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Insights & Innovation: For Gen Z, Identity is What They Make It

Gen Z is made up of pre-teens, teens, and young adults born between 1997 and 2012, and what makes this generation unique is its position as the most diverse ever in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. Based on the latest US Census, those under 18 are nearly two times more likely to identify as two or more races, and Gen Z will likely be the last generation that is predominantly white. Many Gen Z-ers grew up with President Obama in office and bore witness to historical events like the legalization of same-sex marriage. For them, the concept of identity is not straightforward; not only do Gen Z-ers accept and embrace their own differences, but what makes others different, too.

Vox Media partnered with Horowitz Research on a survey of 800 Gen Z-ers ages 14-24 to understand how the intersection of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and other variables affect their perception of identity, the role media plays in shaping their points of view, and what it takes to build brand trust among this highly informed and connected audience. Gen Z-ers recognize how powerful media can be in driving acceptance, but feel there is room to improve within the advertising industry. Media and brands are being held accountable for shaping the way society thinks about gender, sexuality, and race, and they’re responsible for creating an environment that promotes inclusivity — but it must be done via an honest dialogue about brand ethos that’s backed up with real policy, practice, and people. In many ways, there are parallels between the way Gen Z thinks about their own personal identity and a brand’s identity.

According to a 2021 Bloomberg article, Gen Z has a disposable income of $360 billion, but their approach to spending is nothing like what we’ve seen from previous generations. It’s essential for marketers to understand this complex and intersectional generation as they step into their own and hone their spending power. Knowing Gen Z continues to prioritize both self-expression and conscious consumerism, our learnings will provide a guide for brands to build meaningful relationships with young consumers and outperform competitive brands whose messaging feels forced, crafted, off-brand, or who are more narrow-minded and binary-oriented in their targeting.

According to Gen Z, marketers should recognize that:

  • Labels should be chosen, not given, with identities being built based on a collection of intersectional attributes. Gen Z rejects the constraints society has previously placed upon gender binaries and gender roles and places less judgment on the identities other people choose for themselves.
  • Media is responsible for promoting awareness and driving Gen Z down the “acceptance funnel” with acceptance as the basis for inclusion. Gen Z’s personal and intersectional approach to identity means wider representation and diversity on screen is critical.
  • Brands have a responsibility in shaping thinking about racial and cultural diversity. Gen Z-ers are proud to be conscious consumers, which means they make deliberate purchase decisions to support brands they perceive as having a positive impact.
  • Creative messaging that spotlights social values that are not intrinsically and authentically connected to a brand’s identity, actions, and policies will be rejected.
  • Media publishers that have developed genuine bonds with Gen Z are the ideal partners for consumer brands, offering an opportunity to both be seen and heard and to build brand trust and authority.


Gen Z self-identifies based on a collection of intersectional attributes and describes society’s labeling as much more siloed. Gen Z believes society assigns labels by characteristics such as gender, race, and physical characteristics, while Gen Z-ers identify themselves first and foremost based on their personality traits, hobbies, interests, and passions. In general, 66% of Gen Z-ers say society assigns labels based on demographic characteristics, while 81% would prefer to be defined by more personal attributes like personality traits or hobbies.

Gen Z-ers’ preference for a more personal construction of identity underscores the normalization of an intersectional and multi-faceted approach to identity. There is a shift from being told who you are to wanting to be asked who you are, with two in five saying that labels should be assigned by the individual, not society.

This shift towards self-identification has implications for marketers. Rather than targeting consumers based on rigid demographics (e.g., gender, age, etc.), Gen Z expects marketers to consider passion points and communities, which will certainly have an impact on brand messaging, imagery, language, etc. Taking affinities into account before demographics will allow for a more inclusive, dynamic conversation.


44% of Gen Z believe gender is not a binary, compared to 34% who say gender is binary. The majority of Gen Z-ers are less attached to labeling historically gendered activities as “appropriate” for only one gender. There is an expectation that, regardless of identity, everyone can do the same things, shifting concepts of who can be strong, empowered, overtly sexual, emotional, nurturing, and vulnerable. For example, six in ten Gen Z-ers feel that using makeup or wearing dresses is OK for both men and women. This contrasts with Gen Z-ers’ perceptions of what is most often accepted by society.


Media — especially social media — has become a catalyst for unprecedented conversations on identity, diversity, and inclusion for this generation. Six in ten Gen Z-ers believe that the media has had a big influence on the way they think about gender identities and sexuality. Content from media publishers has encouraged awareness and exploration and led to acceptance and advocacy. Over 50% of Gen Z-ers recognize that media promotes acceptance, which is important as acceptance is ultimately the foundation for inclusion. This proves how powerful media can be in propelling society forward and promoting allyship.

Aside from talking with friends, social media has had the biggest positive influence on views of gender and sexuality among Gen Z. Social media has more of an impact than physically knowing people who are LGBTQ+. Unlike the generations that came before, Gen Z has an ability to create and share content at the drop of a hat. This feeling of empowerment associated with being content creators or influencers fosters a more interactive relationship between the Gen Z consumer and the content they consume. In many ways, social media offers a window into the world, connecting people who might never ordinarily meet and passing the mic to people who have historically felt unheard, which over time promotes awareness and opens minds to new ways of thinking.


As consumers, Gen Z-ers make deliberate purchasing decisions with the intention of making a real impact, whether that be social, economic, or environmental. This generation is leading the charge of conscious consumerism, where brand values are placed on the highest pedestal, guiding decisions on both what to buy and what to avoid. Gen Z-ers recognize that every time they make a purchase, they have an opportunity to promote change, which is why this generation carefully researches and weighs their options before choosing which brand(s) to buy.

According to Gen Z, brands have a specific responsibility to shape society’s thoughts about diversity, including race, gender identity, and sexuality. How a brand supports and commits itself to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives directly influences Gen Z-ers’ perception, attitude, and relationship with the brand. One in two appreciate when brands leverage advertising to help foster an open dialogue between people.

That being said, Gen Z has a negative reaction to messaging that promotes progressive social values that are not intrinsically and authentically connected to a brand’s identity, actions, and policies. Less than 40% of Gen Z-ers believe advertising is an effective tool for companies to use to correct past mistakes. Even more importantly, one in two will call out brands for pandering if they create advertising that has nothing to do with the brand or its core initiatives. Gen Z expects brands to own up to who they really are and, if needed, put in the work to make real changes from the inside out. This generation thinks about brand identity the same way they think about their own identities; brands must be true to themselves, and only then will Gen Z truly support them.

Certain types of brands are perceived as having a greater responsibility in shaping how people think about gender identity or sexuality. Beauty & personal care brands and clothing & accessory brands, in particular, are viewed as having the biggest responsibility — which is not totally surprising, given how connected they both are with outward appearances and how a person is physically perceived. Alcohol brands, financial services brands, and auto brands are thought to have the least responsibility, but there’s an opportunity for brands in these categories to rise to the occasion and build a company, offering, and marketing that will deeply connect with this next generation of consumers.

As media evolves from its previous role as a reinforcer of traditional tropes and instead takes ownership of uplifting, shaping, and defining the next generation, brands must choose media partners carefully to prove they’re sharing this responsibility. Effective media partnerships will encourage brands to think about their own identity as if they were human — they should look in a mirror to figure out who they really are, and ultimately stand proud in their beliefs and tell their story loudly.


While the majority of Gen Z-ers feel that there is at least some media content that does a good job at reflecting their identity and lifestyle, traditional advertising is less likely to resonate with Gen Z. One in four feel there is no advertising that truly reflects Gen Z’s identity or lifestyle. This represents a huge opportunity for consumer brands to partner with media publishers who have developed meaningful relationships with the younger generation to build brand trust and authority.


Compared to non-users, Vox Media’s Gen Z audience is significantly more likely to say there is a lot of media content that does a good job reflecting their identity and lifestyle. This underscores Vox Media’s efforts to tell stories that resonate deeply. It’s also a testament to the individual brands within the Vox Media portfolio. For example, according to Gen Z users, New York Magazine is perceived as “on the pulse,” Polygon is described as “modern and innovative,” and NowThis helps “unite audiences around shared passion points.”

Vox Media’s strength in telling stories that authentically resonate with Gen Z has a halo effect for advertisers. Compared to non-users, the Gen Z Vox Media audience is significantly more likely to also believe that advertising does a good job reflecting their identity and lifestyle. On the other hand, non-users are significantly more likely to say they have yet to see advertising that accurately depicts who they are.

Ultimately, brands must learn from how Gen Z constructs their own personal identities — not how society assigns labels — to effectively craft their own brand identity. Once this foundation has been established, marketers can and should lean on media partners to amplify their messaging, sharing the responsibility of shaping the way society thinks about diversity. With a proven track record in authentic storytelling and a Gen Z audience that already sees the good in advertising, Vox Media is an ideal partner for brands looking to capture Gen Z’s attention and meaningfully promote inclusivity.

About Horowitz Research:

Horowitz Research is a leading provider of consumer market research specializing in consumers and their relationships to media, content, and technology with a particular expertise in cultural insights among America’s Black, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQIA+, and Gen Z and Gen Alpha audiences. The company offers a full suite of à la carte syndicated reports as well as custom quantitative and qualitative consumer research for companies ranging from small start-ups to Fortune 500. For more information, visit