What do millennials want? That's the question that every major food brand is wrestling with right now. A recent Forbes article makes it clear why: "There are 80 million millennials in America alone and they represent about a fourth of the entire population, with $200 billion in annual buying power." That power lies with those tech-savvy young(ish) people, who marketers have lumped together based on their age range. Know someone born between 1982 and 2004? Congratulations, you've found a millennial.
But those sweet millennial dollars don't come easy. According to an NPR report released earlier this week, millennials want "authenticity" in their advertising campaigns, which usually translates into a brand not trying "too" hard. Says one young adult: "Honestly, if I could say anything to the advertisers, it'd be this: Entertain me, make me happy, capture my attention, speak to my conscious and then leave me the heck alone." It's a tall order to ask a brand to speak to one's conscious, but there you have it.
Even though courting millennials can be hard, there's no doubting the serious imperative and potential rewards to be won. But a look at the marketing and rebranding strategies of America's largest food companies sheds light on the sometimes ridiculous view that executives have of millennials. Do millennials really want kale in their fast food? Will they actually engage with brands via selfie? According to major food companies, these are the things that make millennials want to open their wallets:
1) A Chill Place to Be Chill At
Several restaurant chains have tried to attract millennials by marketing a relaxed atmosphere and, in some cases, creating one. Part of Olive Garden's ongoing "brand renaissance" has included knocking down walls to create a "more open atmosphere" and a "more modern lobby" that "encourages guests to gather." Take note, millennials, Olive Garden has heard your cry for fewer walls and more gathering spaces in corporate sit-down restaurants.
In London, Pizza Hut threw down some serious money to redesign its Strand flagship to woo younger diners. The new look harkens back to American diners with red leather banquettes, and a relaxed vibe is basically guaranteed via wallpaper mimicking a teen bedroom's wall of photos. In mid-2014, Panda Express launched a new concept store called Panda Express Innovation Kitchen featuring couches and big screen TVs (plus an amazing-sounding bubble tea bar). And at Denny's millennial-targeted spinoff the Den, which recently announced expansion plans that will bring it off-campus and into the larger millennial-filled world, guests are invited to "pull up a chair and sit down, chill, meet friends, even surf the web." The website description continues: "It's your place to unwind, imagine, and enjoy great food." Imagine. Unwind. Surf. The. Freaking. Web.
2) Wowtastic Packaging
Or just, you know, a pouch. Pouches are how major food brands like Campbell's Soup and Kraft's Velveeta have tried to appeal to millennials. A market research expert told the Chicago Tribune that in Velveeta's case, pouches might be exactly what's needed to attract that young adult buyer: "millennials love to cook, but hate to clean" (ed. note: obvi, who likes to clean?), so "Velveeta Toppers cheese sauce pouches 'offer the ability for consumer to be a little creative with what they're cooking but without too much bother.'" Takeaway: Do not ask millenials to "bother" if you can instead offer them a pouch.
In the case of Campbell's, a decision was made to launch a line of soups in a package so tone deaf that it's impossible to imagine how the design meeting must have gone: "What if we put millennials' faces right on the pouch? Then they'll know it's meant for them?" "Great thinking, Larry!"
The soup pouches, Spotify soup playlists, and the Tumblr-inspired website did catch the attention of actual millennial favorite Stephen Colbert, who just nailed it in a 2012 broadcast. Said Colbert: "Right now, there is nothing 18-to-34-year-old upper middle income kids love more than soup, playa."
We salute the many, many chains that are turning to Sriracha to capture the attention of the millennial palate: Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, Subway, White Castle, TGI Fridays. The list goes on, and the truth is, it's hard to think up a fast food item that wouldn't be improved by the fiery sauce.
Pizza Hut in particular is banking on Sriracha to inject its new customizable menu (see above) with some cred, offering a honey Sriracha pizza crust, a honey Sriracha pizza sauce, and an on-trend hot honey-like Sriracha drizzle. They're also offering "Sweet Sriracha Dynamite," a specialty pizza with "honey Sriracha sauce topped with grilled chicken, sliced jalapeño peppers, sweet pineapple and Peruvian cherry peppers," all on a honey Sriracha crust with a honey Sriracha drizzle. THEY HAVE SRIRACHA, GUYS. And because Sriracha is basically millennial catnip, there was also a non-chain-affiliated EDM festival dedicated to the sauce this summer.
4) Mason Jars
Many giant food brands have looked to hipsters' favorite PBR vessels to signal their "with-it-ness." In the case most similar to millennials' mason jar use in the wild, Pizza Hut added cocktails to its menu in London, serving the mixed drinks in mason jars with handles. Red Lobster also hopped aboard the mason jar train when it introduced cakes in jars (plastic jars, according the New York Times). Really, is there better way to create an "authentic" experience than to put red velvet cake into a simulated mason jar?
In a more successful example, last May, 7-Eleven took its iconic Slurpee and served it up in a 26-ounce plastic mason jar, complete with a plastic mustache straw. The gimmick actually paid off, and real live millennials flocked to social media to share their satisfaction with the
In an effort to woo millennials, several food companies have turned to kale, the leafy green immortalized by a Beyonce sweatshirt. (Incidentally, NPR recently discovered that millennials love Beyonce, so make like Pepsi and sign her to your brand if you want to live!). Chinese fast food chain Panda Express boldly entered the kale arena with the "WokSmart" dish called Shiitake Kale Chicken Breast. Olive Garden has also tried to capture the "foodie sensibility" by exploring the world of kale, throwing it in its bowls of "Zuppa Toscana" soup. (Olive Garden also experimented with adding more capers and pistachio-crusted truffles, which are absolutely not a thing).
Interestingly, bulk mayonnaise destination Costco embraced kale hard and yielded great results. Last spring, Costco told Bloomberg its "giant bags of kale" were a "particular hit" and in October of 2014, Bloomberg reported that kale contributed to Costco's most profitable quarter to date. Brands beware, though: Kale is probably dead now.
6) Customizable DISHES
Or, the race to Chipotle-fy the brand. While millennials' unstoppable love for Chipotle might be why so many restaurant chains have turned to customizable menu options, origins for this increasingly widespread fast food menu approach might be owed to Starbucks (and the venti skim half-caf whateveraccino) and Burger King's longtime "Have it your way" slogan.
Still, these days it's about Chipotle — millennials can't get enough of it, so everyone's trying to copy the formula. McDonald's has been experimenting with a build-your-own-burger menu — offering choices in types of bread and toppings — and it's now bringing the "Create Your Taste" concept to some 2,000 locations. Pizza Hut launched a customizable pizza program, letting customers choose from 10 new crust flavors, six sauces, five new toppings, and four "drizzles." Taking things even further and living mas is Taco Bell. The new Taco Bell app allows users effectively unlimited customization options, giving "consumers complete access to every Taco Bell ingredient to create what they want, when they want it." According to early reports, the Taco Bell app's limited custom options have yielded major cash for the brand, with its users accumulating bills that are 20 percent higher than those ordering through more "traditional" methods.
7) "Artisanal" Things
Even if the product isn't actually made by an artisan, food companies figure millennials won't care because the word "artisanal" is just so irresistible. Domino's went full tilt into the misuse of the word when they launched a line of "artisan pizzas" that perplexingly couldn't be modified and were "handmade" (as opposed to what? Made by robots?). Lewis Black's take: "The only time it's okay for somebody at Domino's to say 'No' to me is if I just walked in and asked, 'Hey, can I take a dump in your sink?'"
Pizza Hut also has leaned into the artisanal spirit with its "blow your mind hand-tossed pizza," complete with manufactured "imperfections." (The idea is that imperfections make the pizza look more like actual food and less like processed crap.) The red-roofed pizza chain has also begun to shift away from stunt pizzas, focusing instead on creating a lighter crust and a white garlic parmesan sauce because they want to be "perceived as higher quality and more gourmet."
The misuse of "artisanal" is happening in the beverage sector, too. Major beer companies like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch have taken a similar approach by creating so-called "craft" and "small-batch" labels, while Pepsi launched an "artisanal" soda line named after their founder called Caleb's Kola... with a "K" and an accompanying Tumblr page.
8) Small Plates
Here's a sure-fire way to make your restaurant chain more appealing to millennials: disrupt the entree. Disrupt it with endless appetizers and a "taste and share" menu like TGI Fridays has. Disrupt it with the on-trend (or is it post-trend?) idea of small plates or, as so-called Italian restaurant Olive Garden calls it, "tapas." Or disrupt the whole meal idea entirely by filling your hotel lobby with snacks curated by José Andrés, like Marriott's AC Hotel concept is doing. (In all honesty, we'd definitely eat that.)
A few brands have tried enticing the young adult consumer by emphasizing meat. Here's how it's done: Arby's (which famously has an older customer base) creates a limited-run brisket sandwich, airs a 13-hour commercial showing the brisket cook, and then manages to sell so many they cause a spike in brisket prices. Then they trot out this internet grammar-inspired slogan: "We have the meats."
At processed food giant Nestlé, the marketing director of the microwavable Hot Pockets said today's young adults are self-described foodies who "talk about being into prosciutto and Angus beef." So the company stuffed those crusts/pockets with "hickory ham, Angus beef, and white-meat chicken." And in order to attract the millennial traveler to its AC Hotel concept, Marriott has promised a prosciutto carving station at breakfast (which, after a night of drinking the hotel's tap cocktails, admittedly sounds delightful).
10) Fermented Things
Giant food companies know that when all the chef bros say fermenting is cool, they are probably right. Aside from the normal fermented things getting sold every day (like, you know, yogurt), brands are exploring the world of *hip* fermented things to show millennials that like Dr. Evil they're with it, they're hip. (Bonus round: Millennials also love nostalgia, like this completely unnecessary Austin Powers reference.)
Dunkin' Donuts is fighting the good fight by experimenting with house-made pickles and, overseas, kimchi on doughnuts. Panera introduced an orange miso dressing. East Coast seafood chain Legal Sea Foods has experimented with offering a beef and kimchi lettuce wrap on the menu. And at some grocery stores like Haggen and Whole Foods, there are locations with kombucha growler stations where young adults can get their fill of the fermented tea.
Selfies are the Hail Mary play of every food brand trying so unbelievably hard to get that sweet, sweet millennial dollar. McDonald's recently tried to lure millennials into stores with a selfies-as-payment promotion that just made no sense. And when McDonald's gave their clown mascot a refresh to be "modern and relevant," it's no accident that along with cargo pants (ew?) Ronald was also given a social media identity. As "he" says in the press release, "Selfies ...here I come!"
QSR Web has a compelling roundup of all the restaurants that have embraced the #selfie as a way to get millenials to #engage with their #brand, including "Fazoli's, Rita's Italian Ice, Cousins Subs, and Bruster's Ice Cream." Dunkin' Donuts has held a "fan of the week" campaign and a Shark Week selfie contest. The social media pros at Taco Bell have also seen successful selfie campaigns, like when customers eating Grilled Stuft Nachos would upload selfies with the hashtag #DoingStuff. KFC has also embraced the selfie, with a #HowDoYouKFC campaign. But Applebee's took the selfie mentality of today's young adult to heart with its #BeeFamous campaign, an effort to find a star for its television commercials through the magic of social media.