Wooing millennials

Feb 7, 2014
by DTN

— Beef industry must engage a new generation

The eating habits of young Americans were under scrutiny at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) Annual Convention in Nashville last Tuesday.

At 80 million strong, millennials—people between the ages of 14 and 34—represent the largest generation since the baby boomers.

Unlike the baby boomers, however, beef is not on the top of their menu.

Research shows they love food—or rather, they love to read about it, watch it being made, and take pictures of it. Every day, the millennial generation visits the top five cooking websites 4.5 million times and makes food-related web searches 5.5 million times.

Yet cooking is not their strong point, Wendy Neuman, Director of Market Research for the NCBA, told producers. They’re young, busy and many were raised by two working parents, with minimal exposure to the kitchen, she said. As a result, when they do cook, they favor chicken for its ease of preparation and simple cuts.

“They don’t know how to cook beef, they don’t know the cuts of beef, so their cooking experience isn’t as good as it could be,” Neuman said. “But chicken— they know if they put a little sauce on it, they can make it pretty tasty.”

Even more concerning is the fact that as the older millennials start to have children, they’re passing this preference on to their family. In surveys funded by the Beef Checkoff, NCBA market researchers found 74 percent of millennial parents with children under six preferred to feed them chicken.

“A big part of it is the tenderness of chicken, the taste of chicken—it’s very accessible for children,” said John Lundeen, Senior Executive Director of Market Research for NCBA.

Speed plays a role, as well. Surveys of the larger population showed that five out of every 10 meals in American households were last-minute decisions, made after 4:30 p.m. Many survey responders considered beef cuts a luxury item better suited to celebrations and vacation grilling, rather than the average evening household crush.

“We have to find a way to make this an everyday product,” Lundeen said.

Despite a growing population, in-home beef consumption has slumped over the past two years, with steaks and roasts hitting decade-lows in 2013, noted Rick Husted, Vice President of Planning and Market Research for NCBA. Ground beef now accounts for 60 percent of all beef consumed in the U.S., as consumers are drawn to its cheapness and ease of cooking.

Price is a concern, Husted admitted. Although younger Americans have shown an inclination to pay more for higher quality protein, the U.S.’ historically low cattle numbers mean consumers won’t get any relief in the grocery aisles any time soon.

“We saw some data saying people think beef is expensive but worth it,” Husted said. “People do believe that. But the demand curve is a function of volume and price combined, and the price can’t keep going up. At some point, folks just say, ‘Yikes!’” There were some gains, however. Beef accounted for nearly a third of all meat served in restaurants last year, edging out chicken and pork as the most common protein selection in the food service industry, Husted noted. Overall, however, U.S. meat consumption has dropped since 2007, and beef has been a bigger loser than pork and chicken.

Wooing chicken nuggetloving millennials is important and will require some changes in the beef industry, Lundeen said. Namely, beef must be faster to prepare and consumers must be better educated about different cuts and cooking techniques.

The NCBA is testing ways to defrost frozen beef faster, in an effort to make it more attractive in hurried evening meal selections, Lundeen said. “It uses the microwave and you can do it somewhere between five and 10 minutes,” he said. “We just took the instructions out to consumers in December. Now we have to figure out how do we communicate that, how do we tweak it to make it a little bit better and how do we roll it out to the industry?” In the meantime, smartphones will probably play a role in future consumer education efforts, Neuman said.

“Mobile is king in terms of what millennials are doing online,” she explained, noting 71 percent of all this generation’s food surfing on the internet is done on cell phones. “We know that they’re online, we know that they’re using their mobile devices and we’ve got to get up to speed with them.” — Emily Unglesbee, DTN