Billie Razors, Kinship Beauty, Topicals, Parade Underwear, Madhappy and Cider. These are just a few examples of emerging brands that are set to disrupt, yet again, the beauty and apparel landscapes. And they have one thing in common ─ they were created with Generation Z in mind. I call them Z Brands.
As a growing set of direct-to-consumer brands that are targeting the next generation, Z brands’ success is grounded in their deep understanding of Generation Z. Their management teams know that a generation that is defined by individuality, authenticity, connectivity and purpose is looking for something different, and they are ready to deliver against the four pillars of Gen Z’s wants and needs. These include:
Distinct Visual Identity
Gen Z is obsessed with authenticity. Growing up in a social media and celebrity culture, Gen Zers grew up to reject the overly polished and idealized images that pervade our society. Instead, they prefer to live by their mantra of #BeYourself and they expect brands to deliver their messages and imagery accordingly. Z brands seem to have got the memo. A quick review of their websites and social media accounts show clear patterns: clashing colors, quirky drawing and raw and unpolished images are very common. Z Brands’ visual identity are more “Gen Z’s TikTok” than “Millennials’ Instagram.”
Inclusive and Authentic Marketing
For the most-diverse generation, inclusivity is non-negotiable and authenticity is the foundation for building brand trust. Z Brands embrace both notions by featuring models of all colors, ethnicities, body shapes and sizes, sexual orientation and gender expression, and by offering transparency about their ingredient lists or sourcing practices.
Gen Z likes to support brands that have a mission that is bigger than simply delivering a bottom line. Supporting these brands make Gen Z feel good about their purchase and allows them to express their values. Z brands, as you’d expect, are purpose-driven — they stand for or support causes that Gen Zers care about and they not only talk purpose; they walk the talk, make real impact and have the receipts to show for it.
Generation Z grew up during the Great Recession of 2008 and are now dealing with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. These experiences have made Gen Zers extremely cost-conscious. They’d rather save money than spend money and when they shop, they constantly search for the best value for money. So Z brands’ affordable prices are an important element in gaining Gen Z’s attention.
Here Are Some Examples
One example of a Z Brand is Topicals, a brand that focuses on different skin conditions and flare-ups. The brand’s mission is to transform the way women feel about their skin through effective science-backed products and mental health advocacy. Led by a Gen Z founder who states on their website that “Growing up sucked” and that “as someone who always had skin that didn’t look like what I saw in my favorite TV commercials and magazine, I grew up thinking that there was such a thing as perfect skin and that I had to have it.” The website shows real flare-ups and skin imperfections and encourages its customers to reframe how they view their skin. Challenging an industry that emphasized perfection and unrealistic beauty standards for years is no small feat, but Gen Zers are creating new rules that resonate with their peers.
And then there is Kinship, a brand that addresses many topics that Gen Z deeply cares about such as community, sustainability, transparency and clean ingredients. The brand produces skin care products that are based on clean, cruelty-free and plant-based formulas and uses post-consumer recycled materials in its packaging. With its colorful imagery and a message of “good for you and good for the planet,” the brand exudes positivity and warmth.
Another example is Billie, the direct-to-consumer razor brand that delivers shaving supplies and body care products designed for women. The brand offers quality razors in an array of colors and designs at affordable prices. But its success has resulted not from the product alone. Billie is a brand with a message. Being vocal about the Pink Tax that is applied to feminine care products and about an industry in which women were an afterthought, the brand established itself quickly as a Gen Z favorite for both its authenticity and its mission. As opposed to traditional brands that showed smooth skin (post shaving), Billie is actually showing body hair and having an open conversation about it. The use of realistic imagery of models of all races, and a commitment to donating 1 percent of their sales to women-related causes, were all part of the appeal.
When Procter & Gamble attempted to acquire Billie in 2020, a move that was blocked by the Federal Trade Commission, the company announcement cited access to Gen Z as one of the acquisition’s goals.
Billie’s marketing relied heavily on influencers who spread the good word to their followers. Most recently some of these influencers turned on Billie claiming that the product is not what it used to be. The jury on this one is still out, but it shows that even a disruptive brand can be disrupted by demanding Gen Zers.
On the apparel front, Parade Underwear has its message of inclusivity and images that feature women of all sizes. The brand is all about self-expression and purpose. “To us, accessing proper health care means accessing self-expression — so we’re donating 1 percent of our revenue to Planned Parenthood locations across the nation.”
Then there’s Cider, which defines itself as a “globally minded, social-first fashion brand.” In addition to its cheerful and positive imagery, the brand has big aspirations to make a positive impact on the industry and the world. Committed to a pre-order model, the brand only produces specific styles in controlled quantities, making fashion less wasteful through a zero-inventory model.
The list goes on…
Z brands are gaining traction and accolades from their target audiences and beyond. As they grow, they are likely to present real challenges for established brands. I call it the “next wave” of d-to-c disruption. And if we learned anything from the “first wave” (think Glossier, Kind, Warby Parker and IT Cosmetics), we know that change can happen very quickly. Some companies will take an approach of “wait and see” and eventually acquire some of these brands for big-time money. Some will create their own version of Z brands (P&G just launched Derma Geek to target Gen Z). One thing is certain: Generic value propositions that are not tailored to Gen Z simply won’t cut it with the next generation of consumers.
What is your strategy?
Hana Ben-Shabat is the founder of Gen Z Planet, a research and advisory firm, and author of, “Gen Z 360: Preparing for the Inevitable Change in Culture, Work, and Commerce.”
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