(June 26, 2014) — People in the beef business have worried that the Baby Boomers would raise a generation of vegetarians. It hasn’t happened. The generation born in the 1980s and 90s — the Millennial generation, as it’s called — is still buying meat, but they’re also asking questions.
Mindful of this, the Animal Agriculture Alliance made the theme of last month’s annual summit in Virgnia “Cracking the Millennial Code” and brought together a wide range of speakers and panelists over three days to talk about what Millennials want and how to reach them.
John Stika, president of Certified Angus Beef, said this generation seems to be as carniverous as previous ones, despite the fears of rampant vegetarianism.
“This is a generation that, studies would indicate, loves to grill,” he said. “This could be the generation that solidifies the grill as a year-round appliance.”
It’s also a generation that looks at food differently than its predecessors. Jeff Fromm, who co-wrote the book “Marketing to Millennials” and who delivered the keynote address in Virgnia, notes that more than half of the current generation refer to themselves as foodies. They don’t just eat their food, including their veggies; they tweet about it and take pictures of it. And they ask questions about it.
Fromm told the audience of mostly ranchers and industry professionals that the Millennials are not so much a target audience as they are a partner. They want a story to go along with their food, and they want to be the co-author.
“We talk a lot about storytelling,” Fromm said. “We live in a participation economy, and millennial mindset consumers want to co-create the story with you. It’s their story. And when they create the story, they share it.”
Last year’s annual meeting was themed “Activists at the Door: Protecting Animals, Farms, Food and Consumer Confidence.” This year’s conference went beyond that to find what all the activisim and negative press have done to animal agriculture and what it’s future might be. The overall mood was optimistic.
“I don’t believe there has ever been a time when prospects are as bright for your products as they are today,” food consultant Nancy Kruse told the audience, noting that demand for protein products, including meat and dairy, has jumped 54 percent over the last five years.
“We’re looking at a major sea change in attitude because these consumers are embracing ‘real’ food, like fried chicken, which is very popular again,” she said. “Butchers have bounced back because people are interested in using the whole animal and not letting anything go to waste. Butchers and chefs are like rock stars now.”
That’s not to suggest that animal agriculture does not continue to face public relations issues. Chipotle, a restaurant chain especially popular with Millennials, has made “Food with Integrity” part of its corporate motto. Chipotle has released a video decrying GMOs and also produced what it calls a “comedy series” titled “Farmed and Dangerous” about the “outrageously twisted and utterly unsustainable world of industrial agriculture.” The message doesn’t play well in farm country, but it hasn’t hurt Chipotle’s bottom line. Chipotle’s revenue increased 17.7 percent in 2013 to $3.21 billion, and net income was $327.4 million, an increase of 17.8 percent. The company opened 185 new restaurants last year, bringing the corporate total to 1,595, with plans to open 180-195 more this year.
Activists, Kruse said, have seized the conversation.
“You have to do the same thing from your point of view and not wait for it to happen to you,” she said. “You consistently have been ambushed, but now there’s no excuse to be ambushed. All you have to do is take out your smartphone and look at what’s being said.”
What’s being said by some segments of the agriculture community often reflects negatively on other segments, or on other commpanies or producers within that segment. This has rankled rank-and-file agriculture producers for a long time. Lydia Depills touched on this in a blog for the Washington Post., writing, “When food companies market their products as cleaner than others, it implies that everything else is somehow dirty.”
Ben Wilson, a video production manager for the Farm on Farm Foundation, which seeks to support young farmers, said the dialogues represent “the war we never saw coming: farmer versus farmer.”
“We’re picking a stance because we’re being asked to take a position: ‘The way we’re doing it is better, and therefore every other way of doing it must be bad or worse,’” he said. “If we want to make a difference in this industry, we’re going to have to work together. Stop the fighting. It’s not about us, anyway.”