Gen Z Gender Fluidity and the Opportunity for Brands

Until I was about 17, I asked for the girls’ toy with my McDonalds Happy Meal. How could I turn down a free MY LITTLE PONY!? The looks I received when I pulled around to the window still haunt me in my sleep.

In 1998 that made me “a queer,” but if I were a teenager today, it might be just the ticket I would need to earn a seat at the cool table. Today’s teenager passionately believes that he, she or “ze” has the right to create their own identity and to share that identity with the world. At the 2016 Youth Marketing Strategy conference last week, I was fascinated by the way Gen Z-inspired gender fluidity is being reflected in consumer and culture trends. The future is full of brand challenges as Gen Z’s desire to express identities free of traditional gender barriers clashes with a world where prejudice still lingers.

Gender fluidity is becoming the norm. Only 44% of Gen Z say they always buy clothes designed for their own gender, while only 48% of Gen Z identifies as exclusively heterosexual. 56% of Gen Z knows someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns – such as “ze.” Gender-neutral bathrooms? 70% of Gen Z feels that public spaces should provide access to them.

Check out how Hollywood is changing as a result of Gen Z. 2015 was the year of Caitlyn Jenner, thanks in large part to Gen Z’s support of her. Since then we’ve seen Jaden Smith reach style icon status by modeling women’s clothing for Louis Vuitton, Vogue featured transgender model Andreja Pejic in her own campaign, and Clean & Clear bring on 14 year-old transgender YouTube celebrity Jazz Jennings as its spokesperson. They’re obviously not playing by traditional gender rules. Gen Z is creating a culture where fluidity-aware brands will thrive.

There is a great demand on technology producers to give young consumers a digital platform to innovate and express their frequently changing identities. Three-fourths of Gen Z negotiates multiple online identities with ease. Snapchat filters, bitmoji, AR and multiple social media accounts have all made identity play commonplace. Brands like Nike, McDonalds and Disney are hip to the magic that happens when Gen Z is given the power to digitally personalize products – also an expression of identity.

But here’s where this really gets interesting: My favorite speaker at the conference, Lauren Williams of Trendwatching, examined a trend called “incognito individuals.” Brands have the opportunity to give Gen Z the platform to express and explore their identities as a separate persona, without repercussions from a less tolerant world.

This year the Hundustan Times (an Indian English-language daily newspaper and media company) used Snapchat to mask the identity of 50 rape survivors while keeping the eyes and the nuances of facial expressions visible. Participants could choose their preferred filters and then were left to tell their stories to a camera alone. And in May 2016 we saw the launch of Antipersona, an app enabling people to experience Twitter from anyone else’s social media perspective. (President Obama for a day, anyone?) Another personal favorite example of incognito identity play is Candid, a chat app introduced this summer that allows users to anonymously discuss topics with friends and strangers. To avoid the harassment and abuse that often comes with anonymous sharing, Candid developed algorithms that analyze posts and filter out abusive and inflammatory content.

My hope is that as brands continue to adapt in order to stay relevant to Gen Z, this relationship will transform our culture to a more broadly accepting one. As CMO of Deep Focus, Jamie Gutfreund, said in AdAge, “where the younger generation goes is where the future goes…use them as a bellwether to anticipate where the market it going.” Hopefully this future is one that includes a design-and-share your own MY LITTLE PONY platform.

Lauren William’s “Trendwatching” presentation at YMS 2016. 9.21.16.
Ad Age