COVID-19 Update

Rutgers expert explains how brands can reach this demographic

When the Olympics open this week in Tokyo, sponsors will be keeping their eye on one particular demographic to see if they are watching: Generation Z.

Now the largest consumer segment, Gen Z – people born between 1997 and 2010 – accounts for 32 percent of the world’s population and has spending power approaching $150 billion in the United States, says Mark Beal, an assistant professor of practice in public relations in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information and author of Decoding Gen Z and Engaging Gen Z.

Beal, who was part of teams that led public relations campaigns for past Olympic sponsors including Bristol Myers, Adidas, General Motors, Kleenex, and the USA Track & Field and USA Triathlon teams throughout his career, talks about the findings of a recent survey he conducted gauging interest in the Olympics and how to reach this target audience.

What opportunities do companies have to reach audiences and Gen Z’ers during the Olympics?

The Olympic Games continue to be a globally unifying two-week event that captures the attention of media and consumers worldwide. There is a tremendous opportunity before, during and after the Games for global sponsors of the International Olympic Committee or sponsors of national teams to engage their target audiences. Most individuals, especially Gen Z, will consume Olympic Games content via their preferred social media channels despite NBC producing an unprecedented 7,000 hours of content and distributing it throughout the U.S. In my recent survey, Gen Z’ers said they will first turn to TikTok (53 percent), YouTube (52 percent) and Instagram (51 percent) before they tune in to NBC. 

What strategies work best in reaching Gen Z?

The one strategy still proven to be effective even in the current digital marketplace is compelling storytelling. There may be no better event in the world for engaging storytelling than the Olympic Games, which is the type of content that inspires this demographic. In June, I interviewed 203 people age 13-24 across the country to gauge their interest in the Summer Games, 20 percent said they are most interested in viewing content that features behind-the-scenes access to the athletes as they train and prepare for competition. An equal amount of Gen Z’ers are most interested in the human-interest stories of the athletes and their families. It's one of the reasons why the Procter & Gamble Thank You Mom campaign sharing compelling stories from Olympic athletes has been so effective since it premiered in 2010.

What do you think the effect will be from the loss of in-person spectators as a result of COVID-19 restrictions?

For brands that are sponsors, they make the multimillion-dollar marketing investment to engage a worldwide audience, not the few thousand fans sitting in the seats at a venue, so I don’t think sponsors will suffer from limited spectators. However, with minimal fans expected to be in Tokyo, NBC's broadcast coverage may be impacted significantly. The venues will be empty and lack the energy, excitement and national pride typically associated with the Olympic Games. This can’t be fabricated for television. Interestingly, 14 percent of Gen Z’ers say they are more interested in the Olympic Games because of the one-year delay, while 58 percent say they have the same interest as they did in 2020.

Which athletes stand out as engaging storytelling so far?

The Olympic Games offer many compelling human-interest stories among the athletes. There is an opportunity for brands to collaborate with athletes they believe will emerge as the most prominent newsmakers of the Games. One powerful example is Allyson Felix, a mother competing in her fifth Olympic Games who has won more gold medals than any woman in Olympic track and field history. Felix and brands associated with her, including her footwear brand Saysh, will stand out leading into the 400-meter event in track and field.   

How can an event as historic as the Olympic Games resonate more with younger consumers?

The challenge and opportunity for all sports properties, leagues and teams worldwide is converting casual, curious and interested Gen Z fans into avid ones by effectively engaging this cohort. One way to do that is by introducing new elements that are timely, relevant and popular with Gen Z. At the Games in Tokyo, skateboarding, surfing and BMX freestyle cycling will make their Olympic debut. In the survey, these new sports resonated among this demographic. A significant number of Gen Z’ers are interested in watching skateboarding (21 percent), surfing (20 percent) and BMX freestyle (11 percent). The Olympic Games will need to continue to add new sports and elements as they approach the Summer Games in Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028 if they want to convert Gen Z’ers into avid fans.