Navigating GenZ Brand Minefields With Sweety High’s Co-Founders

As legions of ad agency and brand executives piled into the South of France for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this week, a different group of marketers gathered at VidCon, in the considerably less hip Anaheim, Calif. There, they focused on how to connect with the teen and tween audiences that agencies and brands have struggled to reach for years.

Finding different ways to connect with those teens and tweens is where Sweety High Media comes in. The company, founded after the Great Recession by the married couple Veronica Zelle and Frank Simonetti, is an unusual agglomeration of content production, distribution, growth advisory, and music label.

But thinking differently about how to connect with a generation that consumes media in very different ways than its predecessors is exactly the point in the many-headed beast that is Sweety High, which is now headquartered in Marina Del Rey, a sea-side suburb of Los Angeles.

The idea for Sweety High germinated around 2010, while Simonetti was still a writer working with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Production Company, and Zelle had a “pretty successful” career as a film, TV and commercial producer. Both had been “in and around youth culture for a long time,” said Simonetti, Sweety High’s CEO. And it was clear that things were changing.

“Gen Z was going to be as different (as Millennials had been from their predecessors) and not just because they were digital natives,” Simonetti said. “It was more that as communication was becoming decentralized rapidly and you could reach anyone you wanted at any point, suddenly, the problem wasn’t accessing anymore. It was traction. And it was how do you get above the noise?”

So how to get traction with digital-first teens and tweens who care a lot about their mobile phones but not much at all for traditional TV and other legacy media? Go where they are, especially online, and make content they care about. But also, be ready to hear back from them in what’s an ongoing conversation.

Back then, people were just beginning to fully understand the changes in culture being wrought by Millennials. As Simonetti put it, the successful generational cohort of Gen Z barely had a name at that point, never mind an understanding by media, brands and agencies of how to interact with them.

The crucial challenge in a cacophonous media climate is finding ways to “get above the noise,” with programming that resonates for a specific generation. One key is authenticity with an audience that will ignore or publicly criticize anything that feels too Hyped and artificial. Zelle, the company’s COO, was particularly motivated to figure out how brands could talk with these audiences.

“I’ve been through a lot of iterations of how this demographic is really starting to age in and what happened with the Millennials beforehand,” Zelle said. “I really wanted us to do something kind of different, and really lay the playing field out for this generation.”

Sweety High started publishing a lot of editorial content, and making online programming for various social-media platforms and sites. In the early 2010s, that was blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and not much else yet.

Out of that work, the company segued into influencer marketing “to crowd-source what we were making,” Simonetti said. The company started signing deals with talent to both create content and leverage brand deals. In the same way, the company’s growth advisory division evolved out of a need to learn how to give its content the broadest reach and deepest engagement possible.

“What was happening in the zeitgeist, if you want to call it that, wasn’t over there,” Simonetti said. “For us, it was part of what we were doing and making and (came out of) that commitment to make a ton of content and get involved with people high and low, and put talent in anything and everything. It just put us in a spot where people saw us as maybe like some of the other bigger entertainment brands, but with a lower barrier to entry.”

Over time, the company has continued to evolve, and now consists of four distinct parts:

  • Sweety High: A Gen Z-focused editorial platform reaching 20 million visitors a month who generate 150 million views;
  • SH Studio: The content production studio frequently partners with established media companies to produce and promote digital series and other content. The division’s latest partnership was with magazine powerhouse Meredith Corp., targeting Gen Z audiences with video programming for Meredith’s People and EW brands around topics such as food and cars. Other production partners have included Nickelodeon, Disney, NBCU, Netflix, Macy’s, Sony and Warner Brothers;
  • Social Impact: The company’s “social growth engine” helps drive reach and awareness through more than 100 owned-and-operated channels on various social-media and other channels, with a combined reach of 750 million audience members. Sweety High’s TikTok channel boasts 11.7 million followers alone, one of the biggest Gen Z-focused presences on the short-video service. Social Impact leverages real-time data and trend analysis from its channels to help drive growth, and has worked with music labels Atlantic Records and RCA, as well as Procter & Gamble and Fox Studios;
  • Gem Street Music: – The music label grew out of what the company calls its Digital Futures efforts, as a different way to find and grow artists and their followings. The label first three acts include Jena Rose, whose single Checkmate attracted more than 5 million streams, 7 million video views, and 170 million TikTok listens. The song spent seven weeks in MTV’s top 10 countdown, the label has also worked with prominent artists such as Miley Cyrus, Post Malone and Ty Dolla Sign.

When Sweety High started, Gen Z, oldest members were 8 to 10 years old, Zelle said. Now, children that age are the youngest members of a generational cohort that’s 80-million-strong. They’re the most diverse, technologically comfortable, and social open-minded generation ever. But they have a lot of expectations of the influencers, companies and brands trying to connect with them.

“If you didn’t have something authentic, and you didn’t have a real relationship with the demo(graphic), your chances of success were sort of going down drastically from there, you know, because this sort of idea, that big corporations were going to package and sort of force feed the culture to the kids.”

Gen Z kids were also different because they aren’t just passive consumers of content and culture. They’re “participators,” Simonetti said, creating their own video, audio, photos, Roblox and Minecraft experiences, and much else. They’re also commenting, sharing, remixing culture as they come across it.

“The point is that you have to be a culture-first company,” Simonetti said. “To some extent, a lot of companies see themselves as you have to be a politically correct-first company or whatever like that. But first and foremost, if you don’t stand for something culturally, it’s very hard in theyoung adult and teenage market to get anyone to look at you or care. There’s just too much vying for their attention.”

The constant tap into the information firehose means that Gen Z kids know something about a lot of niches of culture, or have gone super deep on a few specific topics that deeply fascinate them.

“One thing that’s interesting about this generation and why it’s been a pleasure to build and run the things that we have is that they’re open to new experiences, and they’re just genre agnostic,” whether that’s with music genres, or kinds of “TV” shows, or many other things, Zelle said.

“I actually have been around for a little bit, and I’ve seen a lot of iterations of youth culture and their needs and wants and desires,” Zelle said. “And this is really my very favorite generation. I just I love them. I hope that they are the ones to save our planet.”

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