Brand Authenticity: Billie Eilish’s Masterclass in talking to Gen Z audiences

Billie Eilish sings to a crowd
Photo by Nathan DeFiesta on Unsplash

Earlier this year, 18 year old musician Billie Eilish won five awards at the 2020 Grammy Awards, including the four biggest prizes. Winning Best Pop Vocal Album, Best New Artist, Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the Year, one of 2019’s brightest music stars showed that she was still soaring rapidly in 2020.

With her hair dyed neon green at the roots and her non-fashion fashion aesthetic of oversized clothes, Eilish is a curious study of how alt can be successful mainstream.

Talking to Gen Z in their preferred emotional language

Songs become popular when listeners identify with them. Following this thinking, studying Eilish’s songs tells us what narratives young people today relate to. And so, we ran the lyrics of all songs from her debut album ‘When we fall asleep, where do we go?’ through our Culture AI models. 

We found that the top emotions in Eilish’s presentation of the teenage experience were Sadness, then Trust, followed closely by Joy and Anticipation at a tie in third position. Sentiments like anger and bitterness were ranked much lower by the Emotion AI model. 

Bar graph of results of Emotion AI model

Our personality insights model revealed that the top three traits Eilish’s lyrics had were Introspection, Idealism and Vagueness. 

We see that unlike the harsh, abrasive bitterness of the 90s grunge movement, youth of the 2010s gravitate towards softer storytelling. Where these narratives are coloured negatively, gentler shades like Sadness are more popular. 

The trusting, idealistic nature of Eilish’s lyrics - perhaps suggesting vulnerability - also shows how when appealing to a Gen Z audience, appealing to their soft side is what works. 

And while jaded cynicism and world-weariness has long dominated the charts of popular music, we see with Eilish that Hope sells well too! 

Expressions of Joy and Anticipation appeal to the Gen Z audience: Possibly because they’ve grown up on a diet of a culture overdosing on snarky, cynical wit (in memes, viral tweets and instagram captions), this generation craves something lighter. 

Social media aesthetics: Sell relatability, not aspirational appeal

On Instagram, we see that Eilish, in her captions, talks to her followers like friends. In some, she is the screaming, excited friend freaking out about things, with capitalised, unpunctuated captions like “FIVE ARE YOU KIDDING” (freaking out about her Grammy wins) and “BAD GUY FEAT. JUSTIN BIEBER OUT NOWWWWW”.

In her captions, Eilish shows her fanbase she’s just another girl on the internet, fluent in internet-speak. Dragged out words like “NOWWWWW” and the slightly hysterical tone in “FIVE ARE YOU KIDDING” mimic speech, it is as if Eilish is talking not writing. 

In others, she writes in lower-case entirely - vague phrases like “been gone” or “careful who ya talkin to” that come across as fragments of thought.

These captions sit well on Eilish’s instagram page, but would easily fit in as some 16 year old teenager’s snapchat caption, or as tweets on any young person’s twitter feed. 

Examining results from our image semiotics model, no clear clustering was found for Eilish’s instagram pictures. Unlike most pop stars who cycle through various “themes” for their instagram - for example, Ariana Grande’s mostly monochrome feed with occasional glam selfie shots, Eilish’s profile has everything from media shots of her to shots of her leaning against an abandoned mattress in a street alley. A lot more real. And way more approachable. 

Screengrabs of her music video/advertising collateral are followed promptly by a post showing her slumped down in a seat, with a Rick and Morty backpack. A picture of tour dates is preceded by a shot of Eilish leaning against the railings, in baggy ordinary-looking clothes and messy hair. 

Eilish’s instagram aesthetic ranges from celebrity-like content such as magazine covers and paparazzi pictures to the homemade and common, showing her audience that she knows she’s not exactly a regular person with a regular life, but yet is relatable.

How the media talks about Gen Z 

Among journalists writing about her music, we observed that these writers do not re-angle Eilish to make her more palatable to bubblegum pop fans. Eilish’s genre classification is in typical Gen Z multi-hyphenate fashion. She is pop, with a side of rock, funk, electronic, and more. Recognising Eilish’s positioning of herself and vocal persona as definitely alternative, their articles foreground this. 

The Rolling Stone’s review of her debut album called it “Noir Pop With Bite”, a “teenage wasteland...rendered so darkly”. The word choices of noir and rendered borrow from the vernacular of film, technicality and sophistication.

The term ‘noir pop’ is also a nod to the film noir style of filmmaking- likening Eilish’s music to a genre of film characterised by cynicism and crime, acknowledging the edge present in her music.

Describing Eilish’s brand of teenage storytelling as being ‘rendered’ darkly cleverly avoids trivialising the songwriting as a venting tirade of typical teenage angst. The Guardian labels Eilish’s musical output as “thrilling Gen Z terror-pop” with “annihilating” lyrics -- marrying two highly contrasting words “terror” and “pop” together in an unlikely union where morbid meets mass-appeal. 

The New York Times is elegantly verbose in encapsulating Eilish’s particular brand of Alternative Music to their reading audience: she is “sullen, depressive, death-haunted, sly, analytical and confrontational, all without raising her voice”. With the second clause, the publication deftly distances the singer from the screaming, rebellious teenager trope.

Our key takeaway from this? We simply can’t force-fit a Gen Z target audience into one specific type. 

From these articles’ novel unions of certain nouns and adjectives, we see that a Gen Z person can be extremely multi-faceted, in sometimes clashing ways. 

Appealing to a Gen Z audience: All about Authenticity

As such, we might want to reconsider brand messaging that treats Gen Zers as one homogenous demographic group. Some are idealists, some are cynics, and some are neither. What we’re sure of though, is that they’re always vulnerable and real. 

Taking a leaf out of Eilish’s book, instead of trying to force-fit into one category, whether that’s the category of Bubblegum pop or a particular persona deemed ‘Gen Z’, it’s time to recognise that maybe what targeted messaging means for this demographic is brand authenticity. 

Stripping away mar-speak terms, this means real, empathetic storytelling.

Frankly Speaking: Moving Towards Empathetic Storytelling

If there’s one thing we’re sure Gen Zers definitely are, it’s that they’re masters of candor. 

From the Culture AI analysis, the softer storytelling signals to us that they are very open about showing weakness.

Gen Zers are a lot less pretentious, and have fewer facades. They can be glamorous one day, and silly the other. Curated one moment, and absolutely no-filter the next. (P.S. Real-life Eilish exudes the same straight-talking vibe as her lyrics: she made news recently for her short film on the public scrutiny she faced and body shaming in general.)

Brands wanting to engage with this demographic will have to be comfortable with the #nofilter life: enough hard sells and glossy copy text - Real Talk is the new core brand value.

For more of our thoughts on brands, check out:

Brewer’s Branding: How Our Favourite American Craft Beer Brands Market Themselves on Instagram

A Tale of Two Beauties: Makeup branding across cultures