Communicating with the different Gen Z personas

By Elena Linczenyiova and Martine Clerckx
Sep 15, 2022
10 MIN. READ

As communicators, we often struggle to engage and inspire the very people who will be most impacted by climate change: Generation Z.

The strategies that governments, businesses, and NGOs use to mobilize millennials to climate action resonate less with a new generation that has different values, interests, and behaviors. But learning to communicate effectively with these under-25s can yield powerful results, as Gen Z is among the most passionate about the need for meaningful, tangible, and immediate action on climate change.

Too often, older generations and those in positions of power tell Gen Z to “use their voices” or, at best, that they are “inspiring.” We invite them to join institutions and processes on the terms established and maintained by older generations. And in a world where our audiences have more demands on their attention than ever before, we often create climate communications for a general audience—and these general messages have a hard time breaking through the noise to make a meaningful impact. European institutions have an opportunity to enhance their communication through a more targeted approach to Gen Z.

The opportunity

Why embrace a targeted approach to communications? Because engaging the passion and talents of Gen Z to achieve climate change goals is our greatest opportunity for real progress on climate issues.

What is this guide for?

This guide gives you four Gen Z personas to use to shape more effective climate communications for a Gen Z audience.

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What are personas?

Your challenge is to create climate communications that engage in a personal and inspiring way. Traditional sociodemographic methods of understanding your audience are not always effective at doing this—especially with a group as diverse and complex as Generation Z.

Personas are based on extensive research of thousands of people, who each hold diverse views. We distill that complex data into semi-fictional personalities—personas—that each represent real people and a key segment of your audience.

Personas are a powerful tool because they are simple to understand, and they get to the heart of people’s deepest motivations. They give us, as creatives, a “real” person to speak directly to in our communication and through the narratives we shape.

Make these personas the people you are speaking to when you talk about climate change. Get to know them, understand their motivations, and create your communications with their hopes and fears for the future in mind.

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The four personas

The Gen Z personas we share here were created with ICF’s partner, Wide, the Strategic Societal Institute. Wide is experienced in analyzing and identifying societal trends and understanding how people have reacted to different issues and crises in the past—and what that means for future behaviors.

Based on extensive research, these four Gen Z personas describe representations of real people. They reflect their background, how they have evolved over time, and their hopes and fears for the future. They are:

  • The Explorer
  • The Self-Carer
  • The Abandoned
  • The Rebel

Most importantly, they help us as communicators understand those who feel disengaged from issues such as the climate and ignored by traditional power structures: The Abandoned. They represent the largest group in our target audience, so being able to speak directly and personally to them is key.

The Explorer

The Explorer—we’ll call him Jonas—lives in Munich. He could also live in a city in Belgium, Estonia, Italy, Poland, or Spain. He dreams of an open, egalitarian, and smarter world. He wants to defend Africa, which he sees as being polluted by richer countries.

Jonas is one of many young Europeans who have a positive vision of the future. He believes in the impact of education and science, and in the power of shared knowledge. He is well educated, loves cities, and his parents are affluent. He finishes his studies at university. He has friends all over the world and took part in the Erasmus program in Lisbon.

He is pro-European: He values the free movement of people that enables every EU citizen to travel, study, and work and live in an EU country. He is upset by communitarianism, radicalization, and extremes.

For Jonas, environmental protection is a natural part of life. He believes that businesses, universities, governments, institutions, NGOs, and civil society must work together to fight climate change. Climate change is an international problem and so international organizations like the United Nations must act to tackle it. He is happy that the EU is finally catching up through the Green Deal but is also a little more skeptical about the outcome. He is frustrated by the old-fashioned ways of tackling climate change and sees most of the initiatives as being too localized. He is also very concerned about issues such as education, soft mobilities, and the advance of technology.

He doesn’t welcome eco snobbism and eco intolerance—he believes that everyone should work together in our common interest. He embraces all activities endlessly, whether in the real world or virtually. Jonas sees music and food as a way to travel, to escape, to explore.

Key takeaways: The best ways to communicate with The Explorer

  • Jonas is open to more inclusive narratives.
  • He values collective intelligence, knowledge alliances, and open-source innovation as ways to communicate and find solutions together.
  • He uses all the latest applications, trendy social networks, and websites. He is very active on Instagram, Discord, and YouTube.
  • He uses social media to share information and network with other people.
The Self-Carer

The Self Carer—“Aleksandra”—lives near Krakow in Poland. She could also live in Eastern Europe or in Northern Europe. As a Northern European, she may feel she is leading the green transition and that she is actually being held back by the EU.

She is very concerned about her own health and well-being. Her motto is “Be fit and stay fit.” Aleksandra comes from a middle-class background. She wants to be part of a society that cares for her—and she thinks that she “is worth it.” She wants to be rewarded for adopting a more organic and greener (yet still hedonistic) lifestyle. She is happy that the EU is pushing forward with the Green Deal—she is very concerned about pollution and simply wants a safe and healthy environment to live in.

Aleksandra is drawn to activities that allow her to enjoy the environment, and to the beauty and gifts of nature. She sees nature as her “fitness playground”—she does a lot of sports and is tempted by yoga and meditation. Overall, she is very focused on nutrition and physical and mental health. She wants the health and beauty benefits of nature and the kind of social status provided by her green choices.

Key takeaways: The best ways to communicate with The Self-Carer

  • Aleksandra follows influencers on image-driven social media such as Pinterest and Instagram.
  • She uses social media to stay in touch with what friends are doing, to share photos and videos. She suffers from the pressure to be perfect but doesn’t want to admit it. She makes her social media more interesting than her life is in reality, out of social pressure.
  • She is fed up with the apocalyptic discourse around climate change and isn’t sensitive to messages about the collective end goal; she is more concerned about herself than others.
The Abandoned

The Abandoned—we call him Antonio—is Spanish and lives in Andalusia. He could also live in a rural area of Italy, Greece, or Eastern Europe. Antonio is frightened by the future.

He has finished a technical degree, and now lives with his father who is a farmer. His parents have been divorced since Antonio was 12. Now, he is increasingly developing a kind of eco fatalism. As people he knows are talking about the “end of the world,” he is longing for greater protection. He wants to find some kind of defense, to have concrete help, and practical solutions. And yet he feels cast out, rejected by people that are living in an alien world, and talking like professors. He feels ostracized and alienated by the new green order and by unsustainable mobility schemes. His old diesel car is no longer allowed and there is no public transport available where he lives.

He struggles in his daily life and is finding it hard enough to survive already. He knows the inconvenience and the cost of green solutions, so he needs financial incentives to make any changes. He is angry about the costs of energy and housing.

In his view, the middle class can’t access the benefits of the mainstream anymore. Stagnating wages, inequality, migration, and anxiety lead him to radicalization and extremes. Antonio feels that the EU and the government are letting him down. Now, he wants to get rid of traditional parties; he believes in conspiracy theories and in extreme promises. He meets new friends that are anti-establishment, and he is waiting for a strong leader.

Key takeaways: The best ways to communicate with The Abandoned

  • Trying to break down Antonio’s reality with facts and figures will not work.
  • To communicate effectively with him you must understand the reality of his situation. Go to him, in his language and integrate him. Be close and compassionate first, be right later.
  • He is a good gamer, and he is on Tik Tok, YouTube, and Facebook.
  • He uses social media to fill up spare time with funny and entertaining content, although he is drawn to haters.
  • He is not active on social media himself as he lacks self-confidence and fears the judgment of his peers.
The Rebel

The Rebel lives in Rennes in France. We call her Océane, and you could also find her in Germany, Estonia, Italy, Romania, and Spain.

Océane thinks climate change must bring about systemic change. She has a huge network of contacts, who come from very diverse backgrounds. They all join forces to challenge the status quo of the climate mitigation pathway, but they each have different motives. However, they all share an urgency to act: Youth is on a mission to shake up the system.

She calls for climate justice but also for deeper societal transformation and increased civic participation. She also wants people to branch out and refuse to engage with the system—including deserting the agri-food and energy industries that are destroying the planet. At the same time, she sometimes experiences a dilemma between her own way of life and her political demands.

She doesn’t feel heard or represented by the institutions. She is astonished by how they continue with capitalistic and consumerist models. She believes emotions are important—she doesn’t discount emotions in favor of rationality. She is very well informed, but this also tends to increase her sense of injustice and her anger. Océane wants to use that anger to leverage action and spur the ecological transition.

She believes that the climate change fight should foster a shift of social norms and practices. To her, social movements are laboratories of innovation and new social practices. She is interested in issues like education and soft mobilities, as well as the views of economists like Thomas Piketty and new forms of democracy.

Key takeaways: The best ways to communicate with The Rebel

  • Océane doesn’t believe in narratives that feel too institutional.
  • She doesn’t give credit to the “usual suspects,” people she sees as the same old guys who are preaching about the economy in the traditional media.
  • She is very active on Twitter, Signal, and Telegram—she uses social media to share her convictions and to rally people around a cause. She is keen to speak about injustice.

Conclusion

When it comes to climate communications, it is relatively easy to reach those groups who are already engaged in climate issues to their own varying degrees: the Explorer, the Rebel, and the Self-Carer.

Engaging these three groups brings considerable benefits to governments and European institutions, of course. Individually, they each represent some of the most socially and economically influential sections of their generation. Governments and other institutions need to continue to maintain the existing momentum for positive change within these groups with carefully targeted communication.

And yet to create genuine behavioral change and promote wider positive climate action, our communications also need to raise awareness among those who are currently disconnected from positive messaging around climate change: The Abandoned.

This is critical. They are the largest group within the four personas, and their numbers are only growing by the day. Crucially, they can still be brought back. But for those in government, it is vital that these people are engaged before they are lost to conspiracy theories and the kinds of radical thinking that can undermine democracy itself. So, what should communicators bear in mind as they try to engage those who are harder to reach with climate messaging? Here are five suggestions:

  1. Don't just focus on climate issues. Talk about what matters in their lives and listen to them instead of trying to convince them on climate issues first.
  2. Involve young people who feel abandoned in decision-making in a meaningful way, through schools and NGOs. Take a local approach and focus on impact.
  3. Don't use “top down” communications—avoid jargon, make them feel part of a community, and use language that focuses on benefits.
  4. Choose someone trusted to communicate and “own” the message—research micro-influencers and use them to build momentum behind your message.
  5. Highlight the personal health and well-being benefits derived from actions against climate change.
cheat sheet personas
Download now

These pointers are simply starting points for your climate communications. You can also download a useful Cheat Sheet, which will guide you through the process of using Gen Z personas as you craft your future climate communications.

Meet the authors
  1. Elena Linczenyiova, Director, Content and Policy + ICF Climate Center Senior Fellow

    Elena translates the complexity of European Union policies into clear and engaging content, with over two decades of strategic communication and broadcast journalism experience. View bio

  2. Martine Clerckx, Founder and societal strategist - Wide - The Strategic Societal Institute