Comment: Gen Z can sniff out cringe

Andrea Hernández explains why authenticity matters the most when marketing with a younger generation.

Andrea Hernández is the founder of Snaxshot, a trend-forecasting company for the food-and-drink industry.

There's relief for millennials all around the world as Gen Z takes center stage as the new ‘it’ demographic. Their predecessors experienced something similar back in the 2010s, when every brand wanted to figure out how to ‘click’ with the younger generation. But, as we've witnessed before, brands either get it or they don't. And, when it comes to food and beverage brands, it couldn't be any more obvious. 

Once seen as a fascination among millennials and the number-one cause for their financial woes, avocado toast can be described as the defining dish for an entire generation. Thankfully, the craze ultimately died off – until Dunkin Donuts decided to add it to its menus last year, in what looked like a hopeful attempt to maintain importance or, perhaps, stir controversy, considering most millennials have moved on to other cravings, like keto cereal and overnight oats. I can only assume it was an attempt from Dunkin Donuts to prevent itself from falling asleep behind the wheel. The company has also tried to look relevant to Gen Z through partnerships with TikTok superstars like Charli D'Amelio. Since last year, they've released two drinks, the Charli and the Charli Cold Foam. 

The rush to appeal to the youth can also be seen in McDonald's partnering with rapper Travis Scott or ‘dropping’ meals in collaboration with South Korean boy band BTS. Drop culture is prevalent among this demographic, so we've rebranded limited-edition releases as ‘drops’. Similarly, Happy Meal toys are ‘collectibles’ as McDonald's and the rest try to adapt to this new lingo in hopes of sparking desire. 

McDonald's has seen this strategy pay off, so much so that its competitors are copying it. Most recently, Burger King came out with ‘celebrity meals’ that are curated from its Keep it Real menu, which failed to make as big of a splash or replicate the same virality. Chicken chain Popeyes recently released a ‘sauce drop’ with rapper Megan Thee Stallion; the ‘Hottie Sauce’ campaign included a short film featuring her alter-ego, giving it a more authentic feel than Burger King's attempt. 

Gen Z have grown up with the internet as utility, as opposed to novelty, which is more of a millennial behavior. As such, Gen Z are experts at sniffing out ‘cringe’ – they're also over the ‘blanding’ that the millennial pastel aesthetic brought about, giving rise to a more chaotic type of branding. 

Gen Z-led brands such as Simulate, the company responsible for the Nuggs brand of plant-based nuggets, are a prime example of the tone and style that fits best with this new generation. Equal parts chaotic, fun and authentic, these brands care less that you know there's someone behind the account finding a way to shitpost through the week in efforts to get you to try their products; it's less gimmicky, more to the point and entertaining. 

Pzaz – a caffeine-spray energy product – has indoctrinated a legion of bodega clientele and Gen Z party-goers with its self-assertive tone and mocking of its own industry, taunting the minimalist craze among the new wave of food and beverage products. Omsom, a pantry brand, is unapologetically loud and proud, and its aesthetics reflect this with neon and bold colors. 

To cringe or not to cringe? That shouldn't be the question, unless, of course, you're doing it ironically. The shift has happened and a new generation is here to dictate how brands should communicate, and it's a much-needed counter-culture push that represents a challenge for legacy brands. 

This article was first published in Courier issue 45, February/March 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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