If 2019 was the Year of the Pig in the Chinese Zodiac, it was also the Year of the VSCO Girl in U.S. retail. The first subset of Gen Z to demonstrate its spending power, the VSCO girl trend is giving brands valuable marketing insights into the 25-and-under age demographic.
OK BUT WAIT — WHAT IS A VSCO GIRL?
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You wouldn’t be alone in wondering. Google’s 2019 “Year in Search” trends revealed that “What is a VSCO girl” was the second most searched inquiry of the year next to “What is Area 51?” The VSCO (pronounced VIS-co) girl is an allusion to VSCO , a photo editing and sharing app known for its sun-drenched, beachy filters. The VSCO girl concept surfaced on TikTok in the form of memes that mocked the stereotypical VSCO girl uniform of oversize Ts, hair scrunchies, Mario Badescu facial spray, reusable straws, minimal makeup and the coup de grâce — Birkenstocks with socks.
VSCO girls are laid-back in how they dress, but not when it comes to sustainability and brand loyalty. The companies they support share strong ties to environmentalism, or at least the fantasy of being outdoors. Search “VSCO girl starter pack,” and you’ll find checkered Vans, a penny board, Birkenstocks, Hydro Flask water bottles, scrunchies, Pura Vida Bracelets, Fjallraven backpacks — and even Crocs — on the list.
This surge in popularity is impacting these brands’ bottom lines in a big way. According to data from retail analytics firm Edited, checkered Vans were stocked 20 percent more by U.S. retailers within the first 6 months of 2019, while Pura Vida bracelets were stocked 118 percent more by U.S. retailers within the same time frame. Back from the brink of financial ruin, Crocs became an unexpected hit with teen consumers who like to personalize their clogs with Jibbitz shoe charms. The company was listed as the 13th most popular footwear brand among teen girls in a 2019 Piper Jaffray survey, up from 30th in 2017.
While VSCO girls are merely a subculture within Gen Z, their social media behavior, shopping habits, and favorite influencers provide a valuable marketing template for proactive brands interested in connecting with a new generation of consumers. Here are five things they can learn from Gen Z’s “It” girl.
CONTENT FIRST, MARKETING SECOND.
Now is the time to invest in a content marketing strategy if you haven’t already. Create helpful, inspirational, aesthetically pleasing content designed to engage your audience first and promote products second. For example, Pura Vida Bracelets leans on a team of VSCO girl influencers to create travel content in aspirational locales like Banff, Alberta, Canada and Breckenridge, Colo. The brand plans event-filled influencer getaways with the goal of creating social-friendly imagery that will perform well on Instagram and its e-commerce site. This approach results in a wealth of non-promotional visual content that earns high engagement on social as well as compelling product photography that will drive conversions on product display pages.
Content marketing includes paid social advertising. A recent study from Kantar Millward Brown suggests that although Gen Z is the most advertising-resistant generation to date, 56 percent are more responsive to ads that tell an interesting story while 72 percent prefer ads that are funny.
Target Corp. must have read that study. Last November, Target promoted an 11-minute YouTube video that followed actress Angela Kinsey and Emma Chamberlain, the influencer credited for establishing the VSCO girl aesthetic, as they browsed the store aisle by aisle. The video received more than 27 million views compared to Target’s average of 200,000 views per video. A quick scroll through the comments section revealed that the overall sentiment was overwhelmingly positive, an indication that companies have to approach advertising with a creative lens if they hope to win Gen Z’s attention.
TREAT INFLUENCER PARTNERSHIPS AS AN EXTENSION OF YOUR CONTENT STRATEGY.
Once a buzzy new marketing tactic, influencer marketing is no longer optional. Brands that are successful with Millennial and Gen Z consumers know that influencers are a crucial element in any digital marketing strategy, take Hollister, for example. After a rough patch in 2017, Hollister became Abercrombie & Fitch’s fastest-growing brand when it updated its product assortment and marketing materials to fit the wholesome, outdoorsy VSCO girl aesthetic. Hollister’s strategy included partnerships with several VSCO girl influencers like Emma Chamberlain, Amanda Pavillard and Ellie Thumann who consistently promote the brand on YouTube and Instagram. As of October 2019, Hollister added $313 million to the company’s top line since 2016 at an average annual rate of 8.2 percent.
Gen Z may have the power to rebuild brands, but it also has the power to destroy them. VSCO girls’ “less is more” approach to makeup might be the reason investment bank and securities firm Piper Jaffray reported a 21 percent decrease in cosmetic spending among female teens year over year last fall. Quick to respond in Gen Z’s trend toward skin care and away from color cosmetics, Sephora collaborated with nine Gen Z YouTubers to create shoppable content on the Sephora web site and aspirational social media content via an influencer trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. Each influencer was contracted to include a step-by-step demonstration of Sephora Collection’s skin-care products within their YouTube video.
Sephora’s agile response to Gen Z consumer behavior is the perfect example of knowing your audience well enough to deliver content they actually want.
STAND FOR SOMETHING.
It’s abundantly clear that VSCO girls care about sustainability. Their soft spot for Hydro Flask water bottles, reusable straws and “Save the turtles” stickers are setting the stage for a consumer demographic that will choose eco-conscious brands over the competition. According to AdWeek, 72 percent of Gen Z shoppers pay more for products or services from brands associated with social or environmental causes.
It’s notable that Estée Lauder’s investor fact sheet includes goals to commit to net zero emissions by 2020, and to make 70 to 100 percent of its packaging recyclable, refillable or reusable by 2025. Incorporate cause marketing into your strategy or risk being left in the dust.
DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF A GOOD DEAL.
Gen Z consumers are price-driven shoppers. Born roughly between 1996 and 2010, the Gen Zs with spending power are old enough to remember the recession — and their purchasing behavior reflects this. When deciding where to shop, 60 percent of Gen Z consumers say their primary motivator is the price.
It’s no surprise that VSCO girls are fiercely loyal to brands like Brandy Melville, an early-Aughts-inspired clothing brand with an average price point of $30, and Pura Vida Bracelets, a philanthropic accessory company that aggressively messages promo codes and sales in its e-mail marketing. Brands that shy away from promotions should rethink this approach if they hope to convert Gen Z consumers.
THE IN-STORE EXPERIENCE IS BACK.
Shopping and thrifting hauls are a common theme among VSCO girl video content. Check out the YouTube channels of the influencers mentioned above and you’ll find footage of them shopping in their favorite stores, wandering the aisles of Target, and showing off their newest vintage finds. This isn’t just a trend among young influencers, this is how Gen Z likes to shop.
From the threat of global warming to that paper due Thursday, Gen Z is stressed out — and they’re blowing off steam the old-fashioned way: in brick-and-mortars. A new perspective on the concept of “retail therapy,” 81 percent of Gen Z consumers say they prefer to shop in stores for mental health reasons, according to a survey by A.T. Kearney. Brands must cultivate a positive customer experience in-store to earn the loyalty of younger shoppers.
ENGAGING GEN Z IN 2020
In order to win Gen Z’s loyalty, brands need to connect the dots above. Work with compelling influencers to create inspirational content across all digital channels. Tell your audience how you’re changing the world for the better — and at an approachable price point, no less! Give them an in-store experience that keeps them coming back, and you’ve earned your way into the good graces of America’s newest consumers.
Allison Roy is a senior digital marketing consultant at Capgemini, Digital Customer Experience Practice. She helps brands tell impactful stories through digital media and expand their reach through influencer marketing. Allison has provided strategic content marketing advice to business-to-consumer brands like Intermix, Havaianas, True Religion, Wilton, Radio Flyer and more.