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The New Kids on the Block
“The glory of each generation is to make its own precedents.”
- Belva Lockwood
Of the 8.1 billion people on the planet today, over 2.5 billion belong to Generation Z, those born from roughly 1997 to 2012. Gen Z, as they are known, exhibit a unique set of values and preferences, similar to every generation before it, but having endured a pandemic and a burgeoning climate crisis, their priorities are perhaps even more divergent than their ancestors. As Gen Z enters the workforce in larger numbers and gains purchasing power, brands must in turn deepen their understanding of this new audience, whether it be with new products, tailored messaging, or targeted marketing channels. In a future where alternative proteins constitute an increasingly significant part of the food system, how can brands cater to the consumers of the future?
Profile: Who is Gen Z?
Gen Z is a young, ethnically diverse generation that has been labelled ‘the most disruptive generation ever’. The Economist has described Gen Z as a more educated, well-behaved, stressed, and depressed generation in comparison to previous generations. Its members have been raised on the internet and social media and are the first digitally native generation. Gen Zers work, shop, find friends and meet mates online. They turn to the internet for news, reviews, and information prior to making purchases. According to Think with Google, 74% of Gen Zers look up information online, and 47% of them verify it and also read peer reviews. They value anonymity more than prior generations even as they voraciously consume online media. Gen Z has always witnessed a world that is more interconnected and operates at an accelerating speed and scale. Exposure to diversity from a young age has not only instilled in them a greater acceptance of their differences but also the importance of finding their own unique identities. As a result, Gen Z exhibits a strong sense of personal expression.
Growing up in a rapidly evolving world has resulted in this generation having a more realistic outlook on life. Gen Zers are more independent and less emotional, which is reflected in their preferences and relationships. With vast amounts of information at their fingertips, they are more pragmatic and analytical about how they make decisions. According to McKinsey, 65% of Gen Zers say they particularly value knowing what is going on around them and being in control. These consumers expect to have access to a broad range of information to evaluate products before they make purchases. Having been raised during times of recession, the global pandemic, and climate change, they are accustomed to disruptions or changes and expect brands to constantly innovate and improve.
Gen Z is an eco-conscious generation that values a strong commitment to sustainability and climate change. They exhibit markedly different consumer behaviour than their predecessors, one driven by a passion for change and transparency. Gen Z consumers are value-aligned purchasers who tend to do their research to ensure that a brand aligns with their personal values before committing. However, being digitally smart, they are always on guard when it comes to inconsistent messaging. They can easily switch if a brand’s actions deviate from its messaging. While they are price-sensitive and prioritise savings, they do not compromise on quality or sustainability. Their focus on ethical brands and offerings is unprecedented compared to previous generations. A recent survey showed that 62% of Gen Zers would support an extra 10% meat tax to discourage consumption. A Forbes report concluded that 62% of Gen Zers prefer to buy from sustainable brands, while 54% of them are willing to spend 10% more on sustainable products. The bottom line – Gen Zers know what they want; they know what aligns with their values; and, they are willing to pay a premium to get it. Products and brands must employ a blend of value, quality, ethical practices, and digital presence to tap into the Gen Z wallet.
Product: What do they want?
Gen Zers want to be informed about their food consumption and focus on eating a healthy diet. A survey conducted in Europe indicated that 71% of Gen Z make an effort to eat healthy food at home. Compared with older generations, they are more likely to be motivated to follow a diet to improve their physical appearance and to better manage health conditions. Gen Zers recognise the potential benefits of eliminating animal proteins from their meals, such as reducing the risk of chronic diseases like cardiovascular ailments and diabetes. A survey conducted by McKinsey research found that 87% of respondents willing to purchase meat alternatives belonged to Gen Z. They want to improve their nutrition, which they see as a tool to manage stress. While they tend to gravitate towards snacking, they also tend to steer away from foods that contain high levels of sugar. The alternative protein industry, though nascent, recognizes the benefits of clean-label products to woo these health-conscious consumers.
Gen Zers are tech-savvy and rely extensively on social media platforms to make informed purchasing decisions. Within the U.S., 60% of this generation uses social media as their primary means of finding new products and services. To effectively engage this generation of online shoppers, products need to be digitally marketed and brands need to establish their authenticity, relatability, and engagement on digital platforms. Brands are increasingly investing in their digital presence to appeal to this digitally-native generation. For instance, Patagonia Provisions, an offshoot of the outdoor clothing company, utilizes its online presence to promote its responsibly sourced food products, including its Buffalo Jerky, which comes from bison that are part of a program to restore the Great Plains. Oatly invests heavily in online campaigns and messaging that reflect its ideals of being a sustainable brand and connects with the audience in a way that resonates with them. Oatly’s ‘Help Dad’ campaign, for instance, targeted teens, inspiring them to convert their dads to a plant-based diet through a series of humorous yet provocative videos.
Gen Zers use social media to curate their own personal brands, which are expressions of their values and identity. They value personalized products that allow them to manifest their individuality. Consumption for them is a form of self-expression rather than a reflection of the norms of large groups. They are, as a result, willing to pay a premium for these products that reflect their personalities. Gen Z finds influencers to be more relatable, transparent, and responsive compared to celebrities. 51% of Gen Zers purchase products based on an influencer's recommendationalong with 70% of teenage subscribers finding YouTube personalities more relatable than traditional celebrities. Conventional brands have been quick to realize this. For example, Nestle partners with micro-influencers to promote their coffee creamers, in turn increasing brand awareness and sales. On the alternative protein front, Beyond Meat is known to collaborate with influencers successfully to establish a connection with their audience. This is done through reposting customer content, testimonials, and reviews, making their advertising not only more personal but also more believable. They have created an arsenal of influencers, also known as Beyond Ambassadors, who vouch for the quality and authenticity of their products. The broader alternative protein industry can benefit from these unconventional methods as well.
Promotion: What is the message?
Brands must cultivate a distinct marketing strategy to reach this audience. Gen Z values transparency and expects brands to be open and honest about their practices. This requires clear communication about sourcing, production, and the impact of products or services. A study commissioned by EIT Foods indicated that 78% of respondents needed information on food labels that go well beyond ingredients to include food processing procedures and the ethics behind its production, highlighting how transparency can be the determining factor for Gen Z. Given these consumers’ data-driven approach, they rely on peer feedback to make purchases. They also love to share their experiences on social media and review sites as a means of engaging with the community.
For Gen Zers, the words and actions of a brand must be value-aligned with them. This spans not just product attributes, but company policies, production strategies, and even business principles. A Merkle report indicated that 83% of Gen Zers want brands to take action on environmental issues. Although environmental considerations transcend generations, Gen Z has the highest propensity to take action against brands that do not align with these values. For example, surveys indicate that over 33% of Gen Zers avoid purchasing from brands they find unethical. Over 50% of millennials and Gen Zers said they are participating in boycotting a company on the premise of mismatched values, compared to only 37% of Gen Xers, 22% of baby boomers, and 16% of the silent generation.
Gen Z buys into genuine and authentic product and brand stories. A product's story matters for them as much as the product itself. 82% of Gen Zers say that authenticity is a major purchase driver. The more authentic and human a brand is, the more they are willing to invest in its products. Gen Z doesn’t regard highly polished or aesthetically pleasing stories and posts as admirable. They tend to favour simple, straightforward messaging that feels more organic and brings people closer. They value meaningful interactions with influencers they follow as well as brands they patronize. When it comes to product packaging, they prefer minimalistic and clean designs that convey a sense of authenticity and clarity.
For the alternative protein industry, which remains in a nascent stage, a noteworthy example of a brand doing it right is Oatly. Their transparency in communicating their commitment toward sustainability is evident in everything from their unique packaging to their expansive impact reports. These reports provide information about their environmental footprint, water usage, and greenhouse gas emissions and effectively cater to consumers curious about the broader benefits of their products. They have embarked on brand extensions that include their online magazine called Hey Barista, which interviews baristas who use Oatly, and F.A.R.M., their own regenerative agriculture initiative. These actions prove to customers that the brand is putting money and effort behind its stated values. This sets a benchmark for alternative protein companies to follow. The lesson here for alternative protein businesses is clear – transparency, value alignment, and authenticity are essential.
Potential: Where are they going?
Gen Z consumers are highly influential and are entering an age of great spending power. Their combined spending is currently estimated to be a staggering US$360 billion, doubling the estimate from just three years ago, indicating a rapidly rising trend. As the alternative protein market continues to expand, Gen Z's influence becomes evident. The global market for alternative proteins is projected to reach US$290 billion by 2035, about 11% of the total protein market. This growth is largely driven by the increasing interest and willingness of Gen Z to embrace these products as part of their daily diet. This trend, coupled with their growing economic power, highlights their crucial role in the future expansion and market share of the alternative protein industry.
As time progresses and the role of Gen Zers in society expands, they are certain to dictate consumption patterns more intentionally. Their spending habits and consumer preferences often transcend boundaries given similarities in values such as health and sustainability. This makes them not only the most marketable demographic but also the most cost-efficient. Alternative proteins can become an obvious choice if positioned in alignment with their expectations. Gen Zers are more open to alternative proteins, with 87% of respondents in a survey saying they could be convinced to buy alternative meat products. This openness to new food technologies, combined with their substantial and growing economic influence, indicates that Gen Z has the potential to drive significant growth in the alternative protein industry.
A Pragmatic Prognosis
Gen Z is steering a significant cultural shift with a profile that prioritizes health, sustainability, and ethical consumerism. As Gen Zers’ sphere of influence grows, they will continue to reshape industries, pushing towards products that are transparent, sustainable, and aligned with their values. Brands must make an effort to understand and engage these consumers on their terms.
The alternative protein industry has a significant opportunity to engage Gen Z consumers with a distinct approach to product design and marketing. Just as the industry is early in its development, Gen Zers are still early in their journey as consumers. They will see their purchasing power grow, build families and make decisions that are ever larger in their implications and scope. The alternative protein industry can grow with them if it exhibits compatible values with this new generation. When it comes to the growth of the alternative protein sector through 2050, no other factor will be more influential to consumer demand for its products than its relationship with the Gen Z consumer.
Bank of America
Veylinx Consumer Research Company
Forbes State of Consumer Spending Report
European Institute of Technology (EIT) Food
Composed Creative, Brand Loyalty Insights Research
YPulse, How Much Gen Z Cares About Online Celebrities Survey
Think With Google Survey
Merkle Consumer Behaviors Report 2022
YPulse, Gen Z’s Most Authentic Brands Survey 2023
BCG-Blue Horizon, Food For Thought: The Protein Transformation