wall Street finally tuned in. Social has replaced brick-and-mortar browsing as the home of discovery.
Remember the happy accident? Once, you, the shopper, went to the mall. (Long ago, the department store.) You needed one thing. But you wandered, letting products and brands and possibilities catch your eye. You left with three things. Digital commerce is hitting that kind of impulse purchase hard. Kismet (for the consumer) and the margin-boosting sale (for brands and retailers) are vanishing to a chorus of online searchers’ hyper-targeted clicks.
And yet human curiosity hasn’t evaporated. People still like to discover new, unexpected things. They’ve just taken that quest to social media. Shoppers now unearth new products via friends, via the brand feeds they covet, via influencers (and microinfluencers) they admire.
Burn it into your brain: social media—as well as search—is now all about discovery. And the best place to see that truth in action is—no coincidence—out in the field. I see this firsthand when we conduct ethnographic research with the rising consumers of Generation Z, that massive cohort of 85 million kids 20 and younger who already wield $44 billion in direct purchasing power. When you interview teens in person, especially in pairs and trios (they are more apt to talk freely with a friend present), you learn how the power of social discovery is changing.
Born social, teens are on their chosen platforms (hello, Snapchat and Instagram) all day, every day. They treat social not only as an opportunity for self-expression and connection, but as their main avenue toward information: YouTube is not just their cable box, it’s their library.
Gen Z also happens to exhibit some characteristics that reveal social media’s essential nature. Pragmatic and future-focused, Gen Z is obsessed with research. They want the backstory; they want to know any move they make will serve their goals. If they’re interested in a product, they will watch every video, read every comment and come prepared. On Instagram, they’re diving into the Explore function before going to their own feeds to find unexpected inspiration; meanwhile they’re curating their own profiles and feeds with flinty-eyed unfollows and likes withheld. They know how the algorithms work, and they take control.
The brands that speak to Gen Z will reap those discovery-driven sales, and they’ll get that Wall Street love. But brands and investors will also learn—if they haven’t already—that social media’s only real constants are change and unpredictability. Today’s reigning platforms may be tomorrow’s Friendsters. Formats that seem crucial now may become next year’s throwbacks. (Vine, we hardly knew ye.) A set of studies examined in a recent Harvard Business Review article showed that the real-world value of any one social media engagement depends on follow-up: a mere “like” for a brand doesn’t drive sales unless it’s coupled with compelling content and direct, responsive connection with consumers.
Social’s cultural nuances can also be tricky. Gen Z views some influencer-brand partnerships with fierce skepticism—YouTube star Casey Neistat faced a serious backlash after a collaboration with Samsung that left some fans feeling exploited. But they’re fine with people they admire making money doing cool things, as long as both brand and talent are transparent.
How do you navigate this ever-evolving territory? The lesson seems to be that the real social media strategy is to always watch, ask, engage and learn about consumers and the culture they build. Wall Street may have picked up on social media, but for those of us creating it the journey is always just beginning.
Meredith Chase, Vice President of Client Strategy at Swift, has spent over 20 years in the industry working across Consumer Insights, Advertising and Brand Marketing for some of the world’s best brands. Her depth of experience across the various marketing functions from both a client and agency position enables her to bring a robust approach to solving her clients’ brand challenges.
Lead Image: Tony Aguero