Picture this: A wide-eyed Steve Buscemi brimming with youthful exuberance despite his six decades on this earth, approaches a group of high schoolers. Sporting a backwards baseball cap and nonchalantly slinging a skateboard over his shoulder, Buscemi says: “How do you do, fellow kids?” If you’re unfamiliar, this is, of course, one of the most memorable scenes from the NBC sitcom 30 Rock.
The joke, it goes, is that he could never pass for 17. And yet he tries. He tries so hard, oblivious to the fact that it’s never going to happen. Fully embracing the act, his character wears a generic band t-shirt (with the words “music|band” on the front) and a zip-up hoodie—a casual air that screams desperately trying too hard to fit in.
The bit is obvious and true—so true that it has become a popular meme in the eight years since the series ended. The main takeaway: You can’t fool kids into thinking you’re one of them. While unfortunate for Buscemi’s character, the scene lives on in our meme-obsessed world. It’s often used as a sort-of eyeroll when authority figures misuse slang; when brands incorrectly use other popular memes to try to add to the conversation du jour; or when a bunch of out-of-touch executives put together a movie pitch that is full of decontextualized buzzwords they’ve heard their kids use.
If you’re trying to reach a young audience, this is potentially the death-knell for your branding attempts. No matter what you do, youth audiences will see right through ill-fated attempts at pandering or appearing inauthentic. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s no way to reach that crucial demographic. With that in mind, here are ways your company can engage with youth audiences.
Know your audience and why it talks the way it does.
If you’re of a certain age, youth culture is, well, byzantine. Whether you’re an early 20th century psychologist warning of the young people falling prey to purported societal ills or you’re a modern-day financier who thinks that avocado toast is to blame for low levels of homeownership among younger generations, youth culture probably makes no sense to you. But that doesn’t mean it lacks reason, despite the seemingly-random deployment of certain gifs and memes.
In fact, there’s an entire field of study dedicated to internet linguistics and how and why Gen Z communicates the way it does—which is essential to understand if you’re going to, in turn, become more acquainted with (and market to) young people.
According to linguist Gretchen McCulloch, the internet is changing the way we communicate, with young people leading the way in how we engage with one another. (It should be noted that many of these changes started with millennials, who were born from roughly 1981 to 1996, but who have aged out of the core “youth” demographic.)
Take, for example, the use of capitalization and punctuation in formal correspondence. Since the emergence of instant messaging and texting, young people have almost universally eschewed proper punctuation for a more laid-back approach. In short, the rules of grammar: done and dusted.
According to McCulloch, digital natives type the way they speak, and, in fact, the traditional rules of grammar and mechanics can come off as either passive-aggressive or downright aggressive. In the mind of a certain demographic of internet users, ending your sentence with a period means you’re mad. The finality is aggressive. And capitalization? Well, if you’re trying to convey something casual, lower case is the way to go. you’re kind of a cop if you capitalize
oh, and have another thought? don’t use an ellipsis, because that means you’re mad, too, or like wondering or like even expecting something, and it’s super uncool and nerve-wracking
But punctuation isn’t always bad, especially if you’re excited!!!!!!! Enthusiasm is cool now!!!!!! Irony is dead and gone, along with millennials’ crown as the misunderstood youth of the day!!!!!!
And then there are more ~*~complicated~*~ technical choices, like sparkle sarcasm, which you use to convey something ~special~ that may not actually be special.
In short: if you’re going to speak to a young audience, it’s imperative that you not only note that the rules of language are different for them—but understand why. And once you figure out the rules, you can start jumping in on the rapid-fire, meme-heavy conversations that happen every day on social media.
Don’t just deploy memes because they’re popular—they have to make sense for your brand.
Toshiba tweeting about twerking. IHOP using the phrase “on fleek.”
These are two disparate examples of brands using memes and slang to do youth outreach with wildly different results.
Source: IHOP's Twitter
Let’s start with the good: In October 2014, IHOP tweeted that their pancakes were “on fleek.” This was long before “on fleek” became recognizable slang that your parents use incorrectly because they heard it on The Tonight Show. This is when it was still the provenance of the hip-hop subculture.
When then-16-year-old Kayla Lewis used the phrase “eyebrows on fleek” in a June 2014 Vine, she was creating a specific linguistic experience: the particularly satisfying feeling of having eyebrows that look amazing. On point. Hot.
Her usage of the phrase (which, according to some, first appeared in Urban Dictionary in 2003) quickly took off because it told a story about something you’re wearing or doing is really working.
Why did the brand’s tweet work? Because IHOP’s audience skews younger. It was speaking directly to the people who are already interested in what it’s selling. When the famed breakfast restaurant pivoted to its new voice, the message was retweeted by famous names like Missy Elliott, and its audience grew by 18 percent in just months.
Source: Toshiba's Twitter
On the other hand, there’s Toshiba. In 2015, the massive audio-tech company was trying to promote the new Skullcandy speakers that came with the just-released Chromebook 2. What did it tweet? “Twerk as you work!”
You know: The speakers are good enough to listen to music. Music you can dance to. Twerk to, even, because that’s what kids do. It makes sense on paper.
Except: Toshiba didn’t consider its audience. Where IHOP is specifically seeking out young people because they are already receptive to their product, Toshiba’s products are comparatively expensive, and its audience skews much older. Granted, Skullcandy is marketed toward a young audience, but Toshiba writ-large isn’t. So telling an older audience to twerk has extreme “how do you do, fellow kids?” energy. How do we know this didn’t work?
First: the tweet inhabited a liminal space between youth culture and Toshiba’s regular voice, starting off with the suggestion to twerk and ending with an assertion that the speakers “sound ‘simply spectacular.’” It was a naked code-switch which didn’t acknowledge that it was a code switch. (In other words, it didn’t make fun of the overly adult description by writing, say, “Twerk as you work! The @Skullcandy speakers on our #Chromebook2 sound ~simply spectacular~” which would have made the code-switch tongue-in-cheek and self-aware. Maybe even, dare we say, successful.
The other indication it didn’t work? Take a look at Toshiba’s twitter now, and you’ll see that it has simply abandoned youthspeak, instead opting for press releases, hard numbers about the global explosion of wearables, and reminders about product sales.
In other words: don’t just use memes and phrases because they’re trending. News jacking only works when there’s a reason for you to enter the conversation. Ask why they’re trending, how they’re being used, and what the hell they have to do with your brand and the way you want to tell your story to potential consumers.
Make fun of yourself—because, really, that’s what your fellow kids would do.
The fact of the matter is that if you’re running a brand’s social media, no matter the size of the company, you’re likely at least in your 20s. That precludes you from Gen Z’s TikTok-making, sksksksk-hissing culture. It just does. And what does Gen Z love more than anything? Roasting. They roast themselves. They roast their friends. And they especially roast older people who just don’t get it.
It’s why a popular meme on TikTok, a social media platform overrun with Gen Z users, is full of videos of friends calling their friends on their social gaffes by calling them “boomers.” It’s why you have videos of girls sitting in circles calling out one another’s bad behavior and shouting, “F- - -ing mint.”
You’re wrong about something? Prepare to be told. And prepare to embrace it. In other words: As much as you should avoid the Toshiba-twerking level of not getting it, you should definitely embrace the Bagel Bites method of not getting it by embracing the burn.
To what are we referring? Bagel Bites—the pizza in the morning, pizza in the evening, pizza at supper time guys—ran a whole social campaign making fun of how out of touch the company is by using the very meme employed against similar brands.
Picture this: A backwards-baseball-cap-wearing gray-haired man, smiling goofily at something just off camera, holding a skateboard over his shoulder. He’s wearing a shirt that reads, “bagel|bites.” He is Buscemi’s try-hard character.
And the corresponding copy? It’s simple. It reads, “How do you do, fellow Bagel Bites fans? -Bagel Bites Marketing Guy.”
If you’re going to run a campaign focused on a young audience, one essential fact to remember about Gen Z is that they’re digital natives in a way we’ve never seen before. They grew up in the internet age, where self-awareness is an essential tool for survival, where performative social media personalities are expected, and everyone knows they’re performing for everyone else, and everyone is selling something, and it’s exhausting, so in order to alleviate some of the stress, they acknowledge the exhaustion and the performativity, the inauthenticity.
Do that, and you’re good. Pretend you’re actually cool? You’re done for.
Do as The Washington Post does.
Perhaps the most successful example of a company with an older audience successfully reaching out to the youth demographic is The Washington Post. Yes, the newspaper. Under the tutelage of Dave Jorgenson, WaPo has utilized the video platform TikTok to do youth outreach—and do it well.
Jorgenson told Digital Content Next last summer of the decision to make a company TikTok: “There’s not a lot of news on TikTok. And, for someone who works for a newspaper or a broadcast network, that might seem kind of scary. But for me, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s amazing.’”
Jorgenson noted that at the time WaPo started leveraging TikTok, it was the top-ranking app in the entertainment section of iTunes.
But it wasn’t just about early adoption that drove its success (or, hopping on the bandwagon before competitors). It was about understanding the culture that makes TikTok thrive. That means: lip syncing, purposefully awkward editing, Office-esque glances at the camera, absurdist anti-comedy along the lines of Tim and Eric Awesome Show.
Jorgenson, who made his name growing Independent Journal Review’s audience on Vine, a now-defunct social media platform that is very much like a proto-TikTok, decided to just have fun and jump into the culture. The news, he told the Washingtonian, will come later, with a built-in audience that already loves the WaPo brand. (For reference: the first video WaPo posted received 3.6k likes. Now they regularly receive likes in the 40k-50k range, and some of their Tiktoks go super-viral, netting as many as 266k likes.)
That means, for now, career journalists lip-syncing to Kylie Jenner’s un-self-aware trill of, “Rise and shine”—a meme which immediately took off because of how ridiculously manufactured Jenner’s singing wake-up call to her daughter was. That also means putting physical copies of the actual WaPo into as many videos as possible, which primes the young audience to be ready when Jorgenson pivots to actually sharing the news of the day.
Regardless of whether you plan on using a word you heard a middle schooler use on the bus the other day or you’re going to build an entire campaign around convincing young audiences to buy into your brand, there’s a rhyme and a reason to the social media rules employed by Gen Z. You just gotta ~pay attention~ before you dive in.
Morey Creative Studios is a New York-based HubSpot Partner Agency. We help organizations leverage HubSpot to achieve sustainable growth with a slate of features including web design and inbound content creation. Contact us today to learn how our services can benefit you.
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