Through its data analytics and ongoing dialogue with its network of journalists, creators, tastemakers and youth audience, Vice Media Group (VMG) has its finger on the pulse when it comes to understanding and predicting Gen Z behavior. For its 2022 Guide to Culture, VMG compiled 10 Gen Z trends, or “culture codes,” brands should utilize if they want to keep up with the audience’s changing beliefs, desires and norms.

#1. Tap Into Gen Z’s Need For Self-Exploration

The pandemic ignited young audiences’ desire to try new modes of living, learning and earning. As their approach to success evolved from a state of absolute to non-linear, new platforms emerged that enabled collaboration and value creation—such as decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) and social media creator funds.

According to Vice’s research, 65 percent of high schoolers said they’ll follow their own educational path while 72 percent of young people said they’ll value side hustles just as much as they did or even more than they did pre-pandemic.

A subtle shift from self-expression to self-exploration has ensued. In response, brands will have to tap into young people’s need for exploration and self-discovery. Connecting to shared values of innovation, experiment and growth will build affinity. So will giving them a higher level of agency, or allowing them to experience the brand the way they please.

#2. Help Gen Z Discover Who They Are

As more consumers shun the idea of perfection, commoditized wellness and quick self-help fixes, Gen Z has embarked on a quest for self-knowledge and self-acceptance. They no longer assign a positive or a negative value to the appearance of their body and face.

As the conversation shifts from loving yourself to understanding yourself, 64 percent of Gen Z said that going to therapy will be more common in 2030. Brands will need to acknowledge that wellness is no longer purely about aspiration—it must also be about acceptance. Savvy brands will become a guide to help Gen Z discover who they are, not how they can appear more perfect.

#3. Be A Creativity Conduit

As creativity presents itself as a solution to societal problems and innovation, it has become more accessible and therefore a foundational element of Gen Z’s sense of self.

New platforms like Strada have launched, giving the demographic a chance to reclaim autonomy and build community.

With 70 percent of youth saying they consider themselves to be really creative and 74 percent saying they believe creativity will be the most important skill in the future workplace, VMG predicts there’ll be creative breakthroughs as people share their experiences and ideas.

The perception of creativity will shift from novelty to utility. In response, brands should position themselves as a conduit to creative energy for young consumers, helping them apply their power not only for expression but also for activism, societal change and self-purpose.

#4. Display A New Level Of Radical Intimacy

Feelings of burnout and isolation surged during the pandemic as we avoided human-to-human contact. The topic of mental health unified people, athletes, rap stars and countless others as they expressed vulnerabilities publicly and shared their personal struggles. 

Sixty-four percent of young people said they’ll seek more meaningful connections when it comes to dating and 53 percent said they experienced better communication in their relationship as a result of the pandemic.

On youth’s quest for candor and to dismantle tired notions of weakness, brands will be expected to display a new level of radical intimacy and ditch the corporate jargon and glitzy facade. This means they must also offer Gen Z consumers a glimpse into the backstory of their brand and the people behind it.

#5. Team With Influencers Creating Enriched Learning Experiences

The evolution of influencers from “takers” to “makers” to “teachers” has given Gen Z reason to seek out creators offering life skills and lessons. Gen Z is drawn to creators who can help them navigate the world through unfiltered access to the creators’ own lives. 

Messages that matter and those at the intersection of activism and social change have captured Gen Z’s attention. Seventy-six percent of Gen Z said they identify as an activist and 70 percent said they’ll use social media to voice concerns and create change.

Brands should consider whether an influencer’s content is influential – does it offer up enriched learning opportunities and genuinely deliver on youth’s desire for growth while giving them control of the lessons’ application?

#6. Rethink Stories And Products For Multi-Sensory Modalities

Virtual reality is advancing and big tech companies are building the metaverse. Along the way, consumers will demand multiple forms of sensory experience. Ericsson Research predicts that by 2025 people will use all senses online. And according to VMG’s data, 88 percent of Gen Z said immersion is what makes an experience fun.

Brands will have to rethink narratives and products and determine how they come alive in Web3, the metaverse and across multiple senses in an authentic way that nurtures a connection between consumers.

#7. View Local As The New Global

More and more Gen Z refuses to believe that anything good must come from big cities, according to VMG. The local seeds being planted will grow into a global culture as 46 percent of Gen Z said they prefer to live in smaller towns than big cities and 90 percent would love to get to know their neighbors.

Niche and varied microcosms, as well as global subcultures, are sprouting on social media and in real life, building global communities based on local tastes and shared interests. People from around the world now have the power to shape cultural conversation on a mass scale. This gives brands an opportunity to tap into local communities’ rich cultural narratives and give local players a voice.

#8. Design For Disfluency

Virality is dead and the race to deliberately disrupt is on. Forty percent of global youth said that moving forward they’ll seek more content that uncovers stories that aren’t being told.

VMG’s natural language processing and content analytics revealed a growing trend among its YouTube audiences—viewers are increasingly seeking out content that goes places others won’t as well as content that juxtaposes light and dark.

Dark Side of the Ring—which presents the world of WWE through the lens of the people in it—remains Vice TV’s number one show of all time, notes VMG.

Brands must defy expectations and inspire untapped curiosities that consumers never knew they had. To do so, VMG suggests analyzing the typical approach, what others are doing and a tried and tested blueprint. Then rip them up completely.  

#9. Revive The Funny And Surreal

In trying to grapple with climate degradation, civil and social unrest, and COVID, Gen Z is looking for a fast exit. Enter: surreal and absurd escapes. One such escape is “reality shifting,” or the act of moving your consciousness to an altered state. TikTok’s #shiftingrealities hashtag has 2.9 billion views and contains videos that, for example, explain how to become Harry Potter villain Draco Malfoy.

Gen Z is also seeking solace in the mystical through tarot, energy healers and astrology. Vice’s horoscopes saw a 103 percent increase in sessions in 2021.

Absurd humor is sought out by 50 percent of Gen Z for a moment of catharsis. Video games also provide an exit, with 40 percent of those who increased the amount they play video games saying it’s because it gave them the means to escape reality.

VMG suggests brands extend past peak purpose marketing and pepper in humor and surreal content, though it cautions against confusing the latter with superficiality. Brands should still test these newfound realms in a culturally sensitive way.

#10. Allow Space For Dialogue

Due to polarization, society has reached an impasse in understanding others but Gen Z is pushing back, urging people to create a space where everyone can feel comfortable in the gray zone.

With 67 percent of young people saying they don’t trust any internet or mobile network providers with their data, many are turning to underground destinations and micro-communities where they can discuss subjects freely.

Gen Z is also demanding nuanced definitions. More Gen Z respondents than any other generation reported identifying as not heterosexual, not cis-gender and not strictly masculine or feminine, according to VMG. The majority said they understand why labels are useful but still find them too limiting. In addition, 71 percent said people’s identities will be more complex in the future.

VMG’s advice to brands: Run toward chaos. In other words, navigate spectrums of possibility, entertain nuance and allow for diversity of opinion, person and spirit.