The “In ’N Out” of Advertising Food to Millennials

Last week, Burger King debuted a clever ad for net neutrality. The spot featured real customers who were offered a range of burgers priced by speed of delivery, from the $4.99 all the way to $25.99 for a single Whopper. The tongue-in-cheek campaign drew attention to the ongoing fight for open internet and generated new conversation on the topic.

Successful campaigns from brands like Wendy’s, Moon Pie, and Chipotle point to a trend of growing dominance from food advertisers. Food’s always been a big part of the US advertising landscape, but never has it been so pervasive—or inventive. Their social media accounts boast an impressive collection of snarky tweets, clever replies and trendy initiatives to keep their brands top of mind.

Flavors for Every Foodie

Just like any other industry, segmentation plays a big role in food advertising for millennials. Every brand has an associated personality comprised of images, rhetoric, and values. While bold, punchy campaigns might work for fast food chains, advertising healthy choices requires a little more nuance.

More than ever, millennials are concerned with the quality of their food and will pay more to make sure that it meets their standards. In Nielsen’s Global Health and Wellness survey, 73% of people age 16-34 stated they were willing to pay a premium for healthier products. This is a 52% difference compared to 21% of baby boomers (mid-50s to 60s).

This puts health food brands at a unique advantage. While food giants like McDonald’s have scrambled to add healthy offerings to their menu, health food brands—once considered “fringe” or “obscure”— have been on the rise. Companies like Clif, Justin’s Nut Butters and  Annie’s have become mainstays in national organic markets. Food influencers on Instagram, foodie blogs and Pinterest regularly sing their praises for the healthy alternatives they present to choosy consumers.

So just how do these companies grow their brand presence with their audiences?

Transparency is Best

RXBar health food barsTraditionally, food advertising gets a bad rap. Food styling requires the usage of lacquer, fishing wire rigs, specialized lighting, and a host of synthetic additives to enhance and preserve the “freshly made” look. This often leads to disappointment as consumers expect a fresh product and receive something radically different. While steps have been taken to combat this negative impression—McDonalds recently left unretouched photos of their food on their site to encourage transparency—most major food companies are at a disadvantage when it comes to consumer trust.

Health foods have a unique edge in this area as consumers are already drawn to their product base on its benefits. Because foods like alternative milks, nutrition bars, and spiralized vegetables have been touted as preferable by blogs and platforms like Pinterest (whose Food category dominates the site), there’s less pressure on these companies to “fight” for appeal in their audience’s mind.

Still, this doesn’t mean that food advertising to millennials doesn’t require a well-defined strategy, only that it’s different.

Appealing to the Everyday

Millennials are among the hard-to-target demographics for advertisers, largely because there’s so much variation. The age range is broad, their interests varied, and they’re wise to many of the tricks advertisers use to target them. Ads on YouTube? Blocked by the notorious AdBlocker or filtered out. Newsletter opt-ins? Unsubscribed. Social ads on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter? Whisked away with the swipe of a finger.
Part of this is due to sheer oversaturation, but the majority of it stems from an issue of context. Too often ads—especially

those in the food and lifestyle spaces—shoot for wide appeal, touting benefits for all instead of the people their message will resonate with most. While they might not know all the specifics, consumers are vaguely aware of their demographic and the products designed to fit into their lifestyle.
In terms of ads, advertisers are tasked to create campaigns that resonate not only with the base demographic, but their values: what’s important to them, why it’s important, and what this product can do to align with their lifestyle. For major food companies who’re looking to launch products in the health food space, there’s even more opportunity.
Opening up a new market is a matter of appealing to the existing culture surrounding the demographic, highlighting product benefits, and capitalizing on them. And while smaller, niche companies often have their cult followings, major brands launching healthy options have established recognition that can bypass the pricy, inaccessible values some organic companies are associated with.
Food advertising is a $190 billion industry, with tons of potential growth for health-conscious consumers—all advertisers have to do is pay attention.
Curious about health food advertising? Check out our Green Giant Veggie Swap-Ins project. 

Jasmine Moore

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