What does it mean when a Millennial says he or she is a ‘foodie’? Traditional dictionary Merriam Webster defines foodie as “A person who enjoys and cares about food very much,” which would seem spot on. However, the top three definitions for foodie on Urban Dictionary, the crowd sourced Millennial word bible, may prove more current. Here you can find quite a variety of responses from, “A douchebag who likes food” (the top voted definition) to my own personal favorite and the most accurate based on evidence of my recent dating experience, “A person who has no actual interests or hobbies.” It would appear that this term can both be seen as the ultimate compliment and yet, to some, the ultimate insult – a powerful term indeed. So, in pursuit of the definitive global meaning of foodie, I asked the opinions of both advertising strategists and foodies from around the world on what it means to be a Millennial foodie in their country and how contemporary behavior is different to that of previous generations of foodies. In short, one global Millennial consensus did emerge: it’s not about the food anymore.
Whereas previous generations of foodies were trained chefs or had a culinary background and knew the nuances of ingredients and cooking styles, Millennial foodies today define their identity not by knowledge, but rather by the experience of trying new and trendy food and restaurants. As my Mexico colleague said of Millennial foodies, “They know about the ramen burger for instance, but not necessarily about the story of ramen.” Similarly from China, “Foodie in China is about being in the know about where to go rather than being deeply involved in the craft of food.”
Unsurprisingly, Millennial foodies are also fascinated with food from a social perspective. It is not about just trying something hot and new, but it’s about making sure that your friends and wider social network know about it. This view was echoed the world over, but perhaps best summarized by my Korean colleague; “New foodies want to share their food experiences with almost everyone (via social networks), while older foodies want to share with only people they are close to.”
The ongoing obsession with taking pictures of one’s food has ripple effects, not least me unfollowing half of my friend base on Instagram. One anonymous NYC restaurant recently posted on the Craigslist ‘rants & raves’ section that because of cell phone use in their restaurant, average meal time in 2014, from start to finish, had increased by 50 minutes as compared to 2004. Beyond the downside of increased costs and lost revenue that Millennial foodies are wreaking on the restaurant scene, the picture craze may actually depress appetite. A study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that looking at too many food photos can actually make the food less enjoyable to eat. Despite these hazards and consequences, this habit does not seem to be going away any time soon, quite the opposite…
Just looking at conversations on the web and the many photos on social media, it’s hard not to believe that more people are interested in food than ever before. One self-professed foodie I spoke with pointed to social media for elevating the trend to stratospheric heights; “I blame Instagram entirely… I think people are interested in food, but they think of food more as a novelty and maybe an attention-grabber more than they think of food as a form of expression or creative outlet (like the way chefs think of it).”
This focus on using food as an avenue for status is an important shift for brands to understand. Millennial foodies are not interested in what older foodies might treasure, such as their knowledge of a certain cuisine, ability to cook, or being able to detect subtle differences in flavor. Instead, Millennial foodies chiefly value visual presentation and the social capital that it can produce for them to use in their crusade for (“likes” for non-Instagram users). For example, take the popular Millennial foodie Instagram account, @hungrybetches, who at the time of my research had more than 76,000 followers and whose most liked post that week was a close-up of 4 plain grilled cheese sandwiches with the caption “Leaning tower of cheesea”. Not exactly culinary genius!
When it comes to communication strategies, brands must decide what audience of foodies they want to reach and shape their strategy accordingly. For a perfect example of capturing the attention of Millennials, take casual dining restaurant Applebee’s, which serves classic American grub and whose most famous dishes are arguably Riblets and a drink called the Mud Slide. This past July, Applebee’s launched the Fantographer campaign where fans, after opting in to the campaign, were encouraged to take pictures of their Applebee’s menu selection and upload them on Instagram with the hashtags #Applebee’s & #Fantographer. Applebee’s then selected their favorite photos and displayed them on their feed. While the campaign is not yet over, there have been early signs of social media success with a 32% increase in followers as of September. This is notable because Applebee’s tapped into an already popular customer practice and then further rewarded them with social capital.
This Millennial “unfoodie foodie” has wide ramification for brands. While current quality and taste should not be compromised, consumer packaged goods companies could focus on incorporating social media benefit into package design, and restaurants could do likewise with plating and presentation. Even the simple display of more pictures on a wrapper or a menu has the potential to move customers, and just imagine the customer reverence for the first brand that places the photos from its Instagram page on the packaging of its product or as the presentation design for a dish. Brands must seize the initiative now or risk losing customer attention to the ever growing distraction of tech and non-food focused competition, currently targeting a Millennial foodie generation that values social capital in addition to something to eat. So, gear up foodie-focused brands and start prepping for the next big food fight.
Special thanks to the following people who helped contribute to this article: India Wooldridge, Dave McCaughan, Carl-Johan Schultz, Manasi Trivedi, Kyoungsuk Lee, Julian PuenteV, Annette Flinck, Hiroki Ito, Svein Sælid, Gen Cruz, Winnie Lee, Jay Caplan, Nura Yusof, Danish Chan, and Adrian Velazquez.