U.S. food trends Get the report

It’s easy to attribute every change we’ve seen among U.S. consumers in the last year and a half to the pandemic – but there’s more influencers at play here. 

The increased time spent stuck at home drove many to spend longer using TV streaming and audio services, while the lack of in-person shopping and dining drove many to adopt food delivery, online shopping, online banking, and digital healthcare for the first time.

Those trends suggest a more causal link to the pandemic – but we’re looking further than that.

GWI has now gathered four waves of data on the U.S. internet user, from Q2 2020 to Q2 2021. In this research, we’ve been able to uncover some less publicized changes; changes driven by factors beyond the pandemic itself. 

Here are a few we plucked out.

Our diet is changing, but not necessarily for the better.

In our U.S. Food report, we talked about how American attitudes toward dining and drinking have evolved.

Whether these are trends catalyzed by the pandemic’s impact on the dining industry or other factors is debatable. But by 2021, U.S. consumers have become a lot more conscious of what they’re putting into their bodies than they were just a year prior.

The portion of Americans who say they’re trying to eat healthier has been increasing steadily in the four waves of GWI USA, while the number who are open to ditching or reducing their meat consumption has also been rising.

chart showing U.S. tastes are changing

The growing comfort with meat-free foods is driven in part by the greater availability of options compared to a decade ago.

Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat occupy more space on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus, offering everything from meatless chicken to plant-based Bolognese. So much so, that the prospect of reducing meat consumption no longer necessitates a fundamental shift in the dinner-time menu.  

This trend is also driven by demographic changes going on in our overall population. Year after year, more baby boomers are leaving the workforce, and the growing purchasing power of Gen Zs and millennials is changing what products succeed in the market. 

As a result, the preferred products of younger Americans are becoming both more popular and common.

We can actually quantify how much younger generations’ taste buds differ from their parents.

And for mealtime there’s a huge push for non-meat alternatives. 

For instance, millennials are over three times more likely than baby boomers to say they already don’t eat meat, three and a half times more likely to opt for plant-butter, and nearly four times more likely to say they drink oat milk.

That’s not to say millennials are opting for healthier, more organic food in every instance. In fact, when it comes to alcohol, they’re by far the most likely generation to say they drink it regularly, and in this category the market is already responding to their unique preferences.

Just as prohibition and the roaring 20s gave the world mixed cocktails (to cover up the taste of bath-tub gin), 100 years later, we may be experiencing the decade of the seltzer.

By one estimate there were only 10 spiked seltzer brands in 2018. The growing demand, spearheaded by millennials (who are by far the most likely generation to say that spiked seltzers and flavored hard coolers are their favorite alcohol type), made it possible for 65 brands to exist in the market by 2020.  

Although our diet may have been affected by the pandemic, changes in food demand are more likely down to demographic shifts occurring across the board, which will continue to shape the market in the future.

Our relationship with brands is more precarious than ever.

When it comes to retail trends, the same demographic factors are at play. 

Of course, the pandemic caused unique issues for brands. With foot traffic dwindling and online shopping booming, brands had to work harder to differentiate themselves in the online space.  

Over the course of the year, convenience became the main sales driver. 

Things like same-day delivery and easy returns policies have become more important to consumers. Companies have had to work harder to retain customers when competition is just a click away, and as a result, brand loyalty becomes a luxury few brands can take for granted.

Chart showing brand relationships have grown less certain.

While it would be easy to blame declining brand loyalty on the pandemic, the differences between generations suggests this trend may have been long in the making.

As digital natives, Gen Zs and millennials are much more likely than baby boomers to say they enjoy browsing for new products. This has made them less likely to say they’re loyal to the brands they like or that they’re members of rewards programs.

Like the shifts in our diet and drinking habits, the changes occurring to our brand relationships are extremely impacted by the shifting demographics of the country.

And if this news wasn’t bad enough for companies: 

It appears younger consumers are also less easily swayed by classic marketing tools, like discounts, coupons, and end of year sales.

This doesn’t mean all is lost. Brands can definitely win over younger consumers, though it will require a little more work. One in five millennials say they feel a personal connection with their favorite brands, and the same amount say they want the brands they buy from to reflect their values.

Much more than their parents, Gen Zs and millennials say the following are important to them: 

  • Equal rights
  • Diversity and inclusion 
  • Helping the environment

They’re more likely to say they care about the environmental impact of products they buy, and more likely to say they’re worried about:

  • Racial relations
  • Police brutality
  • Pollution 

Throughout 2020, brands went out of their way to show the country how they were stepping up to help local communities during COVID-19, and pledging to address any racial disparities within their organizations. 

These types of behaviors, while crucial in such a challenging year, will be even more important for companies looking to improve their image in the eyes of younger generations. 

The election drastically altered our perception of the country.

We all know the pandemic and accompanying social unrest in 2020 had a deep and visible impact on the way many Americans view society. But again, the data shows perhaps the events themselves weren’t the biggest driver.

Collecting data before and after an election cycle gives us unique insight into how much American perceptions of society are directed by the color of the tie worn by the president. 

Since Q2 2020, we’ve been able to see stark differences in the ways Democrats and Republicans think about the future of the country and the institutions they place trust in. So much so that when comparing sentiment before and after the election, we find a complete reversal on both sides.

Chart showing polarization is attitude altering before and after the election

This goes to show not only how divided our country has become along political lines, but also how much ideology determines overall feelings about the very situation we find ourselves in.

Political affiliation is a marker for what we expect the future to hold. 

For Democrats, the Biden victory instilled stronger economic confidence and less distrust in the institutions running our society, while for Republicans the very opposite is true.

These sentiments aren’t just ethereal beliefs or worries, they have very real consequences in the ways consumers do business. 

And it’s not as simple as pointing out that greater economic confidence leads to higher spending.

As we can see, trust and financial confidence go hand-in-hand. 

This suggests that brands have a very real financial incentive to work to remove the divisions in our society, though this may be easier said than done.  

What does this all mean?

American society looks different to how it did at the start of 2020. 

After a year of non-stop pandemic coverage, it’s too easy to attribute everything going on to the life-changing events of the past year and a half. 

However, the year’s worth of data we have at our fingertips allows us to see beyond COVID and lockdowns to uncover fundamental drivers behind the shifts.

The structure of America today is built by changing demographics, political divisions, and so much more. Brands would do well to dig deeply into the differences between these, and other groups, to understand what the future may hold.

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