Here are the key differences between Gen Z and Gen Alpha that brands and agencies need to understand

It might seem like Gen Z and Gen Alpha are very similar, but some agencies studying these younger cohorts have found nuances and distinctions in how they consume media, game and interact with brands.

Last week, Publicis’ interactive agency Razorfish released its Gen Alpha study discussing the differences and similarities between the two generations. The study was done with research partners GWI and The Pineapple Lounge and included more than 900 respondents of both generations based in the U.S.

Gen Alpha are the children of millennials and the older end of Gen Z, and are expected to reach some 2.2 billion globally by 2024, according to the report. They are younger than 17 years old (born after 2010), whereas Gen Z are between 18 to 25.

Along with Razorfish, agencies from Omnicom to WPP’s Wunderman Thompson have been researching Gen Alpha in order to learn about the ways and habits of this entirely digital-only generation. Dani Mariano, president of Razorfish, explained that companies have been caught off guard by Gen Alpha’s digital savviness that is “[forcing them] to market in new ways, on new channels, and to an elevated standard.”

“We felt this was the right time to explore this up-and-coming generation because the reality is, the oldest are quickly approaching adulthood,” Mariano said. “Yet, most brands and agencies are focused on the present.”

Here are some of the findings on Gen Alpha differences – and what agencies are learning about them as consumers.

Platforms, devices and gaming

For Gen Alpha, devices and tech usage starts early – many as young as between 3 and 5 already have tablets: 43% have one before age 6. Between ages 6 and 7, they start using more complex technologies, including video game consoles, earbuds and smart TVs. Laptops are introduced between ages 8 and 9, while smartphones are introduced by age 10, per Razorfish.

Gaming is a major hobby for both cohorts. However, for Gen Alpha, gaming is seen as a way to express their creativity. They like building and creating their own worlds, compared to Gen Z gamers that use it for escaping and relaxing.

YouTube stood out by far as the top platform for Gen Alpha, whether it is for entertainment, search or product discovery. Razorfish found 51% of Alphas first hear about brands through the video platform, compared to 47% of Gen Z viewers that hear about brands on traditional social media, like Instagram and TikTok.

Noah Mallin, chief strategy officer of media and social agency IMGN Media, said both groups use the major platforms, just in different ways. “The truth is, they are on many of the same platforms, like YouTube, but they’re more likely to use Shorts, so the behavior is different,” he said.

Mallin also noted that brands are increasingly seeing “blending” on platforms like Roblox, which combines gaming and social purposes. “The old model was assuming people were watching TV while also using their smartphones,” he added. “For Gen Alpha, it’s more like studying on Quizlet on your smartphone, while YouTube is on in the background on the family Roku – and you’re using the computer to hang out with friends in Minecraft.”

Brand relationships

Having greater access to online platforms and devices has accelerated Gen Alpha’s brand maturity at a higher rate, Razorfish found. Brands that were previously focused on adults are now pulling in Alpha consumers as they move away from kids brands. Some of their favorite brands include Netflix, Disney, Nintendo, Amazon, Nike and Apple.

Christy Parrish, director of strategic consulting at marketing and engagement platform Cordial, pushes back on the misconception that Gen Alpha is only influenced by social media and has little buying power. In reality, she said they are swaying parents and family decisions and play a big role in shaping retail experiences.

“We’re even seeing retailers leverage app-based capabilities allowing tweens to purchase apparel by sending it to their parents for approval and funding,” Parrish said. “This means family-centric campaigns should work well with this group.”

More importantly, future brand relationships will be formed through people – think influencers and content creators – rather than a particular brand’s representation. Social agency Billion Dollar Boy said that brands can start testing their content with Gen Alpha through strategic talent partnerships to gather data.

“Brands will need influencers to communicate effectively with consumers in a more relatable way,” said Ed East, global CEO of Billion Dollar Boy. “Gen Alpha consumers will be discerning of brands who don’t reflect authentic human experiences and voices.”

Identity and passions

Gen Alpha also seems to be more focused on a sense of purpose compared to Gen Z. That’s not to say Gen Z doesn’t care about having a purpose, but some 30% of Gen Alpha identified their two future career choices as helping people or animals in need, respectively, per Razorfish. In contrast, 15% of Gen Z said helping people or animals was their career choice.

Additionally, Razorfish found that Alphas value sustainability, inclusion and being open to world views – and are outpacing Gen Zers across these values. Mental health is also a priority for Alphas, even at a young age: 75% of 8-10 year-olds are thinking about mental health and turn to exercise/being outdoors and talking to family and friends. The research also mentioned COVID impacting the acceleration and adoption of technologies for Gen Alpha, but that this generation seeks to find a healthy balance between online and offline activities.

“For Alphas, mental health support will likely become a major driver of brand affinity and purchase consideration,” the report noted.

Lauren McFarland, influencer marketing director at Journey Further, agreed that Gen Alpha is more aware of their mental health and well-being. 

“Brands therefore need to be creative and adaptable,” McFarland added. “They need to consider how they can create meaningful moments and experiences for Gen Alpha – both in the virtual and real world. But be quick, this generation has been skipping YouTube ads since they were born.”

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