Proprietary LifeStages framework highlights differences and similarities in attitudes and behaviors among the generations

Lakshmi Sitaram

Lakshmi Sitaram
Senior Marketing
Research Analyst

This is Part One of a two-part series that will examine food decision behaviors by generation. Part One focuses on Generations Y and X and Part Two will focus on Boomers and Matures.

What do you mean when you say you made dinner "from scratch?" Chances are good your grandma wouldn't classify anything from a box or a jar that way. But if you're a member of Generation Y (ages 18 to 30), you wouldn't flinch at using a jarred sauce on your pasta and calling your meal "homemade."

Give Gen Y'ers the kinds of convenient, nutritious prepared items they're looking for, and you give them the satisfaction of putting two or three of them together and calling it a meal. These younger, adventurous cooks are more likely than other groups to consider themselves "foodies" who love to cook and try new, exciting, ethnic flavors.

But what if you're a Gen X'er (ages 31 to 45) whose kids tend to be older? What if you're a member of Gen Y with young children? Might you behave differently?

Cargill's marketing researchers set out to determine the differences in food preferences of parents of children younger than 18 versus non-parents or those whose children are grown. While market segmentation by generation isn't new, Cargill has added value to its proprietary LifeStages framework by drilling down into attitudes and behaviors by key areas that drive food and beverage decision making—with some surprising findings.

We use those findings to give our customers recommendations on how to improve or market their products to better appeal to their target audience—or how to launch new products to broaden their audience or reach new markets. When we overlay our research onto our customers’ products, we’re better able to identify nutritional gaps and market opportunities that may not otherwise be obvious.

Cargill's LifeStages framework has three layers based on the most recent data available: age of consumer, generation they belong to, and parental status (children younger than 18 at home or not). This market research can be applied to multiple food categories and product lines.

To transform all this data into highly usable information, Cargill has identified five macro trends: Well-Being, Simplify My Life, Experience It, Social Responsibility and Empowerment and 14 food and beverage trends within them. We look at how these trends manifest by LifeStages.

For example, the Well-Being trend includes the desire to eat healthy. Gen X and Y both want to eat healthy, but Gen Y parents express the strongest desire to do so. Both generations say they are so busy that other priorities get in the way of eating healthier. How to appeal to this market? Offer healthy meals or products that take minimum preparation, and these consumers will likely buy them.

Although Gen X and Y's health concerns are very different, "foods with benefits" resonate with both groups.  Both Gen Y and Gen X  want foods that can help them maintain their energy and relieve stress during their busy days. Gen Y'ers, perhaps surprisingly for their age, are vigilant about maintaining bone health, while Gen X'ers, who are approaching or in middle age, take heart disease and cancer risks most seriously.

Over half of younger consumers are reading labels but are distrustful of health or nutrition-related claims. The implication? Keep labels clean and simple, and don't overpromise. Gen Y'ers in particular research everything on the Internet, review products online, and share information with friends on social networks.

Likewise, both generations find food labels confusing. Gen Y parents in particular want only easily identifiable ingredients in their foods—and the fewer the better. "Fresh" resonates with all generations, but parents in Gen X and Y search for labels that say "100% juice," "whole-grain," "low-sodium," "low-sugar." When choosing foods/beverages for their children, both Gen X and Gen Y parents care about nutrition, price and that their children will eat it, but there are some motivators unique to each generation. “Fortified with extra nutrients” and “no artificial flavors or colors” appeal more to Gen Y parents whereas “higher in fiber” and “easy to prepare” appeal more to Gen X parents.

While buying from socially responsible, environmentally sound companies is important to both Gen X and Y, social responsibility resonates more with the younger group.

Price is a very important factor for both generations—especially parents. Gen X'ers, though, are more price-driven and are always looking for deals, carefully researching quality in online customer reviews, seeking value, and using coupons.

Although neither generation is brand-loyal, Gen X’ers are more likely to buy a lower-value brand if it's less expensive—even if they are satisfied with their current brand. Having grown up around generic products, Gen Y needs more convincing that a big brand is better than a cheaper store brand.

Both generations consult the Internet for information on food and health, but GenY non-parents rely on it more heavily than parents, who tend to ask friends and family for advice. As they age, they will be more likely to ask for advice from their doctors during more frequent visits, but for now, they're content to seek health and nutrition data online.

Part Two of this series will look at Cargill's market intelligence on the two older generations: Baby Boomers and Matures. Stay tuned!

Lakshmi Sitaram is a senior marketing research analyst at Cargill.  She has been with the company for the last 5 of her 15 years in the industry.