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What millennials want

Looking beyond the click-bait headlines into how millennials’ perspectives can offer opportunities to the Canadian beef industry

This is the first instalment in a three-part series delving into the priorities and concerns of millennials when purchasing beef.


You’ve likely seen the cringe-worthy headlines on consumer trends relating to millennials. From an alleged fixation on avocado toast to supposedly causing the decline of the engagement ring industry, articles blaming millennials for the rise or fall of certain products and industries tend to cause many Canadians born between 1980 and 1995 to roll their eyes and laugh.

As millennials become the largest working generation, truly understanding the purchasing decisions of this demographic on a deeper level has become more important, especially in the food sector. Many marketers and researchers consider millennials to be “perhaps the most significant demographic when it comes to marketing and product development,” according to a report by Linkfluence, a global social data intelligence company.

According to Statistics Canada, millennials made up 27 per cent of the total population of Canada in 2019, the largest demographic. This generation was shaped by an era of great technological change and tumultuous events such as the 2008 recession, which affected the careers of many early on, delaying plans to buy homes and start families.

That rapid change has given them “a set of priorities and expectations sharply different from previous generations,” a Goldman Sachs report states.

This individualistic generation also tends to be more engaged with food than other age groups. A recent consumer insight report by FONA International, a U.S.-based flavour company, stated that compared to other generations, millennials spend more on consumer goods per shopping trip, while a Mintel survey found that 58 per cent of millennials would call themselves “foodies.”

Each stakeholder in the food supply chain needs to understand what food customers want and how they make purchasing decisions to better meet their needs and connect with them in a way that builds trust. There is an opportunity for the Canadian agri-food system to understand the attitudes and purchasing decisions of this influential demographic and use it to its advantage.

Sustainability not a fad

Compared to other demographics, millennials tend to “link personal social responsibility with the products they buy,” according to FONA International. This report found that 59 per cent of millennials state that if they feel a brand is unethical they’ll stop purchasing it.

This attitude connects to their general focus on sustainably produced items, though this trend isn’t unique to millennials. The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity’s (CCFI) 2020 public trust research highlighted the fact that Canadians view sustainability as more than a buzzword, and the number of Canadians overall who actively seek sustainable food is growing.

“Consumers are using their buying power to support sustainable and innovative brands and products now more than ever,” says Paighton Smyth, CCFI’s partner engagement co-ordinator, speaking during the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair’s Food and Nutrition Forum in November. “A majority say they actively seek out food items that use less packaging or have a minimal environmental impact… It’s an issue that will increasingly influence consumer attitudes and behaviours.”

This trend towards seeking sustainability in food production is especially true for younger generations, millennials included. In the U.S., a report by the National Restaurant Association says that 58 per cent of millennials are more likely to choose restaurants based on their offerings of sustainably produced food items. While FONA International found that 34 per cent of baby boomers are shifting their purchasing habits out of concern for sustainability and the environment, this figure is closer to 75 per cent in millennials.

However, people have differing ideas of what “sustainable food” means. “Overall, sustainability is most associated with food options and production practices that address climate change and have a positive impact on the environment,” says Smyth.

“Almost half believe sustainable food has a positive impact on the environment, and three in 10 say that sustainable food means that it’s grown (or) raised locally. Roughly a quarter to one in five Canadians say that sustainable food means that food is both safe and nutritious for themselves and their families, plus provides a healthy standard of living for farmers.”

With many consumers also equating sustainable food with locally produced food and products with minimal packaging, this suggests a slight disconnect between what consumers believe is sustainable and what this term means for stakeholders in Canada’s agri-food system.

“I think that those are the answers because those are what consumers can touch every day,” says Smyth. “They can choose to have environmentally friendly packaging. They can choose to go to the farmers market, or whatever they consider to be local.”

While sustainability is important now, CCFI anticipates this will only grow as both millennials and generation Z (born between 1996 and 2010) increase their purchasing power.

“Sustainability in food is not just a trend but a requirement to be a trusted and successful food system player,” says Smyth. “When it comes to sustainability, do not get left behind. Those who are the most innovative will be the most successful.”

As the Canadian beef industry continues to demonstrate its commitment to sustainability through several initiatives, there’s an opportunity to reach millennials who care about sustainability but may not know what that looks like in beef production.

“If I was a farm organization, I would spend a fair bit of time talking about your environmental footprint,” says John Jamieson, CCFI’s president and CEO. “The Canadian public doesn’t expect perfection, but they do expect progress, so if we can identify how we’re progressing in environmental activities or animal welfare or whatever, that leads to that authenticity and transparency that builds trust.”

Pandemic amplifies food affordability

In the five years that CCFI has conducted public trust research, food cost is consistently the highest concern for Canadians of all ages. The 2020 research shows that food affordability continues to be at the forefront, though concerns about fiscal-related issues have increased in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Canadians are facing economic strain on several fronts, including food affordability. Although cost of food is consistently a top-of-mind issue, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the struggle, with most Canadians indicating they have less money to spend on food due to the pandemic,” says Smyth.

Just fewer than six in 10 respondents reported feeling very worried about the cost of food. Other topics of high concern included the Canadian economy, ensuring healthy food is affordable and the federal deficit. As well, 44 per cent of Canadians surveyed find food in general to be expensive, with meat making the list of food areas perceived as most expensive, along with fish and seafood, takeout and full-service restaurants.

Food insecurity was an issue in Canada before the pandemic, and it’s only expected to get worse. A report by University of Toronto researchers Valerie Tarasuk and Andy Mitchell found that 4.4 million Canadians experienced some food insecurity in 2017-18.

“A number of experts are expecting with the loss of income and livelihoods for that figure to easily double,” says Gisèle Yasmeen, executive director of Food Secure Canada. Yasmeen was speaking in a September 2020 webinar.

The 2017-18 total included more than 1.2 million children, or more than one in six. First Nations households are more likely to be food insecure, and the highest rates of food insecurity occurred in Nunavut.

As well, 65 per cent of Canadians who experienced food insecurity were in the workforce. “Simply having a job is not enough; low-waged jobs and precarious work means people in the workforce often don’t have enough income to be food-secure,” the report states.

An annual survey by Toronto-based Daily Bread Food Bank found that before the pandemic, food bank use had increased by five per cent, compared to the previous year.

“With the arrival of COVID-19, food bank visits continue to climb significantly, increasing by 22 per cent in June to a staggering 51 per cent in August compared to the previous year,” according to the survey. Of those new food bank clients, 76 per cent started using food banks due to the pandemic, and 76 per cent of those who were working prior to start of the COVID-19 pandemic had lost their jobs.

In the U.S., a survey by Deloitte found that 77 per cent of millennials “say they have general financial concerns in the wake of the pandemic and economic fallout,” while “78 per cent have taken new or different financial actions because of COVID-19.” Surveys by Acosta suggest the economic upheaval of the pandemic has taken a greater toll on millennials than other generations, with 43 per cent reporting that they’re “worse off” than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Understanding the recent upswing in concern for food affordability provides insights into the decisions of all demographics, not just millennials. “Access to healthy, affordable food is a critical issue for Canadians. Answer this concern by continuously highlighting what you’re doing to address food affordability,” says Smyth.

While many Canadians view meat products as more expensive, there’s an opportunity to promote healthy, quality beef products that fit smaller budgets and provide more value for your dollar.

“Canadians and the food system alike must continue to work to balance the sometimes competing demand for affordable and high-quality, nutritious food,” Smyth says. “Demonstrate what you do every day to ensure that the food consumers purchase is as economical as possible while still providing a reasonable living for farmers.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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