How Fast Food is Keeping Up with Millennials: Insight from Millennial 20/20

Millennial research, Millennial insight, Millennial marketing, Gen Z research, Gen Z marketing, Gen Z insight, youth research, youth marketing

At this year’s Millennial 20/20 Summit, we heard directly from fast food brands about what they’re doing to stay relevant in the lives of young consumers…

Last week we were commingling with the movers and shakers of the youth marketing scene at the New York Millennial 20/20 Summit, hearing how Millennials are rapidly changing the way that business is done. We gained interesting insight sitting in on presentations and panels, and will be sharing more of what we saw and heard over the coming weeks.

Today’s Millennial 20/20 insight relates to fast food, an industry that doesn’t get a lot of love from those who regularly report on Millennial & Gen Z trends. While it’s true that young consumers are searching for healthier and more natural options, and that innovators such as Chipotle, Shake Shack, and Five Guys continue to draw a lot of attention, it’s also true that Millennials’ interest in healthy eating doesn’t mean they’ve sworn off fast food entirely.

Meanwhile, the titans of the fast food world aren’t exactly asleep at the wheel. Despite the fact that they operate thousands of locations worldwide and serve all generations, we heard directly from a few big fast food brands about what they’re doing to stay relevant in the lives of young consumers. Here’s what we learned from McDonald’s, Subway, and Taco Bell at the Millennial 20/20 Summit:

Millennial research, Millennial insight, Millennial marketing, Gen Z research, Gen Z marketing, Gen Z insight, youth research, youth marketingMcDonald’s goes native:

In December, we ranked the favorite fast food brands of Millennials & Gen Z, asking 1,000 males and females aged 13 to 34 the following: “Thinking about fast food or quick service restaurants, where you have the option to order your food at a counter or drive-thru, which fast food restaurant is your favorite?” The company that was cited most often? McDonald’s. Paul Matson, Director of Social Engagement for McDonald’s, pegged the chain’s number of daily transactions in the U.S. at 27 million across more than 14,000 locations, leading one to assume that for every visit to Shake Shack that is proudly posted on social media, there are dozens more unposted visits to McDonald’s.

So, what’s the problem? The fact that young consumers aren’t exactly owning up to every visit makes McDonald’s the brand relationship that they just aren’t bragging about. Being the largest chain in the market draws its fair share of media fire as well, which is why step one in creating a healthier relationship with young consumers is playing to their own food experiences. The solution was to develop sponsored content on Mic.com in a series dubbed the Ripple Effect, creating food-trend articles that are relevant for Millennials, and also position McDonald’s positively as a thought leader. Cory Haik, Chief Strategy Officer for Mic, described how the Millennial popularity of Mic represented fertile ground for McDonald’s messaging. In a world where Millennials are blocking ads and consuming video on streaming services rather than TV, partnering with Mic to create a series of sponsored articles, along with related videos on YouTube, represents a long-term, grassroots brand rebuild.

Millennial research, Millennial insight, Millennial marketing, Gen Z research, Gen Z marketing, Gen Z insight, youth research, youth marketingSubway goes mobile:

If there’s a company that rode the wave of ‘fresh’ from the start, it’s Subway. With nearly 27,000 restaurant locations in the U.S., they’re nearly twice as ubiquitous as McDonald’s. Sandwiches are consistently made from scratch in front of customers, allowing for customization at mass scale. Subway’s VP of Marketing Technology, Carissa Ganelli, was on hand to talk about how the new Subway app is keeping them connected with their customers. First, the app reduces the time spent waiting for a ‘one of a kind’ sandwich experience. Convenience has only become more valued since we published the trend Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That, largely driven by expectations on mobile. Second, they’re using mobile technology to drive repeat visits with a cash-back loyalty program that offers built-in examples of Surprise and Delight. Citing research that they’ve conducted, their efforts are driven by the insights that 60% of customers don’t know what they want for lunch an hour before lunchtime, and 44% of customers use their smartphones to decide what to have for lunch each day. With new app technology, they’re betting on mobile as the glue that will keep customers coming back for more.

Millennial research, Millennial insight, Millennial marketing, Gen Z research, Gen Z marketing, Gen Z insight, youth research, youth marketingTaco Bell experiments globally:

Despite having 7,000 locations in the U.S., Taco Bell is a brand that punches far higher than their weight class would indicate, cited as the 5th favorite fast food restaurant in our young consumer rankings. Described by Melissa Lora, President of Taco Bell International, as an insights-driven organization, they aim to first understand young people before attempting to make themselves understood by them. Their hard work and ‘anything goes’ mentality is paying off with unique engagements – from having the option to get married at their Las Vegas location, to asking an up-and-coming Canadian fashion designer to create a Taco Bell-inspired winter coat, to taking its restaurants in India upscale. We see Taco Bell mirroring Millennials’ desire to break out of the fast food genre by focusing on experiences that whimsically carry the brand along for the ride.

As a global brand, Taco Bell also localizes everything from branding to architecture to spice levels on a country-by-country basis, resulting in more than a few globe-trotting Millennials to seek out what their favorite brand looks like while traveling. According to Lora, “Millennials are similar the world over, they just express themselves differently.” Taco Bell’s ability to follow suit without seeming to be ‘trying too hard’ is a testament to their deep understanding of what makes Millennials & Gen Z tick.

To download the PDF version of this insight article, click here.

Want to talk to us about the article
or dive into a custom study?


The Newsfeed

“I move around every few years so it would be a huge hassle to have to buy and sell property so frequently.”—Female, 28, IN

Gen Z will spend the most on rent of any generation, but Millennials aren’t far behind. HotPads estimates that 2-20-year-olds will spend $226,000 on rent before they buy a home and 24-38-year-olds will ring in at $202,000. Despite the difference, Gen Z will own their first home one year earlier than Millennials because they’ll have “a stronger job market than [M]illennials”—but, despite the myths, they are buying homes in greater numbers. PS: Los Angeles tops the list of where young demos will spend the most on rent. (Business Insider)

What’s behind board games' popularity today? The NPD Group found that board games grew 8% compared to the toy industry’s overall growth of 8% in the past year and has “no signs of slowing down.” Digital detoxing plays a part, as more Millennial parents worry about their kids’ screen time and seek toys that foster face-to-face relationships. But despite the analog appeal, games are also getting high-tech and the word-of-mouth media they receive propels social media-friendly games like Pie Face to the top of toy charts. (Kidscreen)

Parents still have the most influence over kids today, but online celebrities are also top role models. Mintel research found that 86% of 6-17-year-olds say their parents are among their top role models, 62% say teachers, and 41% say siblings. But the top kind of celebrity that gets added to the category are social media celebrities at 35%, followed closely by musicians and athletes. Only 22% said actors were among their top role models and just 16% said the President. (MediaPost)

Disney has a new beverage to fill your Instagram feed: The Purple Wall Slushie. The Millennial & Gen Z-loved company has had no problem coming up with social media-friendly items, from Baby Groot bread to a viral Beauty and the Beast-inspired tumbler, and now they’ve rolled out a boba and taro beverage at Disney World. The Purple Wall is a famous destination to snap a pic for social media in the Magic Kingdom, and this slushy is made specifically to match up with the wall (and monetize on it). (POPSUGARInsider)

Speaking of Instagrammability, the Space Needle’s new, clear benches are sure to make for a thrilling photo op. The iconic viewing deck for the Seattle skyline has been in the midst of a makeover to create a better (and decidedly more social media-worthy) viewing experience. A metal base and caging has been replaced with a high glass wall from floor to sky, and so-called “skyrisers” will let visitors sit right on the edge of it all—and snap a selfie. (Curbed)

“People have been planning outfits since the start of the year [for prom].”—Male, 15, NC

Sign Up Now

Subscribe for premium access to our content, data, and tools.

Already a subscriber? Sign in.

Upgrade Now

Upgrade for full access to the best marketing tools for understanding the next generation.

View our Client Case Studies