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Millennials vs. Gen Z: How Are They Different?

They may all look young, but Millennials and Gen Z don’t respond to marketing campaigns the same way. Learn how Millennials vs. Gen Z shop and buy differently.

Young women drinking coffee walking past a clothing store window
[@Ivan Gener/Stocksy United]

For marketers and business owners, understanding the nuances and personality quirks of each generation is part of the fun — and part of the challenge. Gen Z simply doesn’t respond to offers and marketing campaigns the same way that Millennials do, so it’s time to study up on the key differences between how these two groups shop and buy.

Understanding each audience helps us craft the right message on the right channels, and a deep demographic dive is especially important if young people comprise a big portion of the audience you market to.

But first, let’s cover some of the basics.

What is the Millennial age range?

We’re defining Millennials as those born between 1981–1997. This means that in 2022, Millennials will be in the 25-41 range.

What is the Generation Z age range?

Members of Gen Z are those born between 1997 and 2015. This puts the age group for Gen Z’ers in the range of 7-25 years old in 2022.

What comes after Generation Z? Some are referring to these newest arrivals as Generation Alpha. This is the generation that will never know a world without smartphones — but that’s a subject for a future blog post.

Millennials vs. Gen Z: How are these generations different?

They may all look young, but millennials and members of the subsequent Generation Z are markedly different in how they shop, interact with brands, and view money.

More millennials than Gen Z’ers will pay extra for customer experience

Millennials have higher expectations for customer experience — and they’ll pony up the cash for it. In one recent survey, 66% of Millennials said their standard for customer experience was higher than ever compared to 53% of Gen Z. Seventy-six percent of Millennials also said they’d pay more for great customer experiences (vs. 71% of Gen Z).

Gen Z is expecting more innovation from companies

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gen Z’ers are more likely than Millennials to want new products and services (55% vs. 46%). Gen Z is also more likely than Millennials to want companies to translate their existing products and services into digital experiences (76% vs. 73%).

Maybe Gen Z expects more innovation because they’ve grown up in an age of rapid innovation. While Millennials may still remember Blockbuster VHS rentals, Gen Z is right at home in the overwhelmingly mobile era of YouTube, TikTok, and whatever content consumption platforms that come next.

Gen Z is less likely than the millennial generation to trust companies — but they can be swayed

According to 2020 Salesforce research, 50% of Millennials say they trust companies vs. 42% of Gen Z – both numbers have decreased significantly since 2018. That same report reveals that 59% of Gen Z’ers and 57% of millennials feel like they’ve lost control over how companies use their personal information.

2020 data tells a very different story about how these two demographics view their trust in companies, and this, too, has been in decline in recent years. Gen Z is less trusting in general, and there’s little that companies can do to earn their trust as compared to Millennials.

Gen Z is pragmatic; Millennials are idealistic

Millennials were an optimistic generation that’s often seen as being pandered to by parents and adults in their lives. Evidence: the proverbial millennial participation trophy. Meanwhile, those in Gen Z are more pragmatic. While Millennials were raised during an economic boom, Gen Z grew up during a recession.

This generation has been shaped by the economic pressure that occurred during their childhood years, when their parents and communities may have been struggling with employment and finances. Thus, the most successful marketing toward Gen Z focuses on long-term value and smart investments.

Gen Z focuses on saving money; millennials are more focused on the experience

Gen Z’ers tend to be more highly interested in saving money than Millennials were at that age. Gen Z is attracted to purchases that maximize the value of every dollar, whereas Millennials are more interested in the entire experience of buying a product.

Gen Z’s interest in conservative spending is a direct result of growing up in a time of economic turmoil — and conspicuous consumption isn’t attractive to them. They’re wary and mindful of their money running out. When marketing to them, stressing high-quality investments and offering plentiful deals and bonuses (like free shipping or freebies) is a smart strategy.

Millennials like authenticity, but Gen Z takes it to a new level

Brands should strive to be authentic at every turn. Those that do will reap the benefits. Sixty-one percent of Millennials said that companies generally come off as authentic. Only 53% of Gen Z’ers shared that sentiment.

You probably already know that millennials prefer brands that champion transparency and share their values. But Gen Z is even more obsessed with finding brands that mirror their ideals. For example, Dormify, a shop offering decor for small spaces, finds that darker, lower-quality imagery works best for Gen Z. Showing real customers’ before and after photos instead of photoshoots has brought this brand the most success. Similarly, Dove’s marketing campaigns that feature real women have resonated with younger teens who want to see content that represents diversity in color, shape, and size.

Gen Z wants to see content that’s actually attainable and not overly polished. Consider leveraging influencer marketing to tap into content that resonates with Gen Z from trendsetters they already respect.

Both shop online – but Gen Z may return to in-store shopping

Millennials are professional online shoppers. They pull out their smartphones or laptops anytime they want something new. They watched the world go from AOL dial-up to always-on connectivity, and they take advantage of this convenience at every turn.

Due to the global health pandemic, we’re all shopping online more than ever. How does this affect shopping and buying for our two demographics? Sixty-two percent of Gen Z’ers expect to shop online more after the pandemic than they did before. Sixty-seven percent of Millennials say the same. We may see Gen Z’ers trickle back into stores a little more than Millennials once brick-and-mortar locations open and consumer confidence climbs again.

Think about how you can bring more teens into your stores (if you have physical locations) with educational or social media-worthy experiences once stores are safe. Gen Z will most likely remain keen on unique experiences that happen in stores (like beauty classes at a makeup store or exercise classes at an athleisure apparel store).

Millennials cozy up to brands; Gen Z wants to be independently themselves

When Millennials were in middle school and high school, brand names were all the rage. Emblazoning t-shirts, jeans, and shoes with the hottest brands was how they showed their fashion sense. Now that they’re adults, Millennials may be willing to pay more for their preferred labels. Sixty percent of them say that they feel emotionally connected to brands.

Gen Z, on the other hand, is a bit more sensitive to being defined by any brand other than their own. (Take the SNL spoof on “woke jeans” for proof.) They want to celebrate their own independence, and they use social media to find communities where they feel they belong. As compared to Millennials, 57% report an emotional brand connection.

The best marketing approach for Gen Z is to celebrate the individual, tell customers they can be whatever and whoever they want, and not try to prescribe a specific or too-narrow image.

As content strategy director at Salesforce, Heike researches and writes about trends in sales, customer experience, and digital transformation. For two years, she hosted and produced Salesforce's award-winning podcast about digital marketing: the Marketing Cloudcast. Before joining Salesforce, she edited bestselling nonfiction books and managed social strategy and content for B2C brands. Heike's work has been featured in USA Today, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, and more.

More by Heike

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