A Cheugy Content Marketer’s Guide To Writing for Gen Z

This year I turned 40, and that’s when I saw it: the word cheugy. As a wordsmith by trade, I pride myself on amassing a rather extensive vocabulary and cultivation of hip current verbiage to sprinkle throughout my prose, but here it was: cheugy, a glaring omission.

Imagine my horror, then, when I realized this was a derogatory term to describe old fogeys with side-parts and skinny jeans, with “Live Laugh Love” signs in their dining rooms and an obnoxious “Millennial girlboss energy.”

We are the opposite of trendy. We are not just uncool; we try too hard. Ouch.

This is a bristly generation that doesn’t want you to exactly like them. If Millennials have “Ok, Boomer,” Gen Z has one-upped you with “Ok, #Cheuglife.” How can you, as a marketer or content writer, reach this group then, without running the risk of appearing painfully square? You can’t exactly afford to leave 72 million potential buyers born between 1997 and 2012 out there in the lurch, can you?

Before you panic, bury yourself in a pumpkin spice latte, and start binge-watching “The Office,” consider these often-overlooked angles to reach out an olive branch to this generation of neophytes just coming into their own. 

The Ground Rules for Growth Marketers: Qualities Valued by Gen Z 

First, understand where your brand messaging may have gone astray or where it shines by considering what Gen Z values most, notably: 

Altruism.

It’s not about you; it’s about them. Research! Get to know your prospective clients or customers on a deeper level. Ask questions. Empathize. Rather than advertising to people, start a conversation with your audience.

Authenticity.

Look good for yourself, not for others. No one likes a showoff. Rather than rushing to color your website with rainbow colors for Pride Month, focus on hiring for diversity and spotlighting stories from your valued team members all year round.

Fun.

Don’t espouse “Live, Laugh, Love”—just do it. Gen Z shoppers expect you to offer a fun workplace and treat your employees like family. In fact, you should treat your patrons like family too.

Originality.

Popularity can be a curse. Just ask Birkenstocks, chevron patterns, Baby Yoda, holiday tees, popsockets, Uggs, cruise ships, Bath & Body Works, the Cheesecake Factory, Smirnoff vodka, Alex & Ani bracelets, cargo shorts, neon sunglasses, and betta fish. If everyone’s doing it, don’t. 

Savvy.

Brainstorm hands-on activities that engage prospects in new ways. They want demos, trials, and events where they can try before they buy. Communicate improvements to make their lives more frictionless. Remember, they were practically born with an umbilical cord connected to technology, and innovation is expected.

Thrift.

Generations are getting more environmentally conscious by the decade. Consumers understand the enormous power they possess and seek to give their business to companies who share their values. Consider ways you can upcycle, recycle, make charitable contributions, and help your customers or clients reduce needless consumption.

Learn why the best return on your marketing dollar comes from copywriting.

Where and How To Say Hello 

Gen Zs aren’t reading your cheuglife corporate blog, that’s for sure. They eat, sleep, and breathe social: with almost 50% of Gen Zs spending more than 10 hours on social each day. They’re not just chatting with friends: 72 percent of Gen Z said they’d more readily purchase from brands they follow on social media, according to National Retail Federation surveys

Where are they, you ask? While it’s true social sites are hot one day and cold potatoes another, Gen Zs have remained loyal to Instagram, where 75% engage with brands. Instagram challenges you to be short and sweet in your copy. If you’re writing an ad, you’re allowed 40 characters for a headline, 125 characters for body text, and 30 characters for the link description. For a post caption, you get 125 characters above the fold and a total of 2,200. Be judicious, however, as no more than 50 characters are recommended for maximum impact. You’ll also need a dazzling image to go with your post, so cozy up to a decent photographer if you haven’t already.  

Three Non-Cheugy Content Marketers Who Really ‘Get’ Gen Z

It’s all too easy to overthink messaging when courting a young audience. Do I sound like I’m trying too hard? Are my buzzwords too dated? Will they think I’m funny or lame? Fortunately, others have put themselves out there and we can learn from their successes:

Show You Understand the Current Situation (and Care) Like Simmons

Over 60% of TikTok users were born after 1996. A 150-year-old mattress brand is maybe the last company you’d expect to make waves on the video platform, but Simmons proved they totally rock with their #snoozzzapalooza campaign by inviting fans to film a “stage dive” onto their beds. 

While the concept may sound simple, they reached an untapped market by addressing the lack of concerts and music festivals due to COVID-19 restrictions, while simultaneously making the boring mattress shopping experience of old into a more exciting event. 

Simmons initially partnered with five creators using an original soundtrack made for the campaign to highlight the idea that “there’s still one place you can experience music festivals this summer: in your dreams.” More than one million people created videos for the hashtag and over six billion people watched, increasing the brand website’s traffic by 104%.

Show Your Social Consciousness Like Parade

There’s too much hate to go around. Gen Z knows it. They’re not just socially conscious on paper; they’re living it: 1 in 6 Gen Zs identify as LGBTQ+; 3% consider themselves transgender or gender fluid, but 47% know someone who identifies as such; and nearly half are part of a racial or ethnic minority group. Nearly three-quarters of Gen Z say they feel overwhelmed by the transition from youth to adulthood, and almost half have experienced mental health challenges. 

Parade is an underwear brand that meets Gen Z where they are by focusing on inclusivity and body positivity. “I grew up going to the mall, seeing supermodels blown up on storefronts and thinking: this is what it means to be sexy,” CEO Cami Tellez explains on the About Us page. “For too long, underwear has been about restricting us to a flat pink surface, but now we know that’s just one glint in the sea of self-expression.”  

They are advocates for self-expression of all forms, LGBTQ+ rights, and the decriminalization of sex trade work—and they put their money where their mouth is. In a section about Social Good, the company explains that 1% of all sales go toward the Arbor Day Foundation to plant trees, The Loveland Foundation to provide Black women and girls with financial assistance and mental health support, and local organizations that support LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. 

Parade’s Instagram is packed with eye-catching visuals accompanied by very brief captions and ads for their latest products featuring a diverse range of models with bio links. The inclusive approach has paid off: the brand reached a value of $23 million in two short years and quadrupled their revenue in 2021, thanks, largely, to exceptional popularity among Gen Z shoppers

Find the Funny Like Cleo 

It’s hard to conceive how a fintech app could have 4 million Gen Z (and Millennial) users, but Cleo has managed to corner the younger market with their irresistible brand of cheeky humor. In a highly competitive market where all budget assistants are essentially offering the same thing, “voice is the biggest unique selling point,” Cleo’s Head of Copy Earl Myers told Writer.com. 

The app comes with an optional “roast mode,” which shames you with reaction GIFs and rude burns for how much you spend, how little you’ve saved, or for the questions you pose. 

According to Cleo’s blog, roast mode was born from an unintentional quip from the AI during testing: “Congrats you’ve saved £0! Double that and you could save £0 by next month!” They made roast mode an optional feature on Valentine’s Day, but incorporated it as a core feature after experiencing wild success. Unlike the more subservient AI assistants Siri and Alexa, Cleo has claws and will fight back—which is refreshing, bold, and counter to stereotypes.

Cleo will make you chuckle, but they’ll also make you think. They used their blog space to give voice to more serious issues—like misogyny in finance (see “Free Motherf*cking Britney”) and the exorbitant price of rent across the country (see “Rent’s Out of Control and We’re Pissed About It”). Sure, they’ve got practical finance pieces about budgeting for Valentine’s Day, improving credit, and planning your next career move, but it’s entertaining and enjoyable to read. 

The company went from raising $10 million in funding in 2018 to $44 million by 2020. They’ve got skills. 

Photo by Nathana Reboucas via Unsplash

Wait, WHY The Feud Between Millennials and Gen Z?

So, now you see, it’s not impossible to build a bridge to Gen Z. Some companies are slaying it, despite the uphill battle. That’s good news, but you may still have nagging questions. I get that. I do, too. 

“Gen Z is being raised by Gen X, whereas Millennials were raised by Boomers and it shows.” The tweet is the equivalent of the “Yo Mama” jokes we grew up telling. A dose of our own medicine. And yet, it seems counterintuitive that a generation known for inclusiveness and social consciousness would resort to such… well… bullying. What gives?

Millennials (roughly 1980-1995) were born well before 9/11 disrupted the collective psyche. We still grew up believing in the American Dream and then we watched it crumble. We weren’t in charge, so there were plenty of scapegoats to cast blame on the broken system—politicians, economic downturns, big pharma, gun manufacturers, big business. Many of us turned inward, toward things we could control—like what we choose to buy or how we present ourselves to the world. 

“When I think of Millennials, I think of a Twitter account with a bunch of labels in the bio,” 20-year-old TikTok star Serena Shahidi told Buzzfeed. It’s these “coping mechanisms” they can’t help but mock. It can be hard for them to watch Millennials placing so much stock in the brands they love, their 90s nostalgia, their interests, and bought identities. (See Exhibit A: Mug reading But First, Coffee! Also, Exhibit B: Shirt reading Rosé All Day.) “That’s cute, Millennials,” they shrug, “but whatever. You do you.” 

Gen Z (1997-2012) doesn’t know a world before digital; Facebook came out when the oldest Gen Zs were seven, the iPhone when they were 10. They had no period of prosperity and peace—rather, disruption and change has just always been the norm: the War on Terror, the Great Recession, school shootings, climate change. They’re just biding their time to tear down the system. 

Where Millennials are earnest and homespun, Gen Z pushes buttons with radical messaging, a healthy dose of irony, and a borderline-nihilistic worldview. Gen Zs never really had fanciful dreams. They aren’t looking to impress their peers, but they are looking to support movements, philosophies, and ideals that resonate with them. Shahidi explains: “I think just because we grew up without the serious dreams that millennials had, and that we kind of grew up with this lack of hope, that we’ve learned to accept and make a joke out of it.” 

My Take?

It’s not easy being 40, but who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? We can all borrow a page from Gen Z who wants us to live more authentically and be our best selves without worrying what anybody thinks. We can all learn to be a little more accepting of others and not take ourselves so seriously. After freeing ourselves from anxiety about what Gen Z will think of our copywriting, then we can finally live, laugh, love in peace.

Jennn Fusion

Jennn Fusion

Jennn made up her mind to become a writer when she was five years old and has buried herself in research and the written word ever since. She grew up a snowboarding, guitar-playing, concert-going punk-rocker in Buffalo, NY, home of the chicken wing. After earning a BA in Journalism and English from SUNY Geneseo, she spent most of her twenties working as a music journalist and a promotions marketing manager in Toronto. Her freelance writing career spans nearly two decades of crafting copy for lawyers, doctors, realtors, digital marketers, tech startups, and consultants. When she's not on her laptop with 100 tabs open, she's hanging out with her German Shepherds, husband, and two children; dressing up at theme parties; excelling at Cards Against Humanity and Puns of Anarchy; cruising the ocean; or venturing into the woods to live like Thoreau. 

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