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How Zeus Jones Used dscout to Discover Gen Z's Fluid Identity

Gen Z is a generation defined by fluid identities. The way brands react to that fluidity determines if (and how) they connect with them.

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

In January 2020, dscout worked with Zeus Jones to answer one deceptively complex question: who is Gen Z? Or, more specifically, how does Gen Z view itself?

Some insights were obvious. Tech and digital experiences are ubiquitous in their lives. Whereas older generations might not have had cell phones or social media accounts until well into their high school years (or later), Gen Z has known them for as long as they can remember. It’s not just an abstraction to them. They’re digital natives.

But there were some insights that weren’t so clear cut—like how exposure to the world at large through their digital landscape impacts their identity.

“Personal identity and many facets of it like gender and sexuality—and even other underlying core elements of identity—are increasingly fluid,” says Morgan Hay-Chapman, a strategist for Zeus Jones. “It’s driven, in part, by a generation that has grown up with the Internet and the ability to see many different lives reflected in front of them.”

She continues, “So we had this hypothesis that people are getting more fluid and Gen Z, we expect, would be the most fluid generation in history.”

With that comes a few sticking points. For one, Gen Z can’t be into neat boxes of identifiers like male and female. It’d be like trying to grab hold of a shadow—it’s impossible. In a landscape where brands turn to data for segmentation and target audiences, how are they to respond?

Morgan Hay-Chapman is...

… a strategist for Zeus Jones where she specializes in brand and engagement, strategy, and loyalty strategy as well as data analysis.

User research at Zeus Jones is...

… democratized and embedded. According to Morgan, “creatives and producers have become familiar [with research practices] to the point where I was pulled to do analysis on a study and I was like, ‘Wait, you guys did this without a strategist?’”

The problem:

So much of what a brand is depends on a typically rigid set of guidelines—the way it looks, feels, and, perhaps most importantly, the audience it attracts. But when your audience’s sense of self is in a state of flux and fluidity, the way you understand and adapt to them must change too.

“If people are getting more fluid but the ways we measure people are just as rigid as they've ever been, how are we going to be able to undertake segmentation projects or develop design targets?” Morgan asks. “We don't understand the nature of what components change and what changes over time versus based on context.”

So on a practical level, this presents problems with how one designs a study of Gen Z—and future consumers. After all, if you can’t cleanly segment your audience, it’s difficult to extract and present meaningful data to stakeholders.

“We felt like there's something happening that was making our segmentations less relevant and our approach to brand identities less reflective of the way people think about themselves. But we needed to validate and understand what those different components are.”

Identity pie chart shared by a scout.

The solution:

To try and understand the enigmatic identities of Gen Z audiences, Morgan and her team turned to dscout. The platform allowed them to leverage remote video research that not only gave a diverse and international base of responses but also a deeper understanding of users' thought process.

“The fact that people could think about these tough questions and we could hear their thought process was really useful,” Morgan explains.

This also helped get over an initial hurdle of crafting questions that their users could understand and respond comprehensively to.

“When we started writing questions for this, we weren’t totally sure how to ask about [the topic of identity] in a way that people would understand,'” she says. “And, because there's so many different components to identity and we wanted to make sure that we were looking at it from a higher level than just gender fluidity, we went pretty expansive in the mission design in terms of coming up with the different avenues of questions that we wanted to ask.”

The team devised 12 different core aspects of identity that the users participating in the study ranked according to how much they associated that aspect with their personal identity. They also came up with a creative way for their users to show their identity fluidity that relied on an tried-and-true data graphic: pie charts.

That’s right. Pie charts.

“We had them draw a pie chart of the aspects that they thought were important and assign weighted percentages to them,” Morgan says.

“It came from two different places,” Morgan explains. “One, was due to how we were concerned that people were not going to reach the level of self-reflection around their identity that we needed them to. That ended up not being an issue at all. I was actually surprised to see how reflective the participants were.”

She continues, “And then a second very tangible reason was because one of the designers on our team wrote a personal essay for Athena around fluidity. And she explored, from a design standpoint, the ways how we explain audiences and people's identity outdated.”

“We also practically wanted some sample data sets to work with so users actually assigned percentages,” she says. “We're trying to see if we can bring it through to a visualization, and the pie chart was the input that we were hoping could inform that.

Identity pie chart shared by a scout.

The impact:

Through its video platform and robust survey tools, dscout allowed Zeus Jones to get a firmer understanding of the ever shifting identities of their Gen Z users.

“The way we've been talking about a lot of the submissions we received is that it was people telling us stories about their lives,” Morgan says. “It really felt like people were telling us stories about who they are and what influences have made them who they are.”

What does this mean for brands? For one thing, they need to learn to adapt a more fluid understanding of their own identity as well.

“[Brands need to start] thinking about brand expression in less rigid terms and about the ways that your brand can come to life,” Morgan says. “Gen Z is a group of people who are so incredibly aware of their own identity, culture, and of how brands work. And they're able to kind of connect multiple touchpoints to decipher or create their meaning of what a brand is.”

“Because of that we can be a little less precious with what brand expression looks like and open it up to be more fluid. We can also get rid of some of those rules or barriers that would hinder creativity.”

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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