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Obsessed with understanding what makes People tick

PN Gen Z Zeus Jones HERO

Gen Z, Identity, and Brand: How the “Digital Native” Generation is Designing Itself

How we see ourselves changes when we’re immersed in digital worlds. Here’s what we learned from Gen Z about fluidity and agency in identity.

Gen Z has never known a pre-commercial-internet world.

If you were born before 1996, that might be easier to say than to understand.  

How do you interact with commercial brands when you’ve been called to create a personal brand? How does your self-image change with the existence of an online alter-ego?

Understanding how this interconnected generation conceives of themselves is not just interesting, it’s imperative. Gen Z is steeped in limitless opportunities for self-presentation, and in that, is harkening a new wave of commercial culture.

Beyond this, asking ourselves “How does this generation think about identity?” gives us insight into a more pressing, and more universal, inquiry: “How will the omnipresence of the internet—and the creation of digital cultures—shift the way all of us see and present ourselves?”

We talked to a diverse sample of Gen Z-ers to get a handle on our new, increasingly identity-fluid world. Here’s what they had to say on the roles of experimentation, performance, and agency in their attempts at self-design.


A few FYIs: Zeus Jones used dscout to conduct this research as a part of Athena. For a deeper-dive into some of the incredible stories they heard from participants, head here.

Throughout this article we’ll be referring to participants as “scouts,” the dscout-specific name for the folks in our pool of recruits.


Crafting (& re-crafting) an identity

For our sample, self-determined aspects of identities are more instrumental to who they are than “traditional” demographic variables or characteristics (e.g., occupation, location, education). Scouts view experiences, hobbies, likes and dislikes, and social circle as most crucial to defining themselves.

This serves as a stark contrast to how companies (and researchers) often approach “audiences”; the demographic, behavioral, and regional breakdowns that usually guide strategic decisions will be insufficient for defining a generation that increasingly defies being defined by these categorizations.

“What I choose to enjoy and pursue (jobs, education, relationship) plays a lot more heavily on my life than where I’m from or my heritage.”

— Anika, 20 | Martensville, Canada
Identity1

Chart pulled directly from dscout’s analysis tab.

Notably, these responses shifted depending on the scout’s specific demographic makeup; heritage, gender, and sexuality were viewed as more crucial if the respondent was part of a more marginalized group.

Video responses: Fluidity is….

Fluidity in Identity

Though the deviation wasn’t extreme, Gen Z views sexuality, gender and personal brand as significantly more fluid than respondents from Millennials or Gen X.

How would you describe your gender identity? (0 = very fluid, 10 = not at all fluid)

Gen Z - 6.5

Millennials - 6.8

Gen X - 7.1

How would you describe your sexuality?

Gen Z - 6

Millennials - 6.4

Gen X - 7.5

How would you describe your personal brand?

Gen Z - 5.3

Millennials - 5.5

Gen X - 6.3

Across all generations, gender was seen as the least fluid aspect of identity. However Gen Z views gender presentation and expression as more fluid. Sexual fluidity is widely accepted as the norm.

“I’ve never really given my assigned at birth gender much thought, I’ve been fine with being a bloke in most regards. However, I’m happy to and often reject masculine things and when they come up (football, lad culture, normies etc). This to me is fluidity: being at peace with myself and others’ actions and actively pruning my world around me to maintain that peace.”

— Murray, 23 | Glasgow, United Kingdom

Moreover, scouts reported an informative duality: that their identity is both highly curated, being derived from a bevy of cultures and subcultures, and that it is an ongoing, “work in progress”. These scouts relish the creative process that is forming and reforming the self, especially as new information (from brands, influencers, and friends on social media) is taken in.

Identity2

Chart pulled directly from dscout’s analysis tab.

Identity3

Chart pulled directly from dscout’s analysis tab.

The crystalized & malleable self

With such diverse, evolving, and nuanced identities, scouts reported not only a richness in what makes up who they are, but also in how they present this identity. Scouts reported great cognitive, communicative, and social flexibility: modifying their identity to match certain environmental and situational requirements (and at other times staying proudly steadfast in their presentation). These scouts showed a competence in social situations that highlights the vast troves of diversity they’re both consuming and weaving into their selves.

Identity4

Chart pulled directly from dscout’s analysis tab.

Scouts reported identity expression as a tool for experimentation. They cited impermanent changes, like modifications to clothing and hairstyle, as the “low hanging branches,” or the easiest to experiment with aspects, of self-change

Identity5

Chart pulled directly from dscout’s analysis tab.

Predictably, friends are most often to see and interact with the “true” selves of scouts; employers and co-workers the least likely.

Identity7

Chart pulled directly from dscout’s analysis tab.

Identity8

Chart pulled directly from dscout’s analysis tab.

Online identity formation

Of course, environments can also include modalities, like on and offline. Scouts described complex toolkits and decision-trees when choosing how to present themselves online: it can vary by platform, intended audience, and even emotions and affect that day. Together, it paints a clear picture: Gen Z is far from a monolith and leverages online platforms to try on, promote, and hide aspects of their identities.



“I’m also not as wild and crazy and weird on my social media as I think I am in person. I think I tend to post a more put together version of myself on social media and also a very very small portion of my personality and social media.”

Katharine, 23 | Charlotte, NC, US



“I am much more outgoing online and have an easier time talking to people and starting conversation. In real life I am much more reserved and generally won’t talk to people first as I don’t know how I will be received.”

Anika, 20 | Martensville, Canada



“I’m reluctant to wear a t-shirt that says I’m asexual on it, because there is always a chance that one person will hate me just for that. It’s safer when you have a computer screen to protect you physically.”

Kevin, 19 | Sacramento, CA, US



“Online I only show the perfect parts of me. Whether that’s making sure I have good lighting when I take pictures so that I look the best I can, or always portraying the happy and good side of me instead of both the ups and the downs.”

Demetrick, 18 | Westfield, IN, US


“I have multiple Twitter accounts. One for my professional persona, my social persona, and sexual persona. Each fulfills a different purpose depending on what I’m trying to communicate.”

— Julio, 23

Interestingly, many Gen-Zers said they were more confident and honest in expressing their identity online than in person—citing online forums as more psychologically safer spaces for self-expression.



“I am the most confident I can be online and portray a very strong persona when in real life I’m not always 100% able to in my current environment.”

Casey, 23 |  Courtdale , PA



“Online, I publicly present on my DeviantArt profile that I am asexual aromantic because the DeviantArt community is broadly accepting of LGBT people and allies. I’m reluctant to wear a t-shirt that says I’m asexual on it, because there is always a chance that one person will hate me just for that. It’s safer when you have a computer screen to protect you physically.”

Kevin, 19 | Sacramento, CA 


Still, when asked about the relationship between their online personas, and their most authentic selves, participants acknowledged a gap.

Identity9

Chart pulled directly from dscout’s analysis tab.

Within online platforms, scout’s reported a deviation in authenticity—with certain platforms and mediums offering them opportunities to be “truer” versions of themselves.

Where does social media content represent your most authentic self?
Platform

1. Instagram

2. Twitter

3. Snapchat

4. Facebook

5. Tumblr

Format

1. Share privately w/ friends

2. Direct messages

3. Story

4. Feed

5. Private groups

Brands and Gen Z identity

Fashion and technology led the way when scouts described brands that inform and are aspects of identity. Many mobile-first or mobile-savvy brands showed up on scouts’ top brands list:

Identity10

Word cloud pulled directly from dscout’s analysis tab.

Many scouts mentioned characteristics related to corporate social responsibility (CSR) like ethics, inclusion, and policies related to charitable giving and the environment. Firstly, scouts liked (or looooved) a brand’s product or service, and a close second were the “added bonuses” of these aspects of CSR.



“Two main reasons. One being I love their products. I use them almost 24/7. Secondly, their core values and initiatives are things that are also very important to me.” (Apple)

Philip, 20 | Flagstaff, AZ



“They’re one of the few high street brands in my locale that aren’t completely ethically/environmentally bankrupt.” (Levi’s)

Murray, 23 | Glasgow, United Kingdom



“…I love this brand because they always seem to be getting back to environmental causes and using their money in great ways. I feel like I just love this brand because I love the products I love what they stand for.” (Patagonia)

Katharine, 23 | Charlotte, NC



“Again, they push fashion boundaries for men and women and carry a HUGE range of products. Inclusiveness would be an understatement.” (Bonobos)

Aaron, 23 | Charlottetown, Canada


Another characteristic driving scouts’ interest in and obsession with specific brands was quality and perceived durability. These scouts loved when a brand takes its time to “get something right” in design or build, and when it stands by its product or service with a strong warranty or customer support network:



“I chose this brand because it represents everything that I love about cooking: quality > quantity (in terms of cooking time, price of the cookware, the durability of the products)” (Le Creuset)

Zoë W, 22 | Calgary, Canada



“They’re one of the few high street brands in my locale that aren’t completely ethically/environmentally bankrupt.” (Levi’s)

Kaitlyn, 19 | Temple City, CA, US



“I chose this brand because of how strong, durable, and vibrant it is. I own multiple products from this brand, and I am just amazed at how long these products have lasted me.” (Kipling)

Michal, 19 | Alnwick, United Kingdom



“They are very solid, trustworthy and I know I can rely on their products. Their cars feel very powerful and safe at the same time and the design is top notch” (Mercedes Benz)

Aaron, 23 | Charlottetown, Canada

Scouts also mention an affinity for brands with specific ambassadors or collaborators whose own identities or messages about crafting an identity aligned with the scouts’ own visions. Scouts described “seeing themselves” in brands and feeling empowered when using, wearing, or engaging with certain brands; the brand’s image served as a booster for the scout’s.

Identity11

Word cloud pulled directly from dscout’s analysis tab.

Sample

Using dscout’s participant (“scout”) panel, a screener was launched to 18-23 year olds with focus on fluidity of personal brand, sexuality, and gender, definitions and perceptions surrounding these conceptualizations, and social media preferences and usage. 50 scouts were selected for the study. Here are a selection of demographic breakdowns for this sample:

Dscout Gender
Dscout Ethnicity
Dscout Education
Dscout Employment Status
Dscout Household Composition
Benw Circle Portrait
Ben Wiedmaier

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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