If you're ever in the mood for a laugh, throw "millennials," "brands," and "marketing" into the ol' Google and give the internet a peruse.
At any given moment, marketing executives around the world are being paid gazillions of dollars to figure out the mystery behind what millennials buy and why we buy it. With the tactical precision of the three blind mice, advertisers invent absurd strategies to capture our attention, launching campaigns that they think are lit af but fall miserably short of the goal.
Especially in the food industry, marketers act like millennial behavior is totally uninterpretable. (Remember when they tried to say we don't eat cereal because we're lazy? That's why I opt for a fresh egg omelette every morning instead — way easier.)
Millennials are older now and starting to make up more of the world's annual spending, so whether they like it or not, brands are having to take our preferences more seriously. And (to their abject horror, I assume) what they're finding is that what we want is not only pretty simple, but could also have a positive impact on the food industry at large.
For starters, millennials want more facts about the food we consume.
Not too much to ask, right? As the first generation that grew up alongside rather than ahead of the internet, millennials learned at a young age that any information we want is information we can get as long as we enter the right search terms. Our ability to instantly verify any claim an advertisement makes is why only 1% of millennials report being swayed by traditional marketing strategies. We rely instead on what we can trust: ourselves.
This is having a positive effect on the food industry because it means companies are becoming more transparent about their products to gain the trust of millennial consumers.
In a 2012 study of American and British adults, 8 in 10 millennials said they appreciated "behind the scenes" commercials for their food, like Whole Foods Market's Values Matter campaign, which links back to a page where the readers can verify the company's sustainability claims personally. By comparison, only 6.5 in 10 baby boomers indicated that they wanted more information about their food from brands.
Millennials look to the facts for proof that the products we buy are doing good.
GlobeScan CSR has coined a term for this type of shopper — aspirationals, or "materialists who believe they have a responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society." Millennials tend to fall into this category, with 40% of us preferring to shop local and nearly 75% of us willing to pay extra for sustainable goods.
Shopping local and sustainable produce cuts down on waste and pollution. It also boosts local economies and ecosystems.
As a result, brands are being forced to do better in order to stay competitive in a millennial-driven market.
To satisfy our desire for fact-based corporate responsibility practices, companies that already had these practices in place, like Whole Foods, are pushing that information out into the open, heightening the overall level of transparency in the food industry at large.
In 2015, 81% of S&P 500 companies released sustainability reports, up from 20% in 2011. In response to this pressure, the brands that aren't meeting the same high responsibility standards are being forced to change their practices to stay competitive. Even restaurants that are considered categorically unhealthy have launched plans to up their corporate practices, like McDonald's, which in 2014 announced its intent to gradually switch to sustainable beef.
As market demand (and brand loyalty) shifts toward environmentally and socially conscious business, corporations are adjusting, even before governments step in to enforce regulations.
There's one more way to capture a millennial's brand loyalty: Take a stand on something.
Millennial consumers aren't just interested in a company's ethics where its own business is concerned. Brands that advocate for social causes, such as LGBTQ rights, immigration law, and gender equality gain favor with millennials. Companies, like Starbucks, which not only exhibit ethical corporate policy and excellent employee treatment, but also frequently speak out on social and political issues, have some of the strongest brand-loyal customers worldwide.
As millennials take the wheel on driving the market, the food industry could also get a lot more culturally diverse.
As a group, millennials are more ethnically diverse than our predecessors and have a more welcoming attitude toward new and different food cultures. The Hartman Group's study on generational food trends reports that millennials are 10-20% less interested in classic American or Americanized ethnic foods than baby boomers, and they express an increased interest in different kinds of global cuisine. A growing demand for international food could present a wider niche for new business opportunities, like immigrant-owned restaurants.
The takeaway? Once marketers stop hating on millennial preferences, the whole industry should see an increase in pro-social, sustainable food culture.
While it's true that millennials might present more of a challenge to marketers than in the past, that's a really good thing. It suggests that the market is being driven by a smarter, more empathetic consumer base, which in turn is driving companies to pick up more socially and environmentally friendly practices that benefit all of us.