Recent studies of Millennials show an age demographic that is large, contradicts itself and contains multitudes, which shows restaurant marketers just how challenging it will be to attract these consumers and win their loyalty.

Marketing agencies and research firms such as BBDO and YouGov BrandIndex have found that younger consumers do not often conform to restaurant behaviors set by previous generations or to stereotypes popularized in many advertisements.

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One agency, BBDO Atlanta, recently surveyed 1,000 Millennial adults — who, while definitions differ, typically encompass people born between the late 1970s and early 2000s — and found that the group represents about 27 percent of the U.S. population and shows a high propensity for dining out.

BBDO reported that 64 percent of Millennials eat out at least once per week. Nearly half the respondents self-identified as “foodies,” but those food lovers stressed that their enjoyment of eating did not rule out visiting quick-service restaurants or exclude their friends identifying as “meat and potatoes”-type eaters.

In the study of 1,000 Millennials, 48 percent of those surveyed called themselves foodies, and 44 percent of those respondents also said they eat fast food between one and four times per week. Of the study’s foodies, 89 percent said they recently ate at McDonald’s, compared with 83 percent for Subway and 69 percent for Olive Garden.

Rich Santiago, BBDO Atlanta’s senior vice president of behavioral planning, said these Millennial respondents explained in survey interviews that being a foodie means more about appreciating food and the experience of eating out, with much less emphasis on excluding certain types of food.

“It’s an enjoyment of food, rather than having a curated taste,” Santiago said. “Food quality and transparency are important, but Millennials are also talking about not only unique flavor combinations but also the experience. How does technology enhance or detract from it? Does the restaurant have a community vibe?”

Focusing on food, utility

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For some groups within Millennials, including parents, married couples or women, visiting restaurants too frequently can cause them to report feeling guilty for a variety of reasons, according to the BBDO report.

Santiago conceded that guilt was “a loaded term” and explained that those feelings come more from disappointment over trade-offs than they do from concerns over health or spending too much money.

“Nearly half our study was Millennial parents who don’t have the time to cook at home, or who didn’t grow up with a lot of that,” he said. “They were in restaurants more than they wanted to be. If they had it their way, they’d eat at home more with food they cooked themselves, but life doesn’t work out that way.”

The takeaway for restaurant marketers in that situation is Millennial consumers likely would be interested in brands that frame their dining experiences in ways that don’t include the notion of settling for a trade-off, Santiago said. Rather than market to Millennials with stereotypical tropes like the bearded urban hipster or the adult child living in his parents’ basement, brands should focus more on food and utility, he suggested.

“In our study, food mattered more than everything else, even price,” Santiago said. “With Millennials, it’s also about utility, as in how they can use this restaurant to make their lives better.”

Room to improve perceptions

According to new research from YouGov BrandIndex, Millennials may still continue to focus on quick-service brands’ affordability even if those chains advertise themselves to the demographic as more of a lifestyle brand, according to new research from YouGov BrandIndex.

After Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell announced last month it would eliminate kids’ meals, in part because they didn’t fit with the brand’s focus on Millennials, BrandIndex surveyed Millennial and older adults on their intent to purchase food from Taco Bell and their perceptions of the 6,500-unit brand.

While 18-to-34-year-old consumers in the Millennial cohort reported a 33-percent purchase intent, higher than the total adult population at 28 percent, they were not more likely than all adults to see Taco Bell as “hip and edgy.” Only 1 percent of Millennials identified Taco Bell in that manner, the same as the total adult population, despite nearly two years of the brand’s “Live Más” advertising campaign that is targeted toward the younger demographic.

Millennials rated Taco Bell as “typical fast food” most often, at 38 percent, followed by “cheap and filling,” at 19 percent, compared with 40 percent and 27 percent, respectively, for the total adult population.

“When you look at the magnitude of people saying Taco Bell is typical and cheap, it suggests that even with all the advertising, what sticks with Millennials most are those two attributes,” said BrandIndex chief executive Ted Marzilli.

“There is probably a legacy there going back years or decades,” he said. “‘Typical fast food’ is just saying you don’t stand out. … It’s not bad that Taco Bell wants to be more hip and edgy, but the data shows they have a tough task ahead of them.”

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