(originally published on my LinkedIn page, May 6, 2016)
I’ve never been an overly political person. I’ve voted in every presidential election. I watch the occasional debate. I generally pay attention to the key issues candidates care about. But the 2016 election has me more fascinated than ever before, and not for the obvious reasons.
As a marketer and mom, I can’t help but wonder what the candidates are doing to reach the youngest voters, the 18-20 year-old Gen Z’s who are voting in their first presidential election this year. While my own kids aren’t yet old enough to vote, 14 million other Gen Z’ers are, and so far about 3 million of them have registered. They are paying attention to the political scene and the candidates. But who’s paying attention to them?
So far, it seems the undeniable front-runner in that race is Bernie Sanders. Regardless of one’s personal political views, marketers can learn a lot from Sanders and his approach to the youngest American voters/consumers. To anyone who has studied how to engage with Gen Z, most of the following will sound familiar. To those who haven’t, take a cue from Sanders’ playbook.
First, be real. Gen Z values authenticity, and in their eyes, Sanders is as real as they come. He has a 50-year-history of saying exactly what he means, even when it’s unpopular. Gen Z loves his unpolished style and sense of humor. They consider him down-to-earth and relatable, even though he’s old enough to be their grandfather. Actually, his ‘retro’ appeal is part of his unexpected allure.
While Donald Trump shares many of these same traits, Gen Z is put off by him because they see him as a bully. Jonah Stillman, a 16-year-old high school junior and author, said, “we’ve grown up in a generation where we’ve been taught to love one another … so when we see someone as harsh and as rude as Donald Trump, it’s hard to support him.”
Sanders is also relevant. He truly, genuinely cares about the issues Gen Z cares about. More than 80 percent of Gen Z’ers are concerned about the rising cost of college tuition. They are distrustful of big corporations and government; only one in 10 trusts the government to do the right thing. They also lean left on social and economic issues, like marriage equality, racism, corporate and government accountability, education funding and affordable healthcare. Sound like someone you know?
Of course, it’s also critical to be social media savvy and actively engaged in the channels Gen Z use every day, all day (hint, it’s not Facebook). Sanders is not only communicating with his supporters but also leading grassroots fundraising in Gen Z’s playground – digital and social media. His hashtags are wildly popular – like #feelthebern, #peopleforbernie and #Bernie2016. He was the first democrat to run a campaign on Snapchat. He has more than a million followers on Instagram. His emails are the epitome of crowdfunding; he encourages supporters to donate amounts that wouldn’t even cover the cost of a Cotton Candy Frappucino from Starbucks (you didn’t know about their secret menu? Gen Z sure does!).
Finally, Bernie Sanders is encouraging Gen Z to make a difference and be ambassadors for change – which speaks right to the heart of their core values. They have energy and passion and truly believe they can and will create a more caring, compassionate world. To reach Gen Z, brands must demonstrate that they care about the world as much as Gen Z does. It can’t just be lip service; Gen Z can smell BS from a mile away. Sanders wins here because he doesn’t do “spin.”
It’s clear this generation is actively involved and wants to be heard, not only during the election but also in their everyday lives. Brands that understand this, like Sanders clearly does, will be ahead of the game when marketers stop paying attention only to millennials and start paying attention to the next generation of powerful consumers.