Millennials might be one of the most scrutinized, over analyzed, and least understood, consumer bases in today’s foodservice industry. If you consider the ramifications, however, the reality might just be the opposite. The group, which typically refers to anyone who reached adulthood around the turn of the century, will easily color the largest section of restaurant spending charts for years—decades, really—to come. That brings up an issue for operators in the industry; those just starting and hoping to grow, and those who want to avoid the dreaded “run its course” criticism that haunts some of the older, classic venues that fail to keep pace.
At its core, the problem can be rooted in descriptions. Millennials, even more so than some of the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers that have long dominated the dining-out segment, are characterized and sorted into too wide of a box. This is the base of a first-of-its-kind study, called GenerationWhy, commissioned by the Corn Refiners Association and completed in part by Ipsos and BuzzFeed. The data was collected from 1,000 Millennials, as well as 250 generation Xers (generally referring to anyone born in the early 1960s to 1980s), and 250 Baby Boomers (birth dates 1946 to 1964). The questions revolved around their attitudes toward food ingredients; purchasing decisions in grocery stores and dining out; and their use of social media as it relates to food.
The basic finding was this: all Millennials are simply not created equal. “Until now, many studies have made sweeping generalizations about Millennials,” says Sara Martens, vice president of the MSR Group and GenerationWhy research analyst in the release. “This study picks up where others left off, proving Millennials are not a monolith. It provides game-changing insights for food and beverage brands looking to engage with the right millennial segment, at the right time, with the right message.”
In a webcast revealing the study, Aron Levin, a marketing professor from Northern Kentucky, stresses the need for operators to embrace this learning curve. “As we all know, Millennials will be the largest cohort of consumers for decades to come. So, in order to grow, it’s becoming more and more important for businesses to understand them,” he explains in the webcast.
The study identified four distinct characterizations of Millennials.
The first was “Traditionalist Taylor,” which makes up the largest segment at 37 percent. This group, according to the data, was the least likely to look at nutrition labels regularly, and is more concerned with how food tastes and what it costs than trying new things. This group also spends the least amount of time on social media.
The next was “Bon Vivant Brittany.” This 23 percent crop falls into the “younger” Millennials range (18—25, the older is 26—34), and is one of two identified groups dining out more often at restaurants. The sector is also least likely to avoid specific foods and ingredients, and spends an average amount of time on social media.
Third—“Food Purist Paige”—accounts for 19 percent of the Millennials population and is the most likely, as the name suggests, to avoid specific foods and ingredients. Additionally, taste is the top priority, while healthier family options remains important. Social media use is average as well.
“Balance-Seeker Brad” stands in as the final category at 16 percent. “Brad” reads nutrition labels regularly, with family in mind, but tends to look at food holistically rather than avoiding specific ingredients. This is the category spending the most time dining out and browsing social media.
Some other key findings included:
Depending on age, Millennials have different levels of concern about ingredients and overall health.
Unlike the general population, Millennials who are most influential on social media are not the most extreme in their ingredient attitudes.
The two millennial segments that dine out most often have very different ingredient attitudes and social media behavior.
As mentioned earlier, the study also measured Millennials alongside members of Generation X and the Baby Boomers.
One of the finds was that older Millennials (that 26 to 34 range) read nutrition labels more than the other two sectors, whereas young Millennials read labels less.
Both age groups of Millennials are more concerned about artificial ingredients than sweetener ingredients. The opposite is true of Generation X and Baby Boomers.
Lastly, older Millennials are more health focused when eating out.
Sugars stood out as a major factor. The study shows that nearly five times as many consumers expressed concern for total sugars over specific ingredients. Millennials prone to avoid high fructose corn syrup are nearly seven times more likely to avoid total sugars.
“Over the past several years, I’ve observed a common thread in the consumer research around sweeteners, and this study is no different,” Martens adds. “At the end of the day, consumers are much more concerned with reducing total sugars than avoiding specific sweetener types.”
Turning to the two groups—Bon Vivant Brittany and Balance-Seeker Brad—who make up the Millennials most often eating out, there were some important notes for operators to consider as the sector matures into prime-spending form.
Brittany, the study says, was most interested in finding new, exciting dining experiences. This group is unlikely to be married (34 percent of the study), have children (50 percent), less than half are college educated (41 percent), and less than half make more than $50,000 a year (46 percent).
Brad is conscious of overall health but doesn’t hone in on specific ingredients. This group is also an early adopter of food trends and is socially conscious. Demographically, they’re most likely to be male (46 percent), reside in an urban area (53 percent), have children (67 percent), and be married (50 percent), the most ethnically diverse (44 percent non-white), most likely to be college educated (51 percent), and have an income over $50,000 (73 percent). This sector also spends nearly 30 hours a week on social media and is most likely to be influenced by what they read online (37 percent).
Breaking it down, the takeaways were that Millennial segments that dine out the most are more educated, more apt to live in urban areas, and more diverse.
The study also says that Millennials dining out are the most health conscious, especially the older grouping, compared to other generations, but that it’s a bit overstated. About 75 percent of each age group, it notes, are not health conscious when ordering off a restaurant menu.
The conclusion being, among other things, that not all Millennials have the same eating-out preferences, and thus shouldn’t be treated the same by servers or by brands on social media.
For further demographic explanation, Food Purist Page is most likely to be female (86 percent), to live in a non-urban area (70 percent), least likely to be college educated (28 percent), and least likely to have a household income over $50,000 a year (42 percent). They also spend most of their food budget at the grocery store (72 percent).
Traditionalist Taylor, the least healthy conscious of the segments, is likely to live in non-urban areas (70 percent), be single (69 percent) with no children (57 percent), less likely to be college educated (34 percent), and typically spends most of their budget at the grocery store (74 percent).