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Gen Z is rewriting marketing rules. So how can brands in the Middle East stay ahead?

Leading marketing, advertising and communication experts reveal strategies to engage the most influential generation

Gen Z is rewriting marketing rules. So how can brands in the Middle East stay ahead?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Recently, my 15-year-old sister expressed disappointment in a popular sneaker brand and promised never to buy from that label. She took this stand after the brand associated with an influencer she thought was fake, and that was reason enough to cut all ties with it.

According to Ipsos research, Gen Z perceives marketing and advertising efforts targeting them differently than previous generations. They are digital-first but expect more than just creative messaging from brands. They prefer communication that is genuine and straightforward. Furthermore, a report by Statista reveals that 54% of Gen Z prefer social media over online search when discovering new products. Brands are well aware of the increasing influence of this demographic and cannot afford to ignore them.

“Zoomers” are hyper-aware consumers who highly value authenticity. As a result, marketers cannot oversell a brand without the risk of disengagement, as stated by Arshad Zaheer, Senior Partner at YAAP, a specialized content and influencer marketing company.

Engaging Gen Z is a topic that experts have differing opinions on, but there are some non-negotiable attributes that marketers in the region emphasize. Dr. Sarah Percy, Assistant Professor and Marketing and Communications Specialist at the University of Birmingham, suggests that brands should go beyond merely selling a product and involve Gen Z consumers in content and product creation. Creating relevant and supportive communities is also crucial.

This generation, arguably, is the most connected and least receptive to marketing pitches. 

Many brands are yet to find the right approach to convey their messages, using rinse and repeat strategies to an audience well aware of direct marketing tactics. Some brands in the Middle East, willing to experiment and tell authentic stories, have a few insights to share.


While many marketers believe that what worked with millennials may also work with Gen Z, Georgina Woollams, Managing Director of Katch International, a UAE-based PR agency, disagrees. “Marketing to Gen Z is vastly different from other generations,” she says, emphasizing that what works with Gen Z is individuality, transparency, and staying true to a cause they can connect with.

“Based on our observations across our stores and social media platforms, we have noticed that the Gen Z audience consumes, adapts, and moves on from trends much faster than previous generations,” says Haroon Rasheed, Head of Marketing – Max Fashion, UAE-based apparel chain. 

Emphasizing the significance of credibility, Zaheer underscores the need for transparency, personalization, and consistency. “Marketers must understand that Gen Zers are not just consumers but also creators.” The emphasis should be on integrating brand messaging across channels, facilitating user-generated content, and promoting avenues to co-create. 

To engage with Gen Z, Rasheed explains the crucial need for brands to stay relevant by “tapping into their fear of missing out” behavior across product and social trends while delivering a compelling brand experience. 

“Brands need to break the mold to capture their attention,” says Woollams. 


While Gen Z is inclined to authenticity, it is wrong to assume they believe every influencer review. Contrary to popular belief, Dr. Percy says, while influencers, friends, and online reviews play a role in Gen Z’s decision, “They see through influencers and brands who are not genuine and are unlikely to engage or purchase from them.”  

Looking back at campaigns, Woollams cites an example of a video campaign aimed at building hype around Maroon 5’s Abu Dhabi performance. Woollams says her team recognized that traditional announcements of celebrity appearances might not engage Gen Z effectively. Instead, they designed an interactive Girls Like Me campaign around their hit song. The campaign encouraged fans to create their versions of the song, showcasing their talent and creativity. This user-generated content campaign sparked a sensation. 

“By offering an opportunity for personal expression and recognition, we successfully harnessed Gen Z’s love for authenticity and fun,” she says. 


Traditional advertising methods relying on pushy sales pitches often fall flat with Gen Z. Instead, they respond favorably to content that feels organic, and relatable, and showcases real people and real experiences. According to Zaheer, as a socially conscious generation, Gen Z is well-versed in global human rights and climate actions. Hence, they consciously gravitate toward brands aligned with social causes. 

They are more concerned about sustainable and green practices as well as inclusivity. What this means is, they are generally more vocal about what they believe and require the opportunity for self-expression and to be part of supportive communities, says Dr. Percy. Gen Z is more likely to engage with a brand that demonstrates these values. “It is not sufficient for a brand to merely state these values. A brand must demonstrate genuine and consistent substance behind the words.” 

It’s important to note that Gen Z can be quite discerning, and “cause-washing” or insincere attempts to capitalize on social issues can backfire. 

“Marketers must strive for demonstrable and consistent contributions toward social causes, in addition to amplifying the brand values in channels preferred by the generation, ” adds Zaheer. 

A recent McKinsey report revealed that nine out of ten Gen Z consumers believe that brands are responsible for addressing environmental and social concerns. 

Understandably, Gen Z’s passion for social justice and inclination to vote with their wallets is reshaping the corporate landscape. This generation’s strong connection to brands that share their values has encouraged companies to adopt more sustainable and socially responsible practices.

“Relevance reigns supreme when it comes to Gen Z, and they can see through brands that aren’t aligned with worthy global causes,” says Woollams. 


When marketing to Gen Z, it’s crucial to avoid certain red flags that could alienate this generation. –  insincerity and inauthenticity are major turn-offs.

What are the other red flags to avoid? “Boring and outdated marketing tactics,” says Woollams.

“By focusing on genuine connections and being transparent in our communication, we can effectively connect with Gen Z and build long-lasting relationships with this discerning and socially-conscious audience,” Rasheed adds. 

Zaheer says overselling is best to avoid when communicating with Gen Z. 

Gen Z has a unique knack for detecting a hard sell and a quick impulse to look for different options. “Brands that engage meaningfully can foster a long-term relationship with Gen Z,” he adds. 

While a lot remains to be known about this generation, one thing is clear, and marketers should be taking notes: marketing and advertising strategies must adapt to meet the unique preferences and values of Gen Z, and seek to capture their attention and loyalty.

As Dr. Percy aptly puts it, “Gen Z is dictating marketing.” 

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Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Senior Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. More