Winning personalities: How KU and Gen Z align

A woman sits on campus with a book open on her lap. This photo is color treated with blue tones.

Jayhawk communicators have the wonderful challenge of communicating to and connecting with a wide variety of audiences — all while staying on brand.

This year brings yet another audience into the mix: Generation Z. Using the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition, Gen Z starts with those born in 2001. That means that this fall’s incoming class of freshman will represent the first “post-Millennial” Jayhawks.

We considered how best to reach these students in our final Brand Breakfast of 2018, “From KU to Z: Communicating with the Next Generation of Jayhawks.” (You can download that presentation here.) With this post, we’ll take a closer look at our brand pyramid (pdf) and how its personality traits reflect, complement, and amplify Gen Z’s values and worldview.

Curiosity: Not simply a spirit of inquiry but adventurousness.

We encourage Jayhawks to explore, and Gen Z is more than ready. For one, they’re independent: 43% of those surveyed for LinkedIn Learning’s blog said they prefer self-directed study.

Going out on a limb is also an expectation. In the same survey, 76% said that the skills they’ll need in the workforce are different that those required of past generations.

Communicate to these students that an education at KU will call for experimentation, bravery, and outside-the-box thinking. They’ll respond.

Heart: Not simply enthusiasm but passion.

Gen Z counts activists, “superfans,” and strivers among its ranks. They admire their peers for their accomplishments, and rely on them for their recommendations. They’re vocal and determined to make a difference. And it’s all happening on social media.

Join them there, but don’t insert yourself into their conversations or lean on memes in order to be relatable. Instead, offer authentic content that features our students and their achievements.

Resolve: Not simply persistence but perseverance.

Research performed by the Pew Research Center (which defines Gen Z as beginning in 1997) shows increased high-school graduation and college attendance rates — a heartening trend.

That ambition comes with a cost that many Gen Z-ers expect to bear. According to the Center for Generational Kinetics, nearly 25 percent of them plan to pay for college themselves.

Don’t sugarcoat or sidestep the responsibilities KU students assume. Instead, recognize their drive, combined with the pragmatism they learned during the Great Recession.

Kindness: Not simply friendliness but empathy.

With almost half an ethnic or racial minority (per Pew), and many leading digital lives that include global connection (per Business Insider), members of Gen Z represent and support diversity.

But research from the American Psychological Association found that Gen Z are more likely to claim poor mental health and seek treatment than every other generation — in part because of social media that amplifies division and danger.

Diversity, equality, inclusion, as well as support services, matter to prospective students. Share KU’s work in these areas, but be transparent about our community’s challenges.

Virtue: Not simply decency but integrity.

Compared to past generations, Gen Z waits longer to engage in substance use and sexual activity, a study by Jean Twenge and Heejung Park finds. Students see how risky behavior, broadcast across social media, can affect their current reputations and future plans.

KU gives students countless outlets for socializing and connecting, but asks them to prioritize pursuits that help them learn and grow. Show the balance inherent in life as a Jayhawk, and how it benefits their ambitions.

Let the pyramid point you in the right direction

With a handy brand pyramid by your side, communicating with these students shouldn’t be a challenge. After all, our 2016 brand development involved focus groups with high school students across the country, including many members of Gen Z.

Their voices and values influenced our brand. Be inventive, authentic, and sensitive to their concerns, and they’ll influence our community, too.