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According to a semiannual report from investment bank firm Piper Sandler, food is Gen Z’s top spending priority. Last spring, Zoomers spent around 23% of their earnings or allowance on food, up from 21% in the fall of 2020 but down from 25% a year ago. With Gen Z being the current most influential generation, it’s important for brands to keep up with the needs of this trendsetting demographic.

Not only are youngsters spending a majority of their coin on food, but they’re also shifting towards different eating habits in general. In line with the rest of the world during the pandemic, Gen Z is starting to gravitate towards healthier options. 

Gen Z’s Current Habits

According to a white paper from the American Egg Board, health, convenience, and social media are crucial in determining Gen Z’s food choices. 

Gen Z embraced eCommerce with open arms during lockdown protocols. In fact, 34% percent plan to keep up the increased online spending pace post-quarantine—including groceries and restaurant orders. 52% percent of Gen Z were less likely to shop in person at a grocery store during the pandemic.

And according to the aforementioned Piper Sandler study, Gen Z is slowly becoming a snack-focused generation, opting to graze throughout the day instead of larger, planned meals like good ‘ol meat and potatoes. 

Although they spend more time thinking about food compared to other generations, the younger demographic is mostly loyal to popular labels. The top six snack brands for teens in the spring 2021 survey are Lay’s, Doritos, and Cheetos from PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division; Campbell Soup’s Goldfish; Kellogg’s Cheez-It; and Mondelez’s Oreo.

Produce Blue Book also reports that Zoomers tend to prefer fresh and wholesome foods. Sixty-five percent of Gen Z want a more “plant-forward” diet, while 79% would eat meatless meals once or twice a week, according to a study conducted by Aramark.

However, unlike past generations of young people, Gen Z consumers are integrating vegetarian options into their diet without making a wholesale commitment to being vegetarian/vegan. Balance is proven to be key to this demographic, as information about healthy lifestyle habits becomes more readily available

Almost half of Gen Z’ers indicate they would pay more for foods they perceive as healthier, compared to 32% of Millennials, according to a Tufts Nutrition Report.

When you couple Gen Z’s ability to set a trend cycle with an app that provides hours of constant entertainment and content, food trends now come and go as often as clothing trends. 

TikTok’s Effect on Gen Z’s Eating Habits

One prime example of how social media can influence generations to start eating a totally new type of cuisine is the birria taco fad. The classic Mexican dish, a cultural staple, started appearing on menus across the US after TikToks of the dish started going viral. Soon birria tacos were showing up on menus in previously uncharted waters, like…Nebraska. 

Jon Kung, who runs the account Chef Jon Kung on TikTok, said in an interview with CNN, “TikTok has become this crazy soft culture center, it bleeds into Instagram, and Instagram bleeds to Facebook, and Facebook bleeds to everyone else. I see more and more birria tacos on menus, and I know exactly why they’re doing that.”

And Gen Z’s glorious coins are the target here. They are the most profitable spenders in the food sector and the most influential demographic right now. A small mom-and-pop restaurant can check out platforms like TikTok, find out that birria tacos are highly sought after, and implement them into their menu. The key then is to correctly market towards this demographic, which is exceptionally tricky given how ad-savvy younger demographics are becoming.

With Gen Z’s massive shift to healthy foods, the fast-food heavy-hitters are beginning to sweat a little. But that’s where that juicy savvy marketing comes to play. 

Gen Z’s Effect on Fast Food Marketing

To connect with such a fickle, intelligent demographic, fast food brands had to put their thinking caps on. One chain that has gone above and beyond at being “cool” and on-trend in marketing long before the advent of Gen Z is Taco Bell.

In an interview with QSR Magazine, Rob Poetsch, senior director of public relations at Taco Bell said, “We always say this, but we don’t own our brand anymore. They own our brand, they don’t just buy our brand; they buy into the brand.”

Last summer, the company teamed with Gen Z-approved app Lyft to pilot-test “Taco Mode,” in which users could add a drive-thru pit stop to their trip. That October it also teamed up with Forever 21 for a collection of branded apparel, which Poetsch says sold out within hours. The company also has long excelled at maintaining a laid-back, non-cringe approach to their social media voice, a concept that many brands still struggle with. 

Poetsch also adds, “Think about it less as a demographic approach and more as a mindset. … When you’re a teenager, you want to be 20-something—that’s the sweet spot, that’s the age. And when you’re 30-something, you want to be 20-something again. It doesn’t really matter what that generation is, because it will shift, and there will be a next Gen Z. There is no finish line to being relevant with that group.”

Wendy’s has also perfected this approach. Wendy’s essentially invented the concept of being sassy with consumers and competitors alike. The brand is not afraid to roast its followers, making it more authentic than competitors. This is a complete 180 from the deeply ingrained “customer first” attitude that plagued the industry with empty niceties for decades. With roughly 6,500 restaurants globally, The Wendy’s Company is the world’s third-largest quick-service hamburger company, with a market cap of $4.5B and an impressive 3.8 million Twitter followers. 

Starting back in 2017, as RivalIQ points out, Wendy’s realized its play-it-safe corporate social media strategy was quite literally for the birds. 

After emboldening their fresh social team, Wendy’s took a page from Taco Bell’s playbook and surged ahead of even McDonald’s in social media recognition and headlines. Instead of a one-way street made for consumers to air out complaints to the poor social media manager, it became a two-way street of discourse and jokes. Their Twitter bio even states, “We like our tweets the same way we like to make our hamburgers: better than anyone expects from a fast food joint.”

All this, of course, to appease a younger generation’s wariness of stuffy old marketing techniques.  Kids want more authenticity in pretty much everything they consume, whether that be food or media. 

Gen Z represents one of the most powerful demographic groups to date. They are becoming exponentially more savvy and sophisticated with their spending habits and which brands they choose to support. Whether it’s a TikTok trend highlighting a certain cuisine, or a battle between Burger King’s social media dude and a 19-year-old who wants free chicken fries for life, you can bet that most innovation in the food industry directly correlates to the needs of the younger generation. And it shows no signs of slowing down. 

Photo by Yoav Aziz via Unsplash