weekly feature | Mar 2, 2022 |
Gen Z is here. Should the design industry care?

Hemingway once wrote that bankruptcy happens gradually at first, then suddenly. New generations tend to form the same way. For years, the cohort of Americans born between 1997 and 2012 was a formless mass of young people, born after the internet and just in time for a cataclysmic recession. But as the first digitally native generation comes of age, they’ve taken shape quickly, minting celebrities, slang, music, fashion—and, of course, distinct preferences in decorative accessories and quality home furnishings.

Gen Z is officially here. Is the design industry ready?

That question is a loaded one, especially for those who feel that home is still catching up with the last generational cohort: millennials. Jaye Mize, now the vice president of creative strategy for consumer forecasting agency Fashion Snoops, recalls years of attending markets and trade shows as the company’s director of home interiors. In talk after talk, she would cajole home executives to invest in their websites, set up social media, arrange their showrooms into Instagrammable vignettes, maybe consider going direct-to-consumer. All that Paul Revere-ing—the millennials are coming!—often fell on deaf ears.

“I remember giving a presentation at a home furnishings summit a few years ago about what the rising generation wanted,” she says. “Afterward, the president of one of the biggest furniture manufacturers and retailers came up to me and said, ‘This feels so forward. How does this relate to my consumer?’ He was really grinding the whole presentation. I looked at him and said, ‘But you have to realize: Your consumer will soon be a millennial.’”

Gen Z is here. Should the design industry care?
Ariel Kaye, the founder of Parachute, is eyeing Gen Z as her company’s next customer. “I always talk about wanting to build a brand that my grandchildren will love.”Courtesy of Parachute

Ariel Kaye, founder of the direct-to-consumer home brand Parachute, started her company as a bedding disruptor in 2014 because she saw so little on the market addressing a millennial audience—even as the generation entered its thirties. “So much of my inspiration was not feeling connected to the way products were presented in retail stores, and the absolute lack of products online … Most of the established players were furniture brands looking at textiles as an upsell opportunity. They weren’t focused on quality, and I don’t think they expected customers to ever care about quality, which was something my peers and I were so desperate to find,” she says. “I think there was a general disinterest in millennials.”

At last, that seems to be changing. The design industry has wholeheartedly embraced millennials’ platform du generation, Instagram, as a marketing tool. A class of direct-to-consumer companies like Kaye’s Parachute, Brooklinen, Dims, Floyd, Clare, Backdrop and Burrow emerged as millennial-oriented brands, while legacy players catch up (Lowe’s just introduced a millennial-targeting label, Origin21, this year). Millennial designers’ work graces the cover of magazines, and millennial clients are starting to spend big.

Still, old perceptions die hard. In a recent conversation with a home industry executive, the subject drifted to attitudes around pricing transparency. He brought up the idea that millennials might one day bring about change in a somewhat skeptical tone, as though referring to the wild idealism of teenagers. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was technically a millennial, and that I’m almost 40.

For those looking to get ahead of the game this time and target Gen Z, challenges await. The first is defining something as large and unwieldy as a generation. In cold, factual terms, Gen Z is simply the 70 million Americans born after 1997 and before 2012. As a cultural trope, Gen Z (sometimes known as—cringe—“zoomers”) is cartoonishly depicted as a pastel-clad tribe of ultra-woke influencers TikTok-dancing their way through life. Somewhere in that mess of stereotypes and statistics are real people. What do they want from their homes?

One of the challenges of targeting any demographic is sorting out true generational differences from life stages. Right now, you’ll find plenty of content online suggesting Gen Z is into small space solutions, portable decor items and budget options. All true! But the same could be said for baby boomers when they were moving into their first apartments. Many generational divides we see as fixed traits are really about who’s going to college, who’s having babies and who’s retiring.

Still, most observers agree there are a few tangible differences between the way Gen Z and other cohorts see the world, mostly stemming from the upheaval that defined this generation’s youth. Gen Z was born into the aftermath of September 11th and raised in the Great Recession. Then came a divisive election, a global pandemic and a powerful reckoning around racism—to say nothing of climate disaster looming over their adulthood.

One consequence of all that turbulence, suggest the experts, is an earnest, engaged generation with a highly attuned sense of morality driving their purchasing. (Gone, they say, is the ironic detachment that defined Gen X and some older millennials.) Of course, young people have always been idealistic, but the heightened stakes of the moment push Gen Z to more closely scrutinize the products they buy and the ethics of the brands they follow—or so the theory goes.

“Gen Z is very sustainably oriented,” says Mize. “They’re going to push every generation into being more sustainable in the way they shop and consume. It’s hard to appreciate how different it is unless you’re really looking at it closely, but I see it in my own life—my younger sister is forcing our parents to compost and use fewer paper towels. Gen Z is going to expect a genuine commitment towards sustainability as the bare minimum. They’re going to be super hard on brands about where products come from and how they’re made.”

Gen Z is here. Should the design industry care?
4 Walls, a TikTok channel aimed at Gen Z and dedicated to home, has amassed 1 million followers.Courtesy of 4 Walls

Kaye concurs. “We know that Gen Z is looking for sustainable products, and they’re way more discerning about environmental impact,” she says. “It’s not that millennials don’t care, it’s just that the demands [of Gen Z] are louder and more clear. Where we are with issues around climate today, things are becoming more severe, so there’s a lot of weight on this generation to right the ship. They’re holding brands accountable in ways that are really powerful and spot on.”

Another widely held belief about Gen Z is that this generation is distrustful of sleek marketing. The theory there being that young people consume exponentially more media than prior generations, and develop finely tuned radars for pandering. “Gen Z has zero tolerance for bullshit,” says Jenny Nguyen, founder of PR agency Hello Human. “Sales-y, brand-y language isn’t going to work. Being real will work.”

It’s a preference born out on this generation’s social platform of choice, TikTok (If there is one single point of consensus around Gen Z, it’s that they love TikTok, are on speaking terms with Instagram, and barely know what Facebook is). Highly polished, slickly produced content doesn’t tend to perform well on the all-video app. Sincerity, vulnerability and creativity do.

Kelsey Arnold, a veteran of Apartment Therapy and now head of brand partnerships for Gen Z–focused media agency Kyra Media, spearheaded the brand’s development of a TikTok channel dedicated to home called 4 Walls. Explicitly aimed at Gen Z, the account quickly amassed over 1 million followers, delivering content ranging from DIY hacks to vibey explainers on maximalism and Japandi. The account, says Arnold, racks up more engagement the rawer it is.

“Gen Z is very averse to glossy, aspirational Instagram-type content—which is ironic, because that’s what the home industry does so well,” she says. “That can trip brands up, because they gravitate towards stylized videos that look almost like a set. Stuff like that isn’t performing well with Gen Z. They really like grittier, more real content. Things that are shot on an iPhone, and it feels more like somebody’s real home—that’s what’s doing better for us.”

The other big Gen Z differentiator is that they’re the first generation to truly be raised online. Millennials witnessed the birth of the internet, but many can remember a time before email, or at least before smartphones. Not so for Gen Z. Being the first truly digitally native cohort creates a different relationship around trust of products first encountered online.

“It’s almost the opposite of how us older folks look at consumer products. We might go window shopping or encounter a product in real life, then do some research online. They’re looking at it like, Well I trust digital first,” says Bret Recor, an industrial designer whose firm, Box Clever, has designed for millennial-favorite brands like Caraway and Away. “They’re not as skeptical. But at the same time, they’re faster and savvier with digital tools, so they can dig in and drill behind the scenes more to vet a product. … They’re better all-around online shoppers.”

When it comes to aesthetics, things get a little murkier. In speaking to experts, I heard a few recurring themes, ranging from a love of mushroom motifs and wavy candles to an appreciation for simple silhouettes and pops of pastel, but it was difficult to put an exact pin on Gen Z’s taste in home goods. It’s much easier to define Gen Z’s language around style (aesthetic—it’s an adjective now—basically means cool, and cheugy—pronounced “chew-gi”—basically means uncool) than it is to describe the style itself.

Gen Z’s home look may be a little fuzzy because trends tend to flash and crash among the young—it takes time for a dominant generational aesthetic to emerge. But it also may be something about the nature of the generation itself. Is it surprising that young people who have instant access to inspiration from all historical eras haven’t settled on one look?

“Millennials were a little easier to define in terms of what their styles are: things like midcentury modern or farmhouse. It was easier to box things into categories,” says Arnold. “It’s a little harder with Gen Z. They’re into bold expressions of style, but it really can be anything.”

Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean the home industry isn’t trying to figure out Gen Z. Under new owners, Lonny recently announced it was pivoting towards a younger audience. Kaye says that Parachute is working on its TikTok strategy. Meanwhile, Mize says that multicategory retail brands like Target are already locked in on Gen Z’s taste in decor. (A case in point: Walmart was the launch sponsor for Arnold’s TikTok channel, 4 Walls).

Conspicuously missing from that list are high-end trade brands and, to a certain extent, interior designers themselves. “Larger retail brands may even have entire marketing teams that are dedicated to Gen Z. Smaller to medium-sized furniture design studios aren’t really there yet,” says Nguyen, echoing an observation I heard from many experts. “They don’t think about demographics the same way as a consumer brand.”

It’s tempting to look at the trade’s apparent indifference towards younger consumers as a kind of stuffy traditionalism—a belief, or hope, that things won’t really change. There may be a bit of truth to that, but it misses the real point, which is that Gen Z isn’t settled into homeownership, and it doesn’t have enough money yet. Neither, really, do millennials.

Recent data released by the federal reserve demonstrates it starkly. Despite representing only a fifth of the U.S. population, baby boomers have over half of the household wealth in America. Gen X has a little over a quarter, while millennials haven’t cracked double digits, controlling only six percent of household wealth. Gen Z isn’t even featured in the government’s data.

If you started a high-end brand from scratch today, based only on that information, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ignore TikTok entirely, maybe even bypass Instagram and focus only at the consumptive habits of the 55-and-over set. Millennials may be aging into their earning and homebuying prime, but for the moment, Gen X and boomers are the ones who can truly afford a luxury design service and the products that go with it.

The very slow trickle of wealth down the generational chain helps explain why the trade can feel somewhat out of step with the frantic pace of youth culture. It’s not that designers and the brands who serve them are blindly turning an eye. It’s that for them, the future will take a long time to arrive. It’s like seeing a slow-moving storm far away on the horizon—you know it’s coming, but it doesn’t make sense to walk around with an umbrella in the meantime.

There are limits to that line of thinking. One is that generations aren’t really segregated from each other, and what young people see as cool has a way of filtering up into the culture at large (millennials’ embrace of midcentury modern has defined the baseline aesthetic of the country for years). The other is that change—however distant—will inevitably arrive.

“You might not need to jump into TikTok immediately, but start looking at Gen Z and understanding how you’re going to talk to them,” says Mize. “In the next five to 10 years, when sustainability is table stakes, Facebook is obsolete and everything has changed, you don’t want to wait to have your strategy down. Things move too fast.”

Homepage photo: ©Backgroundesign/Adobe Stock

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