Commentary

Is Food Gen Y's New Status Symbol?

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Oct. 10, 2014, in the Engage:Gen Y newsletter.

Do Millennials care about luxury? It’s a question we hear a lot. We’ve done a deep-dive on the topic, and we know that the definition of luxury has blurred for the generation.

Millennials are on the brink of outspending their Boomer predecessors, and will be the dominant group in purchasing power by 2017. But suddenly, luxury products that in the past might have lured consumers and built their brands around exclusivity and lavishness need to prepare for a new generation of consumers who aren’t necessarily looking for an elite-only items, and are thinking of luxury in terms of experiences and feelings rather than things. Even the word “luxury” might not resonate with them. 

In this shift, we’ve noticed another trend developing. A decade ago in the era of conspicuous consumption, shoes, bags, labels, watches, and the like were overt indications of showing off. Now young consumers are sharing images of restaurant tables full of extravagant plates, perfectly frosted donuts posed with expensive makeup, a box of macaroons held up against a backdrop of the Eiffel tower. “Food porn” has made sharing what’s on your plate commonplace, but it is also giving us hints of a luxury shift: food is becoming the new status symbol. 

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Forty-four percent of Millennials have posted a photo of food or drinks that they or someone else was having on social media, and 19% of 21-24 year olds have borrowed someone else’s food to take a picture of it and post on social media. The (anonymous) Instagram account You Did Not Eat That has gotten attention and followers for calling out social media mavens who (the account says) just use food as props, often posting pictures of high-calorie food staged with their high-end accessories and donuts held next to their thigh-gaps. Though the intent of the account is to “out” those who are likely not actually eating those fatty treats, the feed also gives insight into the fact that food is being used interchangeably with luxury items to display a lifestyle to aspire to, and moments that other people should lust after. This shift makes sense for a generation that emphasizes experiences over products.

Food is an experience, and often a communal one. Exclusive desserts like the cronut, or limited-edition treats like the churro ice cream sandwich that started a craze in L.A. this summer, have shown that Millennials are willing to line up for hours in order to be one of the lucky few to try a fleeting treat—and tell everyone they did, of course. The food itself is evidence of a larger event they want people to know they participated in. On top of that, sharing a picture of a cronut, or a plate from an exclusive restaurant, is a much less overt and ostentatious than broadcasting an image of an expensive product.

We’re starting to see pretty pastries being used in marketing for designer clothes that in the past would never have hinted that their models actually ate anything. Lilly Pulitzer has been running an ad online for months that shows a perfectly put together model biting into a big, pink frosted donut. Half of her dress is obscured by the napkin tucked in her top. The clothes are clearly not the focus here, despite Pulitzer’s position in the market for dresses with high price tags. This ad is about an aspirational lifestyle, and that lifestyle includes indulgent, enviable foods. 

Fifty-two percent of Millennials 21-32 years old would rather go to a food festival than a music festival, and 61% of Millennials ages 21-24 would rather have dinner at a new restaurant than buy a new pair of shoes. Today, sharing a picture of expensive cheeses, a pricey lobster roll eaten on a Tuesday, or a VIP sweet is the equivalent of saying, “I’m so fancy,” and inviting social envy the way a nice bag or jewelry would have 10 years ago.

1 comment about "Is Food Gen Y's New Status Symbol?".
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  1. Ron Kurtz from American Affluence Research Center, October 15, 2014 at 2:42 p.m.

    I wonder if the millennials' focus on food in social media is any thing more than a new way to "show off" and justify sending some news about themselves. For lower income people, a $5 ice cream cone can be a real luxury. A nice meal or a special treat might be the $5 ice cream cone of the millennials. BTW, what data shows they will be the dominant group in spending power in 2017. Many of them will first need to get a good paying job for that to happen.

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