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More chicken, lighter beer, pink drinks: Crafting new products for Gen Z tastes

Food and beverage companies seeking younger consumers eschew marketing the old for inventing the new…

As Generation Z comes of age, food and beverage companies are scrambling to attract them to their brands. Some are finding marketing is only getting them so far.

The generation born between 1997 and 2012 are accustomed to greater choice and are less willing to consume what they don’t immediately enjoy than previous generations, marketing executives and trend forecasters say.

Rather than spending millions on advertising legacy products to this new cohort, some companies are instead developing new ones designed to cater to their specific tastes.

Beers are lighter. Drinks are more colourful. Coffees are colder. And at Taco Bell, home of items like the Beefy Melt Burrito and Beefy 5-Layer Burrito, poultry is coming for red meat.

“Right now, a large percentage of our business is in beef,” Taco Bell CEO Mark King told investors last December, “and right now the Gen Z consumer wants chicken.” 

Taco Bell over the past few years has introduced or tested additional chicken items such as the Cheesy Chicken Crispanada and Crispy Chicken Tacos, with more to come, according to Global Chief Food Innovation Officer Liz Matthews.

“While we listen to all of our fans, the particular influence of Gen Z on our brand is undeniable,” Matthews said, noting the group’s interest in the climate impact of cattle farming.

Tastes don’t change widely from generation to generation biologically speaking; Gen Z’s taste buds are generally no different from their parents’. And food trends have for decades come and gone as new groups of consumers come of age. 

Now the largest generation in the world

Money is on the table for companies, too, when it comes to Gen Z. The group is now the largest generation in the world, according to Bloomberg analysis of UN data, and in 2021 had a collective disposable income of $360-billion, according to research and advisory firm Gen Z Planet.

But Gen Z has proven for some brands to be a trickier group to sell legacy products to, marketing executives say. 

That’s partly due to the amount of choice they have grown up with, said Andrew Roth, the 24-year-old founder and CEO of DCDX, a Gen Z research and strategy firm. Younger consumers no longer need to train their tastes to fit what’s on offer. E-commerce and wider variety on shelves mean they can shop for the exact brands and flavours that fit their tastes, Roth said.

“We can walk into a store and, and look up, in a matter of seconds, information and reviews about any single product in front of you,” Roth said. “It’s a different behavioural mind-set than other generations had.”

Taking a legacy brand and marketing it through a Gen Z lens can also backfire. Bud Light marketer Alissa Heinerscheid last year said in an interview that the brand’s marketing had thus far centered on “fratty, sort of out of touch humour,” and that if the beer was to survive it needed to dip instead into the interests of younger consumers.

A partnership with the 26-year-old transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney followed. Then came the backlash from conservative Bud Light drinkers, a boycott of the beer, and a dramatic fall in sales.

Some companies are instead crafting familiar tastes into new brands geared toward Gen-Z. PepsiCo earlier this year sunsetted Sierra Mist in favour of Starry, a similarly-flavoured lemon-lime soda designed to compete with Coca-Cola’s Sprite that it says is “made to speak to Gen Z,” for example.

The beverage company introduced the brand with a TV campaign featuring actress Keke Palmer and an irreverent influencer marketing push rooted in younger parlance.

But other companies are taking a different approach: Crafting brand new products to better tap in to the tastes — literal and figurative — of Gen Z, without alienating older consumers already loyal to their heritage products and menu items.

$100m marketing investment

Heineken has spent the past few years rolling out Heineken Silver, a new global brand tailored to younger consumers who, it says, want a lighter beer that is less bitter and that contains fewer calories and carbohydrates than the brewer’s flagship offering. The company has invested $100-million in the brand’s US rollout, which began in March and has so far included a sponsorship of Coachella music festival and the Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix.

Heineken Silver is still establishing itself in the US, representing 0.2% of imports in 2023 and 0.3% over the last 13 weeks, according to data on retail-store sales analyzed by Bump Williams Consulting, an industry consulting firm. But US retail-store sales of Heineken Silver have already surpassed those of Heineken Light in the last 13 weeks, Bump Williams said. 

Older beer drinkers boast of putting in work to get to liking the bitter taste of beer, much as they would challenge themselves to like the tastes of coffee, olives or dark chocolate, said Jonnie Cahill, chief marketing officer at Heineken USA. Younger consumers, who are on average drinking less than previous generations, don’t want to do that, Cahill said.

“I think you have to be humble as a brand owner,” he said. “The old days of just saying, ‘Well, this is what I’ve got, and I’m going to make you love it’ are over. You’ve got to work harder for people to love your brand and give them options.”

Treasury Wines also last year introduced Matua Lighter, a lower-calorie, lower-ABV version of its Sauvignon Blanc wine influenced by the younger generation’s preference for healthier options. 

“The idea of moderation is a real trend that’s being driven by those younger cohorts that we’re paying attention to,” said Carl Evans, Treasury’s chief marketing officer for the Americas. 

Bones are going the way of bitter, boozy drinks when it comes to Gen Z, according to some restaurant executives.

KFC has spent time fine-tuning its chicken sandwich and in March introduced Kentucky Fried Chicken Nuggets as a way to introduce the company’s blend of 11 herbs and spices to a younger audience who prefer a boneless bite, according to Nick Chavez, the chief marketing officer of KFC US.

The company in the past has served up similar-shaped options such as Popcorn Chicken, but the new item represents the restaurant’s first foray into hand-breaded, white meat nuggets, a spokeswoman said.

“We’ll continue to innovate in the boneless chicken category to be relevant to our younger customers and meet their taste preferences,” Chavez said. 

Bones may be out, but pepper is in…..

Wall Street Journal: Read the full article here

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