As a Gen Z-er, I don't usually think about what I'm doing or why I'm doing it. I don't analyze my shopping pattern (there isn't anything to analyze) or question how my friends and I will impact the economy as we get older. Since I've started speaking at conferences and have been challenged to examine my choices and speak about my opinions as a member of that generation, that has started to change. Earlier this summer I went on a service trip with my school to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana to help the Indians (yes, they told us to call them that). We spent just over a week on the reservation doing everything from serving food, to painting, to laying sod for an upcoming Pow Wow. It was an amazing experience which I'm pretty sure has changed my life. I guess I'll have to wait a few years to find out for sure. When I got back, my dad, who is a conference speaker and trend advisor himself, told me that was a typical Gen Z thing to do: Go for the experience rather than a material item or thing.
I didn't think much of it until later in the summer when I went to the Dolphin Research Center (DRC) in Grassy Key, Florida, and had yet another amazing experience I will never forget. While there, I thought more about what my dad had said and I thought about what my friends did with their summers. I realized that, at least with my circle of friends, our summers aren't about just going to cool places, they are all experiences specific to the individual and their interests. One of my friends is shadowing a vet over the summer, another went to India and Africa to interact with children, one went to a Japanese immersion camp in Japan, and a bunch went to summer dance intensives. We use our summers to explore possibilities and find experiences that we can connect with.
In Montana, I experienced a different culture and gained insight about my country, and came out with a new respect for the struggle Indians now face and a new awareness of America's past. I became friends with some of the people living on the reservation and learned a lot about their rich culture and also became closer with my classmates. I didn't buy a single thing while I was on that trip because it wasn't the material things or keepsakes that mattered to me, it was the experience.
A big part of the Montana experience was the many amazing people we met, like Bob Tailfeathers, Francis Heavy Runner and Tom Crawford. Tom had the greatest impact on our group: Even though he grew up in a different time and a very different world from the one our group of private school kids know, every person could find a connection to one of Tom's incredible stories. On our last night in Montana, we got to share s'mores with Tom's granddaughter after she and her friends were chased through the woods by coyotes! While these may not seem like the most important things the experience was, in fact, the whole reason behind our trip. We were all looking for a connection with a different culture and the creation of lasting bonds between people who seem to have nothing in common. Compared to that, any trinket or space-wasting thing we could buy seemed pointless.
Later this summer when I went to the Dolphin Research Center, it was once again for the experience. I worked throughout the year to earn enough money to pay to go to the week-long Teen Basic training program. While my parents could've paid for it, I wanted the experience of earning my own money to do something that I wanted to do. So, I did -- and I had an amazing time. It was the first time I'd ever been to a camp where I didn't know anyone, I had to fly there alone, and I wasn't sure what I'd be able to eat (I'm an extremely picky eater). But I went anyway because I wanted to experience what it would be like to work with marine mammals. I made friends, memorized the names and identifying features of 27 dolphins and four sea lions and learned a ton about the world we live in. Each day we had one- or two-hour-long seminars about dolphins, the eco-system, climate change and how we can help save our planet. I'm pretty sure I learned more in that week than I did the entire year in chemistry class. It was easy to learn at camp because I wanted the experience, it wasn't forced on me like school is. The only thing I bought at camp was a shirt, and that was actually another experience: I got a white shirt, chose two colors and then had my shirt painted by one of the dolphins named Pax.
Both of my summer trips were created around the experience and had nothing to do with spending money on random things. From what I've seen, Gen Z is mostly buying things based on a connection they have with it, not just because they have money to spend. I haven't done an official survey, but out of the teens I interact with and talk to, none of them are loyal to one brand. They go to whatever place they have the best experience. If the clothes are nice, but the experience isn't great, kids won't go back.
Adidas is a good example of a brand creating an experience around their products, and other brands should follow suit. At dolphin camp, we learned Adidas are made from recycled plastic found in the ocean. Everyone agreed that we would rather buy products with a backstory about helping the planet than random items that will eventually add to the planet's pollution. Brands need to start thinking about their brand backstory and their future.
Gen Z has the world at their fingertips and won't hesitate to change shopping patterns if a brand does not support their interests. With a few Google searches, we can find out whether or not a brand uses child labor, their pollution levels, and anything else we might be interested in. Brands need to consider their brand morality and the unique experiences they offer if they want to keep us as consumers. How can their products create experiences that transform me and the world around me? Yes, Adidas is still selling me a shoe, but the experience they created around that shoe gives me a reason to buy them over other sneaker brands, even if they cost more.
Today, we have many choices when we look to buy something. The right experience creates the reason for me to buy from a particular brand over the many other choices I have.
Editor's Note: At a recent meeting with Viacom, a senior executive described experience as the new currency. This was underscored by the opinions of several Generation Z guest panelists at a focus group conducted by sparks & honey, where most mentioned experiences over material items as “bucket list” goals. One of the young panelists, 16-year-old Sydney Polichock, is already a sought-after speaker at trend conferences and contributed her point-of-view to MediaVillage.com.
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