We've talked a lot on this blog about how the consumer habits of the Millennial generation are reshaping the food market. Food marketers are increasingly seeking new ways to attract Millennial dollars: designing new, innovative food packaging, marketing via social media and revamping menus.
Younger Americans are more health-conscious than their Baby Boomer parents. They value things like organic produce, exotic tastes and locally-sourced ingredients. But why? What informs this generational shift?
The Desire To Stand Out In A Digital Crowd
One thing is certain about Millennials: from their fashion choices to their seemingly insatiable appetites for new tastes and craft processes, they are deeply concerned with standing out. Young adults want to appear to be more sophisticated, more conscientious, or even smarter than their parents and peers.
So what feeds those desires?
Writing for Smart Biz, Vanessa Kunderman— herself a member of the generation in question— attributed the Millennial mindset to a conditioned response to the high visibility that comes with use of social media.
"In an age in which publicizing much of our lives is normal, millennials operate at the core of this movement. We covet people who appear to have ideal Instagram lives, eating stunning exotic food and travelling the globe," she wrote. "We are so inundated by images of this imagined lifestyle that naturally, we want it for ourselves. Taking a picture of a sad can of Campbell’s soup for dinner isn’t nearly as exciting."
Consequently, she noted, adults between the ages of 20-35 spend an average of 25 percent of their income on fine cuisine, just in an effort to appear as if they live an idyllic life. It certainly explains "food porn."
"This generation cares about how it looks in the digital world," Kunderman asserted. "The Internet is its way of painting the picture of the life it wants."
Young adults' tendencies toward artifice and self-promotion may, however, also speak to deeper, unvoiced feelings of insecurity. Writing for NJBiz, Andrew Sheldon— another Millennial blogger— wrote incredulously of how his hometown now has eateries offering healthy cuisine.
"Even restaurants in my humble little burg of Hackettstown," he marveled, "are providing entirely vegan menus and ingredients from local farms."
Why is that so surprising? Sheldon seems to simultaneously praise his home and undermine it. Is he ashamed of coming from a small town? Does he think that others judge him poorly because he didn't grow up on the Upper West Side?
Kunderman suggests a duality in the Millennial mindset— the desire to appear exciting and popular, limited by financial realities, but achievable through a digital frontier.
"Even when curled up in our fat sweats, ignoring the unopened bills on the counter," Kunderman noted, "we’re editing the snappy photo we took on our trip to Toronto last weekend."
So How Can Food Marketers Play To That Duality?
One way that some companies are experiencing success in marketing toward Millennials is to offer customization options in their food service. Take, for example, Chipotle or Potbelly where customers can build their own, perfectly customized entree from a list of fresh ingredients. This has proved quite a boon in capturing market share from the 20-35 demographic.
McDonald's, which has steadily been losing market share in the US over the past year, has taken note of Chipotle's success and has now introduced a new "build your own burger" concept in several stores in Southern California. Customers at these locations can use a touch screen to choose burger toppings previously unheard of at McDonald's, such as jalapenos or tortilla strips, and the chain plans to roll the concept out in additional markets if it is successful in the test phase.
"But customizability is only one aspect," Sheldon cautioned. "Chipotle also features local and organic food products when available. Without McDonald’s making that complete paradigm shift, who knows if it will be able to keep up."
Innovative food packaging and brand visibility in the social mediasphere only goes so far. Food marketers and food entrepreneurs would be wise to understand the motivations behind Millennials desire to purchase higher-end food.
True, healthy living and conscientiousness are important to young adults. But is that because Millennials are truly concerned with these, or because they believe that others expect them to be concerned about them, and so play to that belief?