On these days leading up to Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif., and SXSW in Austin, Texas, I encourage dairy foods marketers to take a step back and look at what the rule-breaking, norm-defying exhibitors at these shows are doing to attract consumers. For starters, they are focusing in on Gen Z.
Gen Z is poised to change the face of food, according to new research from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI). CFI conducted digital ethnography, quantitative research and immersive Gen Z experiences, for a 360-degree look at this unique segment and how to engage to earn trust.
“The findings equip the food industry with insights to engage Gen Z consumers, Gen Z farmers and ranchers and the Gen Z workforce,” says Roxi Beck, consumer engagement director at CFI, who led the Gen Z initiative. “The guide details engagement strategies agriculture organizations can use to attract and retain young members and future leaders. Additionally, it details how food companies, restaurants, retailers, agribusinesses and others involved in the business of food can attract and integrate this up-and-coming generation into today’s multigenerational workforce.”
Born between the mid-to-late 1990s and the early 2010s, this emerging consumer segment has a distinct set of values, behaviors, fears and preferences, along with growing purchasing power. Accounting for 20.7% of U.S. consumers and nearly one-third of the global population, Gen Z’s economic power is the fastest growing across all generations and their income is predicted to increase five-fold to $33 trillion by 2030 and surpass Millennials’ incomes by 2031.
Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, too. According to Pew Research, Gen Z represents the leading edge of the country’s changing racial and ethnic makeup, with 52% non-Hispanic White, 25% Hispanic, 14% Black, 6% Asian and 5% a different race or two or more races. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2026, the majority of this generation will be non-White. (I wish the projections were the same for executives in dairy. Come on folks, let’s bring some color to next year’s Dairy Forum.)
Here are some recent innovations that speak to what matters to Gen Z.
Cheddies cheese-based snack crackers are made from 100% fresh cheddar cheese. They are made with only seven ingredients and provide 6 grams of protein per serving. Unlike most cheese crackers on the market that use processed cheese powders, Cheddies uses its own proprietary cheddar cheese recipe, sourced fresh from regenerative farms. The result is a crunchy, savory cracker that satisfies all your cheesiest cravings.
Cheddies was founded by Texas-based brothers Francisco and Tomas Pergola who were looking for a healthy but delicious alternative to the highly processed cheese-based snacks they grew up eating. While still in college, they started their work to create a sustainably sourced cheese cracker with the savory flavor and crunch they loved, while also being kind to the planet. They knew making the best cheese cracker meant starting with the best cheese, so they partnered with Alexandre family farms-- one of the only regenerative dairy farms in the U.S.--to create the proprietary recipe that gives Cheddies its uniquely cheesy taste.
“We’re on a mission to put real, fresh cheese back in cheese snacks,” said Cheddies’ CEO, Francisco Pergola. “That’s why we only use whole block, all-natural regenerative cheddar to make our delicious, better-for-you crackers. We believe Cheddies is the perfect cracker for the next generation of snackers looking for tasty, sustainable, healthy snacks which also put flavor first.”
Here’s another. Alec’s Ice Cream is a category-disrupting ice cream brand with its regenerative-verified and USDA organic-certified products made from 100% A2 dairy. The brand also received this week the prestigious win from New Hope’s NEXTY Awards for “Best New Dessert” category and is a finalist in the “Best New Organic or Regenerative Certified Product” category. Check them out at Expo West.
This month the brand also gained noteworthy distribution and is now available nationwide at all 392 Sprouts Farmers Market locations and 166 Natural Grocers locations across the country.
Founded in 2020 by Alec Jaffe, Alec’s Ice Cream is on a mission to create a better food system by going beyond organic to help reverse climate change. Through the universally loved treat, ice cream, Alec’s educates and inspires consumers—mainly Gen Z--to seek out high-quality foods that taste better, are better for the environment, support value-driven producers, and are better for you.
The brand’s newest flavor is Peanut Butter Fudge Honeycomb. It was inspired by Jaffe’s favorite childhood candy bar, the Butterfinger. The new flavor features a peanut butter base, ribbons of fudge and chocolate-covered honeycomb toffee pieces. The goal of this flavor launch is to tap into a playful, nostalgic and beloved flavor to hook consumers onto the brand’s greater environmental mission.
Jaffe cites a recent study that found customers are four-times more likely to purchase products from purpose-driven brands, proving that customers are looking for community and a shared “power of good” that purpose-driven brands provide. To read highlights from the study, link HERE
“I think there is a really meaningful shift taking place in how consumers think about and shop for their favorite foods,” says Jaffe. “More and more, we see people looking to support brands that are taking actionable steps toward a more sustainable future. At Alec’s, we are dedicated to providing consumers with the most delicious ice cream while upholding our core commitment to protecting and restoring the environment and using our product as an entryway to educating the consumer on the importance of sustainability.”
Gen Z is listening and speaking with their dollar. Gen Z thinks very differently about the products they buy, including food and beverages.
As a parent of two Gen Z males, I can confirm they shop and eat differently. They would rather spend a few extra dollars—of their own money—for Chipotle, which they recognize as being fresh, authentic and planet friendly, then a fast-food burger or heaven forbid, Chick-fil-A. They prefer Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers.
“They are driven by social causes, including environmental and social justice issues. This means they support brands that align with their values,” says Beck. “They value technology used to produce food, and view food as a form of self-expression and identity.”
This generation also likes immersive experiences. To that end, as part of the research project, CFI brought together Gen Z food online influencers and Gen Z farmer online influencers for a two-day tour around San Antonio, Texas, that explored beef production and nutrition. They explored the many questions regarding beef sustainability. The tour gave influencers access to experts including a cattle rancher, veterinarian, dietitian and chef. No question was left unanswered. A smaller-scale tour was also conducted in eastern Iowa.
“The participants experienced things most people simply don’t have access to, a backstage pass of sorts. Throughout the experience, we saw many ‘aha’ moments from the consumer and farmer participants,” says Beck. “We’ve conducted several influencer tours over the years. They are an incredible way to show full transparency, have authentic conversations, and truly build relationships, all important elements in earning trust.”
“In addition to the direct impact on participants, each influencer’s online content--blogs, photos and videos--were shared with more than one million loyal followers,” said Beck, “amplifying the many positive things happening on farms and in food production today.”
Tour videos featured on CFI’s BestFoodFacts.org (link HERE
) consumer site featured comments including:
“I had no idea that there was this much technology. When I envisioned a farm, it wasn’t this. I think it’s extremely important to continue innovating.”
“We’ve been fed over and over again to be scared of the way our food is farmed and raised, and I just don’t think that I believe that anymore. I have a much more well-rounded idea of what farming is and have a lot more trust in the food system and in farming.”
When it comes to specific eating habits, CFI’s Illuminate digital ethnography research revealed distinct trends including:
- Building a Better Relationship with Food: They believe intuitive and mindful eating will help them build a healthier relationship with food that is free of stress and guilt.
- Balanced Nutrition: They try to optimize nutrition by developing a habit of eating a wide variety of foods, especially plant-based, rather than restricting their diet.
- Sustainable Diets: They want to do what they can to reduce their carbon footprint by minimizing meat consumption and buying local ingredients.
CFI’s research regarding why consumers accept or reject technology in agriculture and food showed that when communicating about technology, like gene editing, primary messages should include key drivers of trust, including: food safety, sustainability, perceived benefits, naturalness of the technology and making information readily available and easy to understand.
The research culminated in a communications guide, “Engaging Gen Z: The Consumer, The Farmer/Rancher, The Workforce,” that details CFI research and other Gen Z findings, along with specific strategies to engage each audience. You can download the guide HERE
“Gen Z consumers are hiring food to do different jobs for them than previous generations. They are looking to food not only for sustenance. They want it to positively impact long-term health for the body and the mind, they want it to be produced sustainably for the future of our planet,” says Beck. “Be forthcoming with the role of technology in food production and how it directly relates to consumer goals. They see innovation as critical to solving global challenges. Sharing examples of your efforts and progress demonstrates your commitment to sustainability.”
For agriculture organizations looking to recruit and retain Gen Z farmers and ranchers, provide opportunities early and often so they are connected and understand that they can have an impact. Offer development and training opportunities to empower engagement outside of agriculture. And make sure other generations take into consideration the new perspective Gen Z brings that can help the industry advance.
When engaging the Gen Z workforce, showcase your company values, get them involved in initiatives that support company culture and community engagement, and demonstrate that you’re committed to taking steps to impact change.
“Because they want to speak up and be heard, give them a voice in the workplace,” says Beck. “It gives them a sense of belonging, which research shows improves longevity.”
Hope to see you in Anaheim!