New York, San Diego, Palm Springs, L.A., Baltimore — as she criss-crossed the country this past May promoting her namesake skin-care line, meeting customers, chronicling her travels on social media and tracking the growth of her business, Willa Doss personified the can-do attitude of the current crop of beauty entrepreneurs.
This story first appeared in the August 5, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Doss is the force behind Willa, a direct-sell skin-care line geared toward young women that she has developed with Christy Prunier, who is her mother. Doss herself is 15 – and a sophomore in high school.
While a teenage entrepreneur may seem like the exception rather than the rule, Doss’ spirit and drive are perfectly in sync with the mores of her peers. And while it is impossible to predict the future of Willa the brand, which launched in June, Doss and the 60 million-plus members of Generation Z are already having a significant impact on society — and shopping.
Generally defined as those born from the late Nineties on, Gen Z comprises close to 25 percent of the total U.S. population, between 60 million and 80 million, according to U.S. Census statistics. Their spending power is also considerable, estimated to be at $44 billion annually (thanks to an average weekly allowance of about $16). Add on the halo effect of parental spending, and that number swells to $200 billion annually, according to Mintel.
“When we look at the numbers of Generation Z, it’s clear that they will swallow the Millennials in terms of size,” says Sarah Davanzo, chief cultural strategy officer of Sparks & Honey, a New York-based marketing agency. “They are unlike any generation that has come before them. Many marketers are lulled into thinking they’ve got it all figured out because they’ve spent their budget on understanding Millennials, but Generation Z represents exponential change. They are the backlash to the Millennials.”
For starters, Gen Z is the first truly all-digital generation, having grown up completely immersed in technology. “They learned to take pictures on their iPhone,” says Wendy Liebmann, the chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail. “They learned to read on Leap Frog. They watch on-demand movies. They aren’t cluttered with two worlds like Millennials.”
The environment they’ve grown up in is also radically different from that of the Millennials. In terms of race, many have known mainly only an African-American President; in terms of sexuality, they’ve grown up in a climate where gay marriage is legal and gender is on a sliding scale. Gen Z has come of age in a post-recession world, where political, cultural, social and economic upheaval is the norm — and because of their constant connectivity, they are not only aware of what’s going on, they are involved. “Gen Z is the most engaged generation to date and if they don’t like something, they will do something about it. They are quite activist in their mentality,” says Lucie Greene, worldwide director of J. Walter Thompson Intelligence Innovation Group.
Those two factors have created a generation who are rewriting the rules of engagement for fashion and beauty marketers.
“Young people are always being told, ‘Wait a little while and then you can start making a difference.’ That is not us. We are ready to make a difference in our world starting now,” says Doss. “It doesn’t come from a sense of urgency, but from a stronger sense of self. We know who we are. We are very confident and empowered. Because of social media, we see what people around us are doing and that inspires us to do the same. If we see one girl doing something really cool, we say, ‘Hey, why don’t we do that, too?’”
In fact, the effect and influence of social media is all-encompassing, creating a participatory role with brands and media that puts teenagers in the center of the conversation. “Generation Z doesn’t passively absorb heroes,” says Greene. “They want to see their peers in the picture — both Snapchat and Vice Media are focusing on citizen journalism as part of their coverage. Gen Z has a big impetus to make stuff, to find stuff and to share it. It is an active engagement.”
Their icons reflect their ethos, and range from Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the 18-year- old who was shot by the Taliban for her vociferous support of a girl’s right to education, to Miley Cyrus, who is lauded for her individuality and support of the transgender community, to Lucky Blue Smith, the 16-year-old male modeling sensation who, with his three model-musician sisters, personifies style for young people today.
This is a generation not interested in perfection, says Greene. So Cara Delevingne, whose Instagram motto is “embrace your weirdness,” is wildly popular, with more than 16.3 million followers on the social media platform. Brands that resonate are those that invite fans to become full- fledged members of the tribe, as Marc by Marc Jacobs did when it cast a recent ad campaign on Instagram by asking people to post a photo of themselves using the hashtag “CastMeMarc.” Within a day, says Green, the hashtag had been used more than 100,000 times.
That level of participation extends to every aspect of their lives. “How do they like to shop? Socially, of course,” says Davanzo. “I just spent the weekend with a Gen Z-er looking for prom dresses. Today, schools have Facebook pages where girls can post their dresses so they don’t get the same one as another person. Their choice is being made from social media — they’re seeing other people’s choices and that sways their decision. It’s a whole layer of extra information.”
Gen Z’s approach to fashion and style reflects the contradictions that often define teen life. Low-cost brands like F21 Red from Forever 21, H&M and Primark in the U.K. are very popular, even though there are often questions around the manufacturing practices of such brands. Pink by Victoria’s Secret is also popular, despite a backlash against sexually suggestive ads, says Greene. On the other hand, brands that embrace and reinforce individualism, like Free People and Brandy Melville, are quickly becoming clos- et staples, too.
If a brand isn’t involved in social media, it might as well not exist for teens. Jenny Frankel, the co-creator of CoverFx, discovered that first- hand in 2011 after she sold a majority stake in the company and became a stay-at-home mom to her two teenage daughters. “I realized that if they’re not following a brand on any of their social plat- forms, they have no idea what the brand is saying, doing or selling,” Frankel says.
Another “a-ha” moment came when she realized her daughters were following a number of lifestyle brands and influencers — from Rihanna to Refinery 29, Cara Delevingne to Urban Out- fitters — but that beauty brands weren’t in their social media mix. “When I asked why, they said they didn’t relate to the perfect looks they were seeing. For them, beauty is more lifestyle, more head to toe. It has to be attainable and achievable,” Frankel says.
Thus was born Nudestix, a line of neutral-hued makeup pencils that Frankel launched last spring and which has quickly become one of beauty’s buzziest launches. As with Willa, Frankel’s daughters, Taylor, 18, and Ally, 16, oversee the company’s social media messaging and have helped shape the brand’s ethos in everything from shade selection to brand campaign.
“This generation is so media savvy they can immediately read through any corporate messaging,” says Frankel. “They are highly individualistic — the attitude is, this is what I look like, I’m proud of it, everyone should embrace it.”
“Their life follows their words,” agrees Vanessa Schenck, who launched her subscription box company, Tia Girl Club, on Instagram in late February and racked up 2,800 followers in a few months. Tia stands for “Today I Am” and the mission of the company is to empower girls and enhance their self-esteem. “Through Instagram, these girls use their authentic voices, be who they are, say what’s important.”
Greene calls it “hyperindividualism,” noting that race and gender are much more amorphous for Gen Z than for any prior group in history. “They are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation to date,” she says.
Amy Astley, the editor of Teen Vogue, agrees. The magazine’s August cover image, featuring three models — one Egyptian-Moroccan, one French-Ivorian and one Dominican — generated a huge amount of social media buzz. “The girls look real — their hair is natural, they’re not overly retouched,” says Astley, who notes the importance of such realism. “When kids perceive the picture is fake, they reject it. Everybody is vulnerable to images of beauty, but young people especially, and if a picture feels hugely unattainable or as if it was achieved in a cheating way, it is a turn-off.”
A more realistic depiction of beauty has be- come a brand attribute for Willa, according to founder Christy Prunier. “Nothing has to be perfect with Willa. Photographs don’t have to be Photo-shopped or perfectly framed. Copy doesn’t have to go through so many iterations. It’s all very real time,” she says. “We’ll take a picture, write some copy on it, put it out there and get feedback from the girls.”
That one-on-one interaction extends beyond communicating — it also explains why the direct-sell channel is resurgent among younger shoppers, with brands like Willa in beauty and Stella & Dot in accessories. “Direct-sell plays well with young people. This is the generation that doesn’t have to prevaricate,” says Liebmann. “Their expectation is to have a direct link to a brand, because that is where they are going to look before they go to a store. They are not waiting for someone else to tell them, such as a retailer or editorial, what to buy. That creates a barrier. They want to hear directly.”
The social relationship between Gen Z and brands extends beyond the digital realm. Teens today may have wildly different influences than their predecessors, but fundamental truths hold. They still like to hang out with their friends and shop. But they have done their research before they’ve shopped and they are surprisingly value-oriented. According to a J. Walter Thompson survey of 1,000 teens, 79 percent said they re- searched online to find the best deal.
WSL’s recent study, “Population Shakeup,” reported similar findings when it comes to pre-shop preparation. But while a young person wouldn’t dream of making a purchase without researching it first on the Web, online and off-line shopping are neck-and-neck in terms of popularity. Sixty-six percent of Gen Z respondents reported shopping online, but, in terms of bricks-and-mortar, 80 percent frequent mass merchandisers, and 53 percent say they have shopped in a mall, versus 36 percent of Millennials and 27 percent of Gen X-ers.
WSL also found that the value proposition for young shoppers is substantially different than for Millennials and Gen X. Newness isn’t a key driver for Gen Z, unless a new product presents a marked and meaningful improvement. “They will have done their homework and will be very challenging about why this product is better than another — just because you’ve added 2 percent more of X ingredient or changed the color?” says Liebmann. “This is a big challenge for everyone, and particularly for beauty.”
Likewise transparency. Companies that are candid about their supply chain, labor practices and ingredients are more popular than those that aren’t. Consider Everlane, the clothing line with the motto, “Modern Basics, Radical Transparency.” Its e-commerce site features all of the usual product information — price, fit, fabrication, etc. — but it also prominently lists a detailed description about the factory where each item is manufactured.
“Generation Z is so smart at researching, and they demand transparency and ethical actions. Gen Z cares about provenance. Where does the product come from? Where are you sourcing your ingredients?” says Davanzo, who notes that a lot of different industries, like market research firms, will have to rethink their business models accordingly.
“We live in an open world,” continues Davanzo. “Brands need to be open.”