Congratulations and welcome to the graduating class of 2026, the largest, most diverse, best-educated cohort in American history, and—despite their size and buying power—quite possibly the worst nightmare for U.S. retailers and branders.
What will these new graduates want from retailers, branders, and the media? How will they spend their paychecks as they enter the workforce? How can businesses get into position to meet their expectations? Those are just some of the literally trillion-dollar questions facing all branders.
Based on the conclusions of A.T. Kearney’s Consumers@250, which analyzed what American society and shopping behaviors will look like when the nation turns 250 years old in 2026, the answer is the new graduates will demand “VOCAL” offerings. VOCAL, in this case, is the acronym for values-oriented goods and services featuring optionality, connectivity, authenticity, and—where possible—local sourcing.
For the 70-plus years since the end of World War II, America has seen the power of the individual rise steadily, beginning with the isolated iconoclasts of the Beat Generation and moving straight through to the tie-dyed hippie Boomers and their Gen X and Millennial children. In Gen Z that individual power, amplified through digital communication technologies, has created a new cultural and economic reality, transforming the consumer experience.
So what exactly will VOCAL 2026 grads look for from retailers and branders? It all starts—or stops—with values. While Millennials were content to passively sit and skim the surface of social consciousness, comfortably sipping free trade lattes, carrying some random NGO’s “certified” label, Gen Z wants to know exactly how deep a company’s social convictions really run. That’s why savvy branders like Warby Parker and Tom’s go to such great lengths to communicate the depth and targeting of their commitment to social causes. Values are critical to Gen Z, but options are almost equally as important.
This isn’t a generation that aspires to mass-market status symbols. The more individualized the offer, the better the brand is received. As marketing models begin to understand the critical importance of individual influencers, retailers and consumer goods manufacturers are realizing that brands win when they offer bespoke, customized products and experiences to their customers. From the Stitchfix/Birchbox model to companies like Function of Beauty—offering customers the ability to curate their own shampoo collections—we see the next generation of retail brands bowing to the power of influencers.
Connectivity is clearly critical, particularly if it involves visuals. The generational interest in connecting with a personal, peer-driven social network, especially if what you are sharing is visual, explains why Gen Z prefers social media like Snapchat, Instagram, and even YouTube to connect with friends and specific communities of interest over, say, Facebook, the mass social network of choice of their parents or, even worse, their grandparents, which offers a larger platform for communication.
This has broad implications. Branders—whether retailers, manufacturers, or service providers—have to learn how to master a new set of narrative building tools and techniques. It won’t be enough to just tell your story to the class of 2026. Save your breath; they aren’t listening.
Instead, successful branders will find ways to embed their stories inside the stories of other Gen Zers, so that when one person is telling a story to a peer, the person is also telling part of your story. This may happen by sponsoring an event, providing an experience attracting young shoppers, or by creating a community-based social cause—like adopting a park or providing meals to the poor. When one Gen Zer tells her or his story to the person’s network, he or she will carry your brand message right along.
For example, let’s say a business called Care Stores—a supermarket operator—wanted to provide a weekend breakfast program for low-income elementary school students. By recruiting volunteers from the class of 2026, Care Stores almost guarantees itself a good deal of free, positive, non-commercial attention as those volunteers document their days through photos, videos, and blogs shared with their network.
Authenticity is of course a fairly high hurdle for many branders, especially when they are dealing with a generation that has always had Google in their lives. The class of 2026 will demand authenticity and have the tools at its fingertips to vet any and all brand promises and claims.
That requires branders to expand their idea of “authentic” from the traditional Boomer/Gen X meaning of “real” to a broader Gen Z use of the word, meaning “genuine.” Brands like Chubbies demonstrate their authenticity by poking gentle fun at themselves, not by publicly trying to pass a marketing polygraph.
Finally, the class of 2026 will—given the option—support local producers and retailers, everything from craft beers, whiskeys, vineyards, and farmers’ markets to independent bookstores, record shops, and boutique businesses.
If you are a national or international chain, this requires you to actively seek out visible, authentic locally based connections. And remember, while Gen Z prefers local, they are still consumer cohorts who came of age in a truly global, connected market.
Responding to the class of 2026 will require branders to rethink every aspect of their go-to-market strategies, from which raw ingredients they source and how and where they advertise to what brands they partner with and how they engage consumers digitally and in store. But no matter how difficult, there is no real alternative. By 2020, Gen Z will account for 40% of all U.S. consumers.
The class of 2026 may be VOCAL, but that just makes their preferences easier to hear—if you are listening.
This post originally appeard on CMO.com.