How Gen Z is forcing creators to get real

—Younger consumers are showing a clear aversion to the carefully curated look and feel that typified early days of influencer marketing, says NADIA BEALE—

It’s hard to believe that just 10 years ago Instagram didn’t exist. In that relatively short time, the social platform grew from zero to one billion users, ushering in an iconic visual design system and becoming a mainstay of the millennial cultural zeitgeist.

Enjoyed initially for its advertising-free, parent-light environment and convenient editing and publishing tools, Instagram saw unparalleled growth in North America as other platforms stagnated.

Creators—mom-preneurs, entertainers, photographers, and all manner of experts—flocked to the platform and quickly established an unofficial playbook of how “good” Instagram channels looked and behaved. The most popular Instagram channels were defined by two fundamental aspects: theme and photo quality.

Instagram’s simple formula, ever-expanding editing tools, growing audience and far less branded content when compared to Facebook, allowed its unique aesthetic and an emerging “influencer” industry to take hold and thrive.

Even though it was used by people from all demographics and psychographics with a vast array of interests and tastes, a homogenous look and feel became unmistakably identifiable to Instagram. Fuelled by an explosion of investment in influencer marketing (estimated at $8 billion in 2019), the perfectly composed and generally unattainable content that was previously the sole domain of lifestyle magazines became ubiquitous in the average user’s daily scroll.

For the most part, people assumed creators’ highly curated grid walls were a reflection of the naturally beautiful lives they were living. At the same time, brands and creators emphasized the importance of authenticity they assumed the aspirational aesthetic was what their followers wanted to see.

And that might have remained the case if it weren’t for the induction of Gen Z into a previously Millennial-dominant ecosystem.

Now, with Gen Z consumption of social media outpacing that of their older cohort, a new voice (and arguably, a backlash) has formed around what “good” looks like on Instagram and other popular creator platforms such as YouTube and TikTok.

“I think influencers are making way more of an effort to seem more ‘natural’ and ‘authentic,’ and I think many people appreciate this and try to do the same,” says Isabella Lewis, 20, a Gen Z student in Montreal. “There is something comforting in knowing someone you think is cool is also just trying to get through the day.”

That backs the findings of an MSL Canada survey of Gen Z-ers. More than 80% of respondents said they “absolutely” connect better with influencers who are open about their struggles than with influencers who are not.

It’s possible that a generation growing up with social media in their daily lives initially internalized the perfect images, only to vocally reject them once they understood the facade and the harm they could do.

Unlike Millennials, who can recall a time before these platforms existed, Gen Z might have an inherent wariness about the perfectly curated life, based on their own youthful experiences. And a growing body of research—like this 2018 York University study on the negative effects of social media on body image—support those concerns.

The same goes for the latest cohort of influencers. While older, more “traditional” influencers tend to care about what’s on brand—think pink walls and charcoal ice cream—younger influencers are more likely to post about what they what they want to, when they want to. They aren’t obsessed with a curated feed, preferring instead to post what is meaningful to them.

“I’ve never actually sat down and defined my personal brand by a certain aesthetic or colour scheme,” says Valeria Lipovetsky (top photo), a 29-year-old YouTube and Instagram creator who lives in Toronto and began chronicling her life on social media two years ago, accumulating a predominately Gen Z audience. “Like my age, family, and just generally my life, it’s ever-evolving. I try not to become too fixated one on trend or what others around me are doing.”

Valeria says she appreciates the depth of work and creativity that goes into a heavily curated feed, but believes authenticity resonates better with her particular audience. Her data suggests that her audience prefers raw, often unpolished content shot on an iPhone to heavily produced editorial content.

“A lot of my Instagram content is shot and published on the go, giving my audience real-time access to live life with me, rather than consuming content that is strictly aspirational, all the time.”

Now, with a new generation in the driver’s seat, creators and brands are rewriting the social playbook in a way that answers Gen Z’s demands to get real.

“When influencers are open and candid about their lives I trust them more, even if it is just being candid about trivial everyday things that ‘normal’ people can relate to,” says Dominique Gonsalves, 22. “The more relatable an influencer is, the more I tend to trust what they are promoting.”

In 2020 and beyond, creators and brands will need to balance their desire for crafted photos and key messages against the emerging vocal demand for “realness”—even as “real” is in danger of becoming just another brand trend.

“Gen Z’s are still concerned with what is on brand,” says Gonsalves. “I just think that what is on brand is seeming authentic. It is now trendy to have an alternative style that may appear less curated and perfect—but it has been thought about. In a way, it is about putting in an effort to appear effortless.”

Nadia Beale is senior vice-president at MSL, specializing in influencer marketing. Rebecca Lewis and Megan Page both contributed to the writing of this column.