There’s a good chance you’ve heard of 22-year-old Tony Piloseno for one of two reasons: either because he created a wildly popular paint-mixing TikTok account while working at Sherwin-Williams or, ironically, because he got fired for doing so.
After major success with his account, Tony proactively pitched Sherwin-Williams a digital marketing plan that would expand its reach to a younger audience on social media. Rather than hear him out, the company let him go because he was “making the videos during working hours” and with company equipment (though, he reportedly bought the paint he used). His TikTok video explaining what happened has over 32 million views and has only brought him more support, as well as a new role at rival firm, Florida Paints, to develop his own line.
I was saddened by the news, but not surprised. It’s just another example of what we see so often: companies failing to fully grasp what it means to work with or market to gen Z, and losing them in the process.
Many agree that Sherwin-Williams missed a huge opportunity by letting Tony go. But the truth is, it can be hard to understand gen Z, to really see their potential, because we’ve never seen anything like them before.
But there are things we do know. Gen Z is unique in that, as the first digitally-native generation, they’ve seen the world up close through a unique lens — their screens. This digital insight has made them more conscious, albeit more frustrated, about the world around them. They want to break from “the way things have always been done,” and they’re savvy enough to make it happen. Leveraging their digital tools, creativity and knowledge, they’re constantly finding better, faster and cheaper ways to solve problems.
Companies, however, often don’t know what to make of this type of behavior, and can (unintentionally) stand in the way.
So the question is, how can we conspire with this generation?
Nurture Their Expertise
The first step to conspiring with gen Z, and the hardest pill to swallow, is to recognize that no one knows how to market to gen Z better than gen Z themselves. That’s why, contrary to Sherwin-Williams, Florida Paints not only brought Tony on board, they also asked him to develop his own line.
A company that’s done a remarkable job nurturing the genius of gen Z is Depop. In a time when traditional retail is hurting and the landscape of peer-to-peer marketplace platforms is fairly saturated, Depop has managed to make a killing. Their secret? They’ve created a space where teens themselves can employ their branding skills. It’s a place they can market to each other. Today, 90 percent of its over 15 million active users are under 26.
One thing brand leaders can do right now: ensure real gen Zers have a place at the table when creating products, platforms and ideas.
Leverage Their Power
Historically, we’ve seen a separation between personal and work life. But for a generation that has grown up on the internet, this distinction doesn’t exist. Who they are and what they do online, offline, in their personal lives, and at work blends together.
As a result, in this digital age, consumers and employees are all ‘brand ambassadors’ in their own right. Gen Z employees will talk about their work and brands on social media. Not in a way you might tell them to, but in the way they feel is right and true to them. Rather than trying to stifle their social presence and ingenuity, brands should use their influence to create the outward cultural ripple effects they seek.
According to Digiday reports, some retailers are starting to tap into this power by inviting their employees to share content on their social platforms, effectively turning them into micro-influencers for the brand. Dunkin recently launched its “Crew Ambassadors” program, an employee influencer network that includes a group of Dunkin’ baristas and retail workers who already have sizable TikTok followings. Their unexpected approach is paying off. In late October of 2020, Dunkin’s sales were up 0.9 percent while Starbuck’s sales were down 9 percent in the third quarter.
One thing brand leaders can do right now: relinquish some power to your employees and watch them leverage it in the only way they know how — authentically.
Play Where They Play (When It’s Credible)
If you’re a millennial, you’ve lived to see the Kardashians endorse every product out there on your social feeds. Honestly, I only have myself to blame for trusting that Kim Kardashian would ever eat a Carl’s Jr. salad.
But gen Z doesn’t buy it. On the flip side, however, this also means that they appreciate when the content is genuine and the endorsements make sense. And if it’s real, they’re along for the ride.
In fact, even the most unexpected “brands” of them all, politicians, have proven to be successful in connecting with gen Z by meeting them in their own spaces. When U.S. member of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez signed on to play the incredibly popular live streamed video game, “Among Us,” on Twitch, 5.2 million viewers watched. In the most unusual of circumstances, while she helped strangers to build a spaceship to try to get away with murder and spoke gen Z holy slang by calling players “sus,” she did what most politicians had failed to do. She got young voters to talk politics, and to vote. In fact, 2020 saw the highest number of young voters in the modern era of politics.
One thing brand leaders can do right now: utilize the spaces gen Z frequents as tools to understand and engage with them in their own way.
Celebrate Breaking and Remaking
Ironically, the video that pushed Sherwin-Williams over the edge was one of Tony’s most popular, in which he mixed blueberries with paint to get an “organic blue.” It’s not hard to see why this video went viral. It speaks to gen Z’s inherent love and savviness for reinvention.
A brand that celebrates this is JW Anderson. When everyone’s favorite icon Harry Styles wore the brand’s famous cardigan on Good Morning America, it blew up. Gen Z was obsessed, but at a price point of $1,200, the cardigan wasn’t affordable for most teens. So, they made it on their own. After showcasing their efforts on TikTok, the designer caught wind and was so impressed by the creativity that he released the pattern with detailed make-it-yourself instructions for free.
One thing brand leaders can do right now: applaud gen Z’s inherent drive to hack every system — even if it means hacking your own.
The truth is, we’re used to telling kids to grow up and get with it. But maybe we’re the ones that need to get with the times. You’ll go further together. Just see for yourself.
Julie Lubbers is a strategist at SYLVAIN.