Podcast: George Nguyen — What Does Gen Z Want from Brands?

It’s the age old question nearly every business brand would like to know: What do young people care about?
George Nguyen, Untapped

It’s the age old question nearly every business brand would like to know: What do young people care about?

Do they apply their beliefs and goals to their commercial choices? Do brands matter to them? Put differently, from a brand’s perspective, do youth care about who you are — or what you do and how you do it? What are the forces influencing their brand choices?

And when leading global and domestic brands want to know the answer to these questions, George Nguyen is one person they frequently call.

Nguyen is Managing Director of Untapped, a youth trends and insights agency that is changing the way brands approach market research. Untapped is borne of the simple belief that the only subject matter experts are the subjects themselves – and they tap into their network of more than 5,000 young urban influencers and what they call “gatekeepers” to learn.

They do this by partnering with STOKED, a non-profit youth development program in NY, CHI, and LA. Untapped gets the insights; the youth gatekeepers gain opportunities to learn: presentation skills, professional communications, office skills, statistics and analytics, and design and development, including photoshop, coding, and more.

Among their clients have been McDonalds, Nike, Jordan Brands, Gatorade, HBO and others.


Transcript: George Nyguen — What Does Gen Z Want from Brands?

Chris Riback: George, thanks for joining me.

George Nguyen: Thanks for having me on today.

Chris Riback: Let’s begin with the obvious question for you. What defines youth? What ages are we talking about?

George Nguyen: Currently we talk about Gen Z, because that’s 11 to 24. That’s sort of the dictionary definition that’s been passed around, but more so, I think, when we think of young people, we just tend to say youth as in not yet adults, not yet into responsibility. So, includes college, not having started careers yet, not on their own or living with their parents still. From our standpoint, it’s anybody that isn’t independent.

Chris Riback: What does Gen Z stand for? How did the name come about?

It’s the age old question nearly every business brand would like to know: What do young people care about?
Do Gen Z apply their beliefs and goals to their commercial choices? Do brands matter to them?

George Nguyen: It was a natural fallout from Gen X. It’s a little bit lazy if you ask me.

Chris Riback: Yes, that’s kind of what it seems. Gen X did have a purpose to it, and then there was Gen Y and now Gen Z. It’s like, well, now we’re at the end of the alphabet. Really, was that all that was thought about in terms of defining these generations?

George Nguyen: I will say there’s a bit of a mad rush right now to be the person who names the next one. You get back cache of being the person who coined the term so that you show up in every Google search for the next 20 years.

Chris Riback: So, tell me what you do. How do you get insights from these young people – Gen Z? Because then, I want to find out what they care about. I think it’ll help if we get some context.

George Nguyen: I guess, the best way to start with this as a little bit of our story, my personal story. I started in this business 20 years ago in advertising, marketing and research, back when the term “Coolhunter,” I guess, was a job that wouldn’t get you laughed out of a room. Quickly came to the conclusion that I was going to outgrow that career. Back then, my job was to be the person who went and interviewed young people, lift lines, skate parks, basketball parks, and just really being a observational researcher, but in some ways bit of infiltrating their lifestyle.

Chris Riback: Is that just your personality or are you kind of a sociology type person, or it’s just that’s your personality, and it didn’t matter what you studied that’s the direction you were going to go?

Influencers are going to become more and more critical as there’s more and more information overload and more and more channel. People are going to look to experts, and trusted voices, and authorities on certain subject matters.

George Nguyen: I think it’s a little bit of that, but it was also a function of just being the youngest person on the team.

Chris Riback: You were automatically qualified.

George Nguyen: Yes. Who’s got credibility? I think that’s a critical part to how we gain insights. As I’ve continued in my career, that part of the work stuck with us. One of the things we realized was, at a certain point, my partner and I, we’re not true youth experts. Everything we do is clouded and biased by nature of just being adults. I joke about this, but the last concert I probably went to was Rafi.

Chris Riback: Music for kids, yes.

George Nguyen: Right tattoos, right shoes, know all the right lingo, but I’m still an adult. And so, what we do is we employ young people that come out of NGO programs helping them try and find their next career step forward as youth market researchers. In particular, we’re partnered with Stoked Mentoring, which is an organization in New York, Chicago and LA. They’ve got a network of more than 5,000 young people.

As they come out of this program, our recognition is that the only real youth expert is a young person themselves. They have that pass to go ask the kind of questions, and familiarity, and comfort that people are going to open up to them in a way that they might never open up to you or I. And so, we employ them as our cultural anthropologists, reporters, what have you, and then work with them closely to say, hey look, this is how you take your inherent knowledge of your age group, your friends, what’s happening around you and call it into actionable things for brands, companies that are trying to speak to you.

Chris Riback: It’s an incredible formula, because it’s knowledge, insights, that only they can have but that other people would love to understand. It’s great to help them recognize that just in their own daily lives, what they do, what they think about, and their own thinking and observations as well, I would assume, they can generate value out of that.

George Nguyen: Absolutely. I will tell you, one of the huge side benefits for us is seeing the look on one of their faces when they come out of a room where they realize, Fortune 500 companies, people are listening to them and care about what they have to say. It also elevates them to put some weight against their words, to not be so flip about it, because they realize now that people are judging them on the value that they bring to the table and that they see worth, that there’s perceived worth.

Chris Riback: Describe that environment very specifically for me. Do they engage in or serve in focus groups? What are the types of companies? How does that process work? Really bring that to life for me.

George Nguyen: So McDonald’s came to us earlier this summer. They had worked with consultancies to define who their new youth audience was, but they really didn’t have texture around it. And so, the team went out and actually executed an ethnography study with our guidance and working alongside them. Shot film, photography, answered challenging questions about what was it about McDonald’s, the brand, the products, the services, their experiences. And then, we all went out to Chicago and presented to folks on the marketing and research team across both McDonald’s internal social media team and their multicultural marketing teams.

Chris Riback: What was the reaction?

George Nguyen: I think people literally rapt attention. Here you were coming face to face. One of the things we talked about is we literally closed the gap between marketers and their audience. It’s not just that you’re going out and you’re asking your neighbor’s niece, or the 16 year old down the street. Because our young associates went out and did the work, they had the expertise sitting at the table.

Chris Riback: A really broad question that you’ll try to answer as specifically as possible: What do young people care about?

George Nguyen: If I want to boil it down, I actually copped this phrase from Melissa Shrum. She had this great observation around it, and it’s like one of the things is they’re most interested in being interesting. I think, broadly, what that boils down to right now is young people today and the generation where they’re at, there is less of a clear roadmap than ever before.

And so, there was a lot of action and acting to try and determine where they’re getting traction, what’s resonating, what’s interesting, and what’s a proof point. This comes from everything from, what am I going to do for my career to what am I going to wear? Should I pursue this hobby? Young people today are the ultimate crowdsourcers. Do you guys like these shoes? Should I continue painting? I’m trying my hand at making a t-shirt design. What do, what do you guys think? Would you buy this? All of it to determine and discern which ways to move forward, because broadly there’s just so much opportunity and choice out there and so much input out there.

With this overload of information, this generation lacks curatorial expertise. They’re craving an expert on something. Someone to be a guide to show them, hey, here’s a great place to go and why. Not just, here’s my picture in my bathing suit at a sunny resort.

Chris Riback: Let me ask you about that crowdsourcing. What makes that unique? I mean, I can kind of understand, and I get it. On crowdsourcing, I can imagine, how likes on Instagram, for example, I recognize that the picture matters almost more than the experience. And then, getting the reactions on the images matters even more than the picture itself. That said, what you’re saying about leveraging the various media formats as well as just asking verbally to get insight – what you just described as crowdsourcing: How is that different from what all of us did as kids, which is seek approval of our peers?

George Nguyen: It’s not different in principle. What’s different is scale and speed. I think the other thing that’s different, that’s critically different, is we did it within confines. We did it within a roadmap that our parents laid out for us or the community around us. Today, those confines have broken down. You’re hard pressed to look at your parents to say like, “I want to do this,” and have someone say, “Well, how are you going to do that?”, or “Why don’t you focus on school, or on science, or this particular thing?” Because, there are literally millions of examples out there, someone who has followed your path now.

Chris Riback: Do they worry less about failing or, being “embarrassed” by having put an idea out in public? Or, is that mitigated by the fact that everyone’s putting ideas out in public, all of them are, they’re all doing the crowdsourcing, and so is there less pressure that way? Or, is there more pressure because they’re putting themselves out to a wider unfiltered and perhaps unknown audience, kind of what you just described?

The dramatic insight that was presented was you want your audience to go try other people’s food. They’ll always come back to you.

George Nguyen: I think there’s more. Broadly, when you look at some of the stories that are out there in terms of cyber bullying, negative reactions, pressure, there’s more pressure that’s out there. The young people that we work with, one of the things that we’ve really discovered in this generation is the mechanisms that they’re putting in place to protect themselves.

One thing we firmly believe is that… It’s interesting, this generation, what they’re calling gen Z, is the first generation to grow up with a fully mature internet. You and I grew up with the internet in a way that we developed alongside of it. It’s sort of we watched it emerge and so there were pitfalls that were coming and going, and so there weren’t necessarily mechanisms in place because no one could see the problem. No one could see the problems coming.

Young people today are seeing the problems coming, and growing up with them, and are already walking into with mechanisms on how to protect themselves, how to deal with people who react to them. An interesting thing is, for a lot of them that are conscious about their appearance on social media, they’ll show something in say Instagram stories first, and then depending on the amount of reactions it gets, they’ll move it down.

Chris Riback: They’ll beta test it.

George Nguyen: Yes. It’s no different than concept testing for any company. When you put it in that language, anyone on a board of directors or a product manager completely gets, hey, I’m going to do a soft launch.

Chris Riback: In thinking about those board members or even the marketing teams or social media teams of folks who are looking to you to help bring them the guidance that they seek, does gen Z, do they apply their beliefs and goals to their commercial choices? I mean, of course we all know woke capitalism. Is there such a thing as youth capitalism? Do young people put their money where their mouths are?

George Nguyen: One of the interesting things when you talk about this “youth capitalism” is the blurring of generational lines now in a way that we had never seen before. This is one of the, also, the critical differences. Fact of the matter is, is a boomer might be walking through Manhattan wearing nearly identical clothes, styles, brands as a 17 year old. The amount of 40 year olds rocking Air Jordans and 15 year olds rocking air Jordans, I’d say the penetration is probably similar. Because of that, there is less of a clear distinction for, okay, this is youth brands. There are, however, very much youth causes, and that they’re looking at supporting and getting behind youth movements is probably an interesting thing. That is not dissimilar to what we experienced. It’s just, again, it goes back to scale, speed, and the way that they navigate it.

Chris Riback: Do they make their choices, will they make financial choices based around, so maybe not necessarily the brands themselves, but whether the brands are mindful of their youth movements, youth causes, etc.?

George Nguyen: Yes. They’re paying attention. I’ll give you a good example. H&M, last year, had a dramatic misstep in their social media. It was around an ad with a young black child who was wearing a green sweatshirt, and the writing on it was deemed really offensive. I think everyone participated in the movement, and we talked to a lot of our young folks then, and they were active within it, and they were active in decrying in social media. And then, later on I was watching them post pictures and wearing stuff from H&M. I was going like, “Hey guys, come on, what’s going on?” And it’s like, “You know, I’ve also gotten limitations on my budget.” Not the exact words they used, but more along the lines like, be real man. I can’t not shop there. I don’t have those luxuries.

Chris Riback: Are there forces that you’re able to characterize, or particular causes, or belief systems that influence their brand choices?

George Nguyen: Economics and convenience is a huge one at this young age. I think we forget the limitations that they have. One of the things that we say to brands often is be the easy answer to hard questions.

The kind of questions are what set it aside for a youth… A company trying to work with young people versus company, perhaps, trying to work with you or I. McDonald’s is a great example. The hard question is where do you find a place that all of your friends can go on varying budgets and find something that they all like. And so, when you’re dealing with finding a social setting, yes, adults will deal with this in the same way, but I think to a lesser degree. It’s not such a socially defining question for us, if everyone can go to this restaurant or eat spicy. When you’re trying to find out where are you going to go on Friday afternoon and no one wants to get left out, that’s a really big thing for young people. So, being cognizant of the social challenges that they’re facing shapes the choices they make. Really having an understanding of not just the things that you see posted about, or talked about, or what they’re wearing, but what are the driving decisions behind it? We did some interviews up at the March For Our Lives.

That was revealing for us, because we were like, this is such at the forefront of youth culture right now. A lot of the young people we saw, they were really driven by… The force it was the driving was an opportunity to be heard. This goes back to that wanting to be heard and shape their identity. There were also real big questions about, socially, who is this for? Who is this intended at? We had one young person back to us, is like, “You don’t see this parade on Flatbush. Central Park West.” It was hard to, hard to refute that.

Chris Riback: What do you tell your clients? Can they, in fact, effectively market to young people? Is that a viable tactic?

George Nguyen: Absolutely. I don’t think any young person that we’ve ever spoken with, worked with, met with, has ever been against being marketed to. I think they get upset about not being treated with respect. That Pepsi work that everyone lambasted, the Kylie Jenner ad.

Chris Riback: Kylie Jenner, one of the Jenner, yes.

George Nguyen: Yes. Was really around the fact like, give us some credit, treat us with intelligence. We find that, when young people are engaged, and participate, and are spoken to in an authentic manner, then it really resonates. Today, more than ever, it’s about bring people in and engage them and help them. Make them a part of your effort. Make the community and the cultural part of your effort

Speak with them. Don’t speak at them. Adidas is doing something really great right now. What they’ve done is they’ve gone out and they’ve engaged influencers to sell a specific iteration of their shoe, the Five. It’s not a sale that they’re just going and having influencers post ads about it, but having influencers reach out to their communities and connect with them, and because they’re also raising money for causes that they believe in. And so, that’s creating engagement. It’s creating authenticity. I think it’s critical for brands to remember you can’t recreate the voice of a generation. It’s never going to sound authentic. So why not let them speak for themselves?

Chris Riback: Do influencers matter? How important are they? How should companies think about influencers?

George Nguyen: Loaded question there. I personally think influencers are critical. Influencers are huge, but we really need to rethink what the definition of an influencer is and how we engage them.

Chris Riback: How do you mean?

George Nguyen: Broadly, with this overload of information, this generation lacks curatorial expertise. They’re craving an expert on something. Someone to be a guide to show them, hey, here’s a great place to go and why. Not just, here’s my picture in my bathing suit at a sunny resort. I’m trying to make this new thing. The Shoe Surgeon is fantastic. Young people everywhere are paying attention to this, because this guy is not just showing his expertise on sneakers, but he’s talking about the craft, and how he pulls them apart, and teach them the history on these things. When we talk about influencers, I think yes, influencers are going to become more and more critical as there’s more and more information overload and more and more channel. People are going to look to experts, and trusted voices, and authorities on certain subject matters.

I think, the current way that brands engage them, really treating them like media based on follower account, likes, et cetera, is short-lived. It’s an example of how people were able to take advantage of it quickly. Now so it’s going to become more of, who am I looking at who can be a trusted part of my reach out, who can be a voice for my brand, rather than just carrying my ads? If you’re looking to an influencer to post about your work, well they should actually create content for you, not just push out your ad or be seen wearing your product. They should have commentary. You need to be open to their spin on your brand. Marketers, for years, have said brands don’t own brands, actually consumers do. More than ever, I think, that’s the case. A willingness to relinquish that control and acceptance of negative comments, or malleability, or shifting with the social wins, the cultural wins, is critical for brands who want to be strong with the youth market.

Chris Riback: To make sure I’m understanding correctly, the number of likes, the number of followers, that an influencer has, are you saying that’s not relevant or are you saying it’s not as relevant as their ability to become a part of the trusted network for their audiences and their ability to create, let’s just call it, trusted content or additional content?

George Nguyen: Yes, it’s really their ability to become trusted. It’s not that the size of the audience doesn’t matter anymore, it’s just not the only thing.

Chris Riback: So look beyond how many followers, how many likes, and look at the substance of the person, of the influencer as well. In thinking about the companies, I also found myself wondering, are the companies who are interested in this kind of insight, is it only companies who actively sell products or services to young audiences who are interested in what they think right now? Or, do other companies, let’s just say car makers, also care because this is their future market?

George Nguyen: I think everyone should care. At a certain point, this generation is going to move up to becoming, say, have significant purchase power or drive purchase decisions within the home, I think, as parents become more and more open and conscious about the holistic family experience, where we buy things to make sure that they satisfy everyone in the family and needs not just individuals. It’s also a precursor to where things are going. To go back to what I mentioned about the blurring of generational lines, tastes are being influenced by the youth audience much more and more every day. A number of people I work with go to work in sneakers that is guided by young people. It is not guided by what’s happening at Fashion Week. In fact, you could easily argue that what’s happening at Fashion Week is following what’s happening with young taste-makers in urban markets.

Chris Riback: What questions do companies have for you? What do they usually ask if they’re either looking to get your insights, or looking to do some work with you, or maybe even during the presentations or afterwards? What are they curious about on the front end? What are they curious about on the back end?

George Nguyen: I think, on the front end, it starts broadly with quantitative behaviors. Like, what are they watching? What are they listening to? Who’s on your playlist? What’s in your closet? Where’d you spend your last $200? Literally, that was a question in a recent project we were doing, because they were trying to understand the checkout. How do we impact our ticket size on every purchase? Right? How am I going to get you to spend about $200 knowing that the average purchase was $200? They leave really focused on the how’s and the why’s, recognizing that the what’s change. Why isn’t YouTube social media versus where are you spending your time?

It was interesting, a lot of the work that we did with McDonald’s was focused on, what are our competitors? Thinking it came down to, if you’re not going to buy my chicken sandwich, whose chicken sandwich are you going to buy? Versus, leaving and really understanding that, how do we bring you back? The dramatic insight that was presented was you want your audience to go try other people’s food. They’ll always come back to you, because McDonald’s is no longer “a cool brand,” but it’s become a standard, in a good way, as a neighborhood institution. So, two trips to McDonald’s, one trip to Popeye’s. Two trips back to McDonald’s, one trip to Taco Bell. And so, when you ask about the kind of questions they ask, it starts with the what are you doing? It really ends up being with, help me understand why you’re doing it, so I can try and understand how to replicate that within my processes or at least shape our thinking and our approach to speaking with you.

Chris Riback: I guess you have an advantage. You get to talk regularly and ask questions regularly of some 5,000 youth, or some number that’s in. It’s always rotating and you’re getting fresh insights. What else? How else do you stay current? What’s on your playlist? What sites are you going to? Is there any guidance you can give if folks want to try… I know, and I heard you at the beginning, the best way, maybe the only way, to understand youth is to get the insights directly from youth. But, what else? What’s on your playlist?

George Nguyen:  I go to all the same places that young people follow, whether that’s Overtime or Complex. I’m looking at the different things that they’re looking at, but I’m also looking at who do they follow, who are they reposting, and who are those people following and talking about? A couple of years back, the interesting thing was Jaden Smith. Lots and lots of people follow Jaden Smith. But, he only follows one person. Pardon me, the name escapes me, but the young man who was creating a way to clean the ocean.

It was someone that he found interesting. I’m consistently updating and curating who I’m following based on what are people reposting, what are people talking about, what are people interested in. It’s about monitoring the conversation rather than monitoring the sources for me.We use combination of social listening to understand what are the words that are trending, constant conversations, and then having a number of sources that are popping up. For a little while, I was following Olivia Kim, who is the creative director over at Nordstrom’s, because her job is to follow a lot of people and understand what the new trends were. Rather than try and follow a hundred sources, followed one source who was following a hundred sources.

Chris Riback: What’s next for you, and maybe more broadly what’s next for us? Is there any trend that you see that maybe hasn’t gotten fully noticed yet, or a trend that is starting to get noticed and you just think it’s going to get bigger? What’s next for you? What’s next for us?

George Nguyen: Hmm, good question. I think, broadly, the trend that I’m seeing is around this leveling of the playing field in terms of professionalism, et cetera. I think young people recognizing that the spotlights are on them are starting to grow up earlier and younger in a way where the past 20 years you sort of seen a drag down of adults. Less fixed professional, et cetera, going into more casual in the office space. I think you’re starting to see the other end of that now where young people are looking at opportunities in the early stage trying to be entrepreneurial, trying to start businesses. And so, starting to carry themselves a little more professionally at an earlier state age, at an early age, following sources like Ray Dalio for advice. I’m seeing young people quoting things that I wouldn’t have looked out until I was at university.

And so broadly, I think that’s an interesting movement for me. That, how do they start to carry themselves in a more grown up presentable way? I had someone asked me the other day, an 18 year old on a project, what’s the budget? I was like, “That’s great.”

Chris Riback: You’re hired.

George Nguyen: Right. It’s a matter of exposure and lingo, and that shaping itself into a trend, whereas the trend up until now was a sliding dime. We looked at the founders of Google wearing t-shirts, and sneakers, and jeans, and sport coats to testify in front of Congress. Well, we only need to drag down so far before it starts to drag back up and it bounces back. And so, for me that’s the really interesting thing.

Chris Riback: The bounce back.

George Nguyen: You’d asked earlier about who else do we work with, and car companies. We actually did a project for Lexus and their ad agency talking about what is the future of luxury and how it shapes things in it. I was really shocked to hear the pragmatic and practical answers from young people today. There’s a recognition about how they need to be aware of… They need to be more financial literate. They need to be aware of what’s happening. They need to be not just culturally aware but socially aware.

They are growing up really fast in a different way than we had used the expression. We had joked about young people growing up too fast in terms of sexuality and risky behaviors. But in fact, what I’m seeing today as a broader trend is young people are growing up really fast because they’re seeing a void for them as adults and role models in their lives, and carrying these clear distinctions about what kind of contributing members to society that I want to be.

Chris Riback: George, thank you for the insights and really interesting work that you get to do.

George Nguyen: I appreciate it. Thanks for having me on.

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