Danielle Kent
Danielle Kent

There are anywhere between 80 and 95 million Millennials in the U.S., which means this demographic currently comprises approximately 30 percent of the population. By next year, it’s expected they’ll have a collective purchasing power of $1.4 trillion.

Whether it’s a response to consumer demand or new policy implementations affecting the food industry, one thing’s certain: the age of the super-sized cheeseburger drenched in trans-fats is over. And unlike years past, when fast food could regularly be produced with cheap and unhealthy ingredients, it’s clear that Millennials are driving the demand for a certain level of care in the production of their food, regardless of cost.

O'Dwyer's Mar. '19 Food & Beverage PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Mar. '19 Food & Beverage PR Magazine

Governmental interference on the menu

Leading the trend in health-driven change in the fast food industry, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned trans-fats across his municipality. Though that policy was initially perceived as extreme, three years after the ban went into effect studies showed that diners at fast food restaurants in the city were eating an average of 0.5 grams of trans-fat per meal, down from 2.4 grams of trans fats prior to the ban. Beyond that, the number of meals without any trans-fat at all went up from 32 percent before the ban to 59 percent after the fact. Several cities have since followed suit with similar bans. Additional policies enforced by the FDA include mandating restaurants with more than 20 locations to note calorie counts on their menus, though studies have shown that only a sixth of consumers make note of those numbers.

Spending more in the name of quality

In a recent survey by Deloitte, 83 percent of respondents said the typical fast-food menu didn’t offer enough healthy choices. As the trend of fast casual restaurants maintains its stronghold, we see that Millennial consumers are willing to spend a few more bucks to seek food they perceive as higher quality. Brands like Panera have seen major success in investing their funds in reformulations of signature menu items to meet their customer base’s interest in cleaner choices. Keywords like “local” and “natural” majorly sway Millennial purchasing behavior, and even competition from higher cost food trucks and local restaurants is more of a threat than ever.

Millennials asked and they received

Executives at companies like McDonald’s have seen sales slip in recent years and have been quick to tweak even its most popular items to regain their previous position in the marketplace. The Happy Meal’s evolution over the past six years is indicative of a major shift in America’s dining behavior; portion sizes have been reduced, sliced apples and yogurt are encouraged over fries, and bottled water has replaced sugary sodas as the default beverage. From adding salads to their once burger-centric menus to their promise to reduce the added sugar content in their chocolate milk, it’s clear that the power of the discerning consumer is a force to be reckoned with. 

Food politics expert and author Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University noted “The trend is clear: fresh, natural, local, organic. This is hard for fast food and processed food makers to accomplish, but they are all trying.”

In a competitive and overly saturated industry like fast food, flexibility is necessary to stay competitive. Meanwhile, marketers are tasked with reframing the public opinion surrounding fast food. A question of credibility comes into play as today’s consumers are asked to trust that establishments once offering nothing more than burgers and fries have shifted their offerings to include salads and fruit platters. Low cost and fast service is no longer the sole factor driving fast food purchases; marketers must alter the tone of fast food brands to position them as nutrient-dense quick meal options rather than junk food. Without adjusting their core values to adhere to the health interests of Millennials, fast food brands will struggle to stay afloat.

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Danielle Kent is based out of Marketing Maven’s Los Angeles headquarters.