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Gen Z: The Adorkables Branding Trend

Meet the Adorkables. From left to right, top row: @starface, @NUGGS, @everydayhumans. Bottom row: @eatbehave, @studs, @eatofflimits. All via Instagram.

GenZ has given rise to a novel trend in consumer branding — one that is dorkily awkward and adorably real: Adorkables.  


But what are adorkables?  Adorkables are a growing gang of disruptive brands that deftly target Gen Z with a jarring visual aesthetic and an authentic emotional appeal.  Because Gen Z was born after 1996, adorkables cluster around beauty (Topicals, Everyday Humans), fashion (Bubble, Entireworld), self-care (Flewd, Superfluid) and snack foods (Nuggs, Behave). And because many in Gen Z are CARLYs (Can’t Afford Real Life Yet), there are currently no adorkable car marques or mortgage lenders — nor might there ever be, given the promise of self-driving vehicles and the rising price of real estate.


In most commercial respects, adorkables are a subset of “blands” — those direct-to-consumer upstart startups (Quip, Away, Warby Parker, Casper) that claim to be “unique in product, groundbreaking in purpose, and singular in delivery, while slavishly obeying an identikit formula of business model, look and feel, and tone of voice.”  Adorkables also share the bland fixation with origin stories, mission statements, and scrappy pledges to stick it to The Man.  Here are a few other examples:

  • KNC Beauty:  “Kristen Noel Crawley was strolling through Don Quijote in Tokyo, when….BAM, love at first sight. A wall of lip masks caught her eye, and she became OBSESSED with the idea of perfect, kissable lips.”

  • Kosas:  “We exist to revolutionize what beauty means and change the complicated relationship between beauty and makeup.”

  • Flewd: “We’re here to give stress the finger.”

  • Ramp Up:  “We decided vinegar needed an upgrade!”


But while blands seduce millennials with an ever-receding mirage of self-actualization, adorkables double down on Gen Z’s internal conflict between self-consciousness and self-promotion.  In the zoology of consumer capitalism, if brands are lumbering elephants, and blands are well-fed underdogs, then adorkables are baby giraffes — goofily cute, endearingly wonky yet tenacious, growing and strong.

The adorkable blueprint.  Adorkables are instantly identifiable by the myriad ways in which they vandalize the visual conformity of boomer brands and disruptive blands.  And although it’s tricky to encapsulate the kaleidoscopic lo-fi, high-camp, Snapchat, Tik-Tok, K-pop, 8-bit, acid-house, anime aesthetic … much as with obscenity, you know adorkability when you see it.  Adorkable websites display a nostalgia for the future by recycling the gewgaws of Web 1.0: scrolling text; childish animation; auto-play music; wobbling logos; drop shadows; stippled shading; wingdings; and dingbats.  Adorkable typography eschews the neutral sans and approachable serifs favored by blands, to jar the eye with mismatched fonts, eccentric emphasis and deliberately ill-set text — a maximalist approach that conjures the earliest incarnations (and juvenile overuse) of Microsoft WordArt.  The adorkable color palette is similarly cacophonous — contrasting insipid pastels and unlovely gradients with acidic highlights of pink, purple, orange, green, Yves Klein blue and Gen Z yellow.  Although some adorkable photography has a professional, high-key gloss, the majority reflects the Gen Z social-media aesthetic in all its homespun, handheld, flatly lit and artfully candid banality.   The adorkable tone of voice is arch, ironic and meme-laden (because Internet, my dudes) and … with an amused honesty:







Because self-deprecation comes as naturally to Gen Z as self-aggrandizement does to millennials, adorkables regularly run themselves down in their copy, design or name:  That said, even the most self-abasing adorkables strive to be happy, playful, funny and fun:










@eatofflimits via Instagram

There’s nothing especially remarkable about adorkable values which — by advocating tolerance, justice, community and ecology — overlap entirely with those espoused by enlightened brands and the totality of blands. True, some adorkables focus on, say, mental health (Madhappy) or sustainable social justice (CHNGE), but so do a plethora of deeply conventional ventures.  The greatest value differentiator is the direction of the gaze.  Whereas traditional brands strive to provide means of public self-validation (“I’m a Mac, I’m a PC,” “What’s in Your Wallet?,”Because you’re worth it”) adorkables offer commercial opportunities for personal self-expression. What could be more self-expressive than choosing which pustule to adorn with a Pride-rainbow star?


Two interdependent forces drive Gen Z’s gaze: content creation and social media.  While it’s possible that those born after 1996 are uniquely blessed with creative genes, internet ubiquity is more likely involved. As the first generation of smartphone aboriginals, Gen Z lives an “in-app” life, glued to devices that impel them to create, curate, comment and consume — a Pushme-Pullyou of sharing and shopping that the best minds of our generation are urgently trying to monetize  

Adorkables must perfect a social persona that embeds their products while evading any hint of effort. It’s no accident that adorkable Instagram accounts — in addition to jokes, memes and political statements — are studded with real photos of real consumers using their brands in real life. Especially when, according to a 2019 Morning Consult survey, 11% of American Gen Z’s consider themselves to be social media influencers.

It’s precisely because authenticity and participation are so central to Gen Z that the sophisticated dovetail of dorky (real) and adorable (aspirational) is so profitable. The ambiguity of which party is driving the aesthetic — brands or consumers — illustrates the potency of adorkability. 

Source: Bloomberg.  Ben Schott.

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