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Millennials, the 20% of the UK population aged 18-29, are endlessly fascinating for marketers. But most of the research out there focuses on their attitudes to technology, their taste in music, and their demands from employers as they enter working life.

We wanted to know what they thought about food, drink and grocery shopping however. After all, according to IGD, grocery retail is worth around £175 billion. And yet, when we wanted to find out what brands and retailers should be doing to win over millennials, we realised no one had done in-depth research into this category.

Given that millennials are now setting up home, and even starting families, they are not only a significant audience in themselves, but how they shop and their attitudes towards food is going to shape what success looks like for food, drink and grocery retail brands for the next couple of decades.

That’s why Haygarth, together with Flamingo, our award-winning strategy and insight research partner, undertook a ground-breaking study of millennials, to understand their motivations and attitudes around grocery shopping.

What we uncovered was fascinating: some of the findings confirm suspicions, many others challenge widely held beliefs. All will be invaluable to anyone looking to grow sales by attracting the spending power of this audience.

The research employed the latest cutting edge technology and research techniques, including Google Glasses and digital mobile ethnography. The research captured the real-time shopping attitudes and behaviours of 16 ABC1 18-29 year olds from London, Leeds and Birmingham and incorporated further in-depth interviews with 6 millennials, their flatmates and partners.

Online, nationwide, quantitative research was then conducted with 1,000 further 18-29 year olds providing a broad and truly fascinating insight into their grocery shopping habits. These results were combined with additional online quantitative research with 250 parents of millennials, giving a cross-generational context to the findings.

Your twenties is a period of massive change, from first leaving home for university, returning home or to a flat share, to setting up your first home with a partner. Our participants were selected to include people at each significant stage: university (for most people, the first time they have had to cook and shop for themselves), boomerang kids living back home after college, flat sharers, and couples in their first homes. We noticed a clear progression in abilities and attitudes – from student Calvin, who has one cook book and a bottle of Reggae Reggae sauce, to homeowner Emily who would like to be thought of as a ‘Nigella’.

But what unites them across life stages was their attitude towards food; food matters.

Food and cooking are hugely important to Millennials. Having the skills and knowledge to create tasty, interesting and authentic meals and snacks are seen as ways of gaining esteem and recognition from their peer group. 40% say that it’s important to know about food and cooking, compared to just 27% who say it’s important to have a good sense of style or fashion. Only 33% would look for knowledge about technology in a partner, compared to 50% who say they’d look for cooking knowledge. It’s not just about impressing a partner though: 22% of millennials want to be able to cook in order to impress their friends (compared to just 9% of their parents’ generation).

Their eagerness for new ideas and knowledge is why we’ve termed them the Inspiration Generation. They have a constant stream of inspiration coming into their mobiles, onto their TV screens, from their friends and family – and yet, they are looking for more. We were very struck when visiting them at home, what a strong role cook books play in their lives, along with recipes torn out of magazines, ideas from the backs of packets and more. The biggest source of inspiration however, is social media. For these digital natives, the sharing of food and cooking, and constant virtual sharing in other people’s experiences is the norm. Millennials look at food on social media four times a day on average, 18% look at least six times every day and13% of millennials share more than six photos of food they’ve cooked every week. The bar has been raised.

Millennials are open and receptive to new cuisines, styles of cooking, products and brands. Food and drink has never played such an important role in the culture of the nation as it has in their lifetime. Consequently millennials are looking to be inspired with the new, the novel and the authentically different.

Highly engaged in their grocery shopping, they prepare lists and check cupboards, set aside a regular time, and enjoy visiting physical stores to complete their shopping missions and get ideas. 89% are regular in-store grocery shoppers, with 47% doing a weekly shop in a big supermarket, compared to just 10% who do all their grocery shopping online.

However, our research suggests that brands are not stepping up to deliver the inspiration millennials’ desire anywhere along the customer journey. Currently, these keen shoppers are disappointed on their visits to supermarkets: 40% go there to get ideas, but only 12% say that supermarkets inspire their cooking. This doesn’t need to be a technologically complex solution: 26% of millennials would like simply to see more information, such as recipe cards, situated at shelf. Advertising for food and drink is also failing to engage them – only 11% feel that food and drink advertising is aimed at their age group. Winning them over requires high-quality, relevant content and messaging, but has the potential to deliver a passionate, loyal customer who’s prepared to pay a premium for a product which they believe will help them realise their foodie ambitions.

As a result of this research, we’ve come up with four key rules for any F&B brand or retailer looking to engage with this audience.

Inspire: Whether it’s your social media content, product packaging or in-store displays, remember you’re dealing with an audience who are eager for ideas and novelty, but who also have a highly demanding sense of aesthetics and masses of high-quality content already available to them.

Inform: Help them become the cooks they want to be. While they are confident, experimental cooks, they frequently lack the techniques and knowledge to produce food and drink to the standards to which they aspire.

Integrate: Far from the carefree consumers many imagine, they live surprisingly structured lives. Brands and grocery retailers need to consider what their role is in their lives. It’s not enough to “be there”: establish when and what your product is for, and focus your messaging there.

Elevate: Their interest in food means that provenance - whether British, local or organic - and nutrition really count for millennials when making food choices. For instance, 40% say that local produce or ingredients are important to them. If you want to win them over, then tell a story about your product that highlights one of these elements.

So, forget the clichés of beans on toast, or the misconception that only online matters to Millennials. Grocery is a real passion point, but one on which many brands are currently failing currently to capitalise.

This is just a taster (excuse the pun) of what we uncovered.If you’d like to know more, or to get our take on how your brand could be connecting better with this audience, please get in touch with Suzy Ray on