Opinion – The race for individuality

Are young people canny about being advertised to? Yes, completely. We know when we’re having a brand suggested to us. Generation Z (under 22 years old) and millennials (aged roughly 22-37) are bombarded by promoted content on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat… the list goes on.

But what is it that’s important to younger people? How can branded content tap into what we really care about? It’s hard to find an answer that will fit every millennial or gen Z-er, and I certainly can’t claim to talk on behalf of everyone from my age group. (I’m a gen Z-er – just – at 21.)

Trying to find a one-size-fits-all model is near impossible. In fact, it’s counterproductive: during the explosion of social media and connectedness in the past 20 years, there’s been a wider awareness of individuality and difference. As we become more connected and exposed to the lives and views of others online, we become more educated to the nuances of those lives. Rigid identification with certain groups is breaking down, and we are all set on becoming standout individuals. But, with all the shiny Instagram posts, Snapchat stories and Facebook updates, it’s actually becoming harder to set ourselves apart.

So I think there’s a need for branded content to interact with the individual rather than the group so as to catch the eyes of many younger people. It needs too become more personal, rather than offering generalised content to a wider audience.

The brilliant thing about right now is that content can be so much more interactive on an individual level. In fact, the process of being advertised to can be an enjoyable and beneficial one for both parties. If a tweet about choosing between Chinese and pizza for tonight’s movie marathon in our PJs is replied to by Dominos with a cheeky joke or a meme, it’s funny. Having a huge brand engaging you in conversation makes advertising more personal and enjoyable. Dominos becomes just another Twitter user who can engage in meme and GIF exchanges. Similarly Burger King often engages with customers and other brands on Twitter. The unreachable becomes reachable. If brands position themselves as their audience’s equal, some of the trust problems of branded content begin to erode. We feel as if we are being addressed as individuals rather than by a corporate advertising campaign. In fact, according to research by the media company Fullscreen, gen Z-ers do not just want brands to entertain them, but to behave like a friend.

Look at the campaign by the insurance company Geico on Buzzfeed, for example. Promoted quizzes such as “Can you plan a housewarming dinner and stay under budget?” or “Can you do your holiday shopping without going over budget?” are interactive and feel more personal. Of course, we know that it’s brand promotion; we can spot it from miles away. But we’re getting something out of it, so it’s a win win.

Creating content aimed at a younger audience can definitely be a hit and miss process though. Some attempts to appeal to us could end up as all-too-desperate bids to be “down with the kids” if creators fall into the trap of using stereotypical millennial lingo (think “bae” or “getting lit”). Content that desperately tries to disguise its advertorial intent puts us off too, as we see right through it. What we appreciate is authenticity. If you’re trying to sell something, be transparent about it – but make the process beneficial and enjoyable, without generalising a generation.

The future of branded content aimed at young people could be bright. With it becoming ever easier to build up a connection with others online, brands have the opportunity to strike up a relationship with us, as a young audience. If we’re being entertained and engaged with as individuals, why wouldn’t we take notice of branded content?