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The Influence of Influencers: Marketing to Gen Z

December 16, 2020


The Influence of Influencers: Marketing to Gen Z

As we enter 2021, people are more focused than ever on Gen Z. What values are these youngsters bringing to the table? More important, how do we market to them?

recent Forbes story highlighted the seeming conundrum. The article profiled UK fitness apparel upstart Gymshark. With a tiny budget, excellent social media, and some influencers, the brand has become a billion-dollar-plus company.

On the surface, it looks like a tale of revisionism. Here’s this upstart, doing something completely different, something wild. Yet, at the heart of the story, I think the takeaway is actually that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

New Gen, New Tools—Same Old Story

The Gymshark story focuses on how this tiny upstart went from doing $450 a month in sales to more than $45,000 a month. It’s all thanks to the power of influencer marketing and social media app TikTok.

TikTok has been adopted by Gen Z in droves, much the same way Millennials before them flocked first to MySpace, then Facebook.

Influencer marketing has seen rapid growth in the last few years. These apps propel seemingly ordinary people to great new heights of stardom. Gamers on YouTube have massive followings. Yogis and mommy bloggers now have millions of eyes on their every post. Even ordinary gym-goers can become superstars in the world of social media.

As I said, at first glance, this looks like something radical to us Marketers. Gymshark has no bricks-and-mortar stores. They have more followers than Nike and Adidas. They’re ultra-popular with brand fanatics. They market with the fraction of the budget of a Lululemon or a Nike, by paying a handful of influencers.

Yet if we look at it, I don’t think this is a radical rewriting of what should be at the core of marketing. Moreover, we’ve seen this story before.

Gen Z Are the New Millenials

To see what I mean, you only need to go back a couple of years. Headline writers were still wringing their hands over Millennials. This generation has new values! They’re used to digital technologies, so they shop online! They’re killing this industry or that industry!

There’s no denying that things change when a new generation comes into their own. (Take a look at Gen Z roasting Millennials on TikTok, if you don’t believe me.) But we have to be careful about identifying what’s actually changing.

With Gen Z, as it was with Millennials, I think what’s changing are the tools we use to reach them and how we present our messages.

What’s not changing? The desire for connection, community, and trust.

Gymshark Builds a Community

To delve into this idea, let’s take a deeper look at what Gymshark’s done. They’re using smaller platforms to reach an audience that is online. They’ve been successful on TikTok, although they also use other social media.

Gymshark partners with social media influencers. Their messaging to the influencers they work with is to “do you, but in Gymshark.”

This tactic speaks to a desire for brand authenticity. Marketers tend to point to Gen Z when we talk about authenticity, but they’re not the only ones. In fact, Millennials have also been accused of wanting brands to be more authentic. And they’ve also been said to want brands to align with their values.

What’s different here is that Gen Z would rather listen to a social media influencer than a celebrity. Gymshark doesn’t need to pay LeBron James big bucks to reach their audience. Gen Z is just as happy seeing authentic content from a local powerlifter or social media yoga star.

Yet even this isn’t all that different than Gen Z’s predecessors. Word of mouth is by far the most effective marketing tool anyone has access to, and it’s been that way for ages.

Why Word of Mouth Works

Why is that? People turn to friends and family for recommendations. They ask people they trust about the best brand of running gear or soap or even staples like tea and coffee.

People also look at online customer reviews and people they follow on social media for recommendations. Why? It’s the trust factor, plain and simple!

If you follow a beauty blogger, chances are it’s because you like their content and you agree with them most of the time. Maybe you found their tips on the best skin care routine helpful for your own skin. If they talk about their confidence issues, you might feel a connection with them.

And then, when they recommend a product, you’re more likely to take their word for it. You might end up disagreeing with them, but chances are you’ll check out a product that they like.

Now suppose you follow all these social media personal trainers and nutritionists and gym-and-fitness personas. You tune in for training tips or recovery tips. What’s the best diet if you want to bulk up? How did they get results fast?

Over time, you build trust. When you see them working out in Gymshark clothes or recommending gear, you’re inclined to listen.

This plays back to the idea of community. On social media, people with certain interests follow each other. Some are active personalities who interact with each other. Others tend to take a more supportive role. But chances are they’re interested in the topic. People who follow lots of fitness personalities are likely interested in fitness themselves.

They’re all part of this “fitness community,” and they all work together to help each other achieve. Gymshark is part of that community, supporting athletes by giving them cool clothes to “do you” in.

My point here, though, is that this desire for trust and community is not unique to Gen Z! What is unique is the tools they use to create it.

Brands Still Need to Get to the Core of Things

So, what does all this mean? Should Nike ditch all their celebrity endorsements and switch to a TikTok strategy?

Not necessarily. Nike’s strategy still works in sense, because people already know and trust the brand. They’re not looking to Gymshark for innovative running shoes like the Nike 5 Percents—the fastest shoe on the market right now.

So what we can see is that people will look to these two brands for different things. They’re going to turn to Gymshark for affordable gym clothes that let them “do them.” They’re going to turn to Gymshark for a sense of community.

And they’re going to look to Nike for that cutting-edge product, the best of the best. In some senses, Nike is still a bit of a status symbol.

We can even see differences in the communities that fitness brands appeal to. Lululemon expanded into men’s wear and running clothes, but they’re still most famed as a yoga apparel brand. Gymshark seems like it’s going to cater to your “gym bros”—the weight lifters, not the yogis.

This is not a bad thing. Gymshark has seen success, but I think that speaks to a brand that understands itself. It was created by a guy who watched powerlifting YouTube videos and wanted tops to show off his arms. He knew there was a market for this, likely because of his own involvement in the online community. The brand’s adoption of TikTok makes perfect sense.

I think, if we saw Nike or Adidas try to do something similar, it wouldn’t work. And it’s not because Gen Z is “uninterested” in established brands. It’s that the strategy Gymshark is using speaks to its core. That same strategy wouldn’t speak to the core of a brand like Nike or Adidas.

So, again: the tools are changing. The way we deliver messages has to change. Even the messaging itself might need to be tweaked. But that comes from the same old desires and it points to the same need to understand our brands—and our customers.

That’s where Nike would trip up if they tried to imitate Gymshark—it’s not what their customers expect or want from them. And the same is true if Gymshark tried to adopt a Nike-style strategy: it’s not what the brand’s customers want. If they wanted a brand like Nike, they could go get Nike.

If anything, Gymshark’s success should show us how important it is to get to the core of our brands and understand what our customers actually buy. If we know that, then we can adopt any tool—whether it’s TikTok or the next cool app.

So, as always, remember to start with the why!


Here to inspire!

I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing is inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

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