Porter Novelli

I had the opportunity to moderate a fascinating panel at Consumer Federation of America’s 37th Annual National Food Policy Conference today on the topic of Millennials and how their attitudes and mindset will shape the future of food and nutrition policy. The panel featured leading communication and trend experts to provide consumer insights and perspective to the diverse mix of policymakers, advocates and scientists in attendance who would later be hashing out a variety of policy issues in break-out sessions.

Not only did I get to tell my Mom to look out for me on C-SPAN 2 (my career is clearly on an upward trajectory!), but I also got to take away a variety of useful insights about Millennials. Here are a few of my key takeaways:

They look different.  As Paul Taylor from the Pew Research Center shared, Millennials are definitively different from earlier generations.  As we all know, they are much more diverse (or more “non-white”). They’re also less likely to identify with “institutions” – from political parties to religions, though more strongly support certain issues that might indicate a certain political affiliation (e.g., strong support of same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana). In addition to standing for individualism, they accomplish the human need for belonging through social connectedness.

They act more like the rest of us than we think when it comes to food. Harry Balzer from NPD broke down conventional wisdom of how Millennials eating patterns compare to other generations’ patterns. The top ten foods consumed by 18-34 year-olds today are shockingly similar to the list you’d find if you looked back 10 years ago, and 10 years before that. What does differ, however, are varieties of the most common foods we all eat (think kale and its status as the most popular leafy vegetable; we’re as likely to eat leafy vegetables over time, but the variety we choose differs).

They want it cheap and easy. Millennials were hard hit by the recession, and continue to struggle. They are the first generation that may be worse off economically than their parents. And their financial status is absolutely affecting how they make food decisions, like choosing “fast casual” restaurants over pricier restaurant options.  One of the bigger surprises of Harry’s data was to see an increase in frozen food purchases among this group, despite the common wisdom that this is a generation who demands “real” food. And they do want foods free of additives. But they also need foods they can afford and that are easy to prepare.

They’re positive, but skeptical.  Across the panelists’ remarks, it was clear that Millennials are about positive change. Over the last few decades, nutrition education was about cutting out what was “bad.” Millennials, on the other hand, are looking at what they can contribute to their diets that will have a positive impact. According to research presented by Marcia Greenblum of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), they are also motivated to eat more healthfully when presented with messages that are positive, upbeat and encouraging. But, they can be less trusting of others as compared to other generations. They have a higher threshold for meeting the standard of authentic and credible information sources, and often rely on their inner circles for perspective and/or validation.  (Keep in mind their inner circles are much bigger as compared to older generations given their wider “social” community of friends).

They are influential. Finally, why do Millennials matter? Aside from the fact that their earnings and spending power will outpace Boomers in a few years, they are highly influential – among each other and as we look forward to the teens and tweens that will follow (“Generation Z”). Kate Wyatt from Edelman shared, for example, that almost three in four Millennials say they influence the purchase decisions of peers and those in other generations. And research backs up this self-identified influence. For example, they are indeed more involved in pop culture and activities that compel them to try and recommend new products to their friends.