Can Brands Leverage Sentimental Snacking?


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Washington — As millennial and Gen Z consumers increasingly face 21st century challenges, sweets and snack brands help nurture their inner child.

Just a few years in, the 2020s has been a tough decade for these consumers. Those generations have been confronted with chaos at every turn — social and political unrest, economic and technological uncertainty, and climate change, not to mention a pandemic and new employment configuration. In search of escape, these consumers are increasingly turning to products that conjure up the joy of their carefree younger years. For proof, look no further than this summer’s blockbuster movie, Barbie.

Snacks play a bigger role in the lives of Gen Z and millennial consumers than prior generations, and as industry leaders are aware, these customers are driving growth of the category. Most reportedly eat at least three snacks a day, significantly higher than most baby boomers. Just as they’re eschewing the “three square meals” model of daily eating, these younger consumers are demonstrating their individuality and rebelliousness by refusing to adhere to the food pyramid guidelines on which they were likely raised.  

Candy and snack brands that utilize the right visual and verbal strategies to invoke happy childhood memories are bringing comfort and a sense of control to the daily lives of these important consumers. Several emerging and established brands have identified the emotional and behavioral attributes propelling millennials and Gen Zers toward sentimental snacking. Through strategic visual and verbal cues, these brands are successfully nurturing the inner child within these consumers.

Snacks As A Visual Refuge

First and foremost, today’s younger consumer is looking to escape the turmoil of daily life. With so much unrest and uncertainty about their future, millennials and Gen Zers are searching for a respite. What else could explain the dual phenomena of binge watching and TikTok? Brands, particularly candy and other snacks, can meaningfully design a visual refuge and help create moments of joy, playfulness and a feeling of comfort.

Control is another characteristic that defines today’s youthful consumer, whether it pertains to their mental health or their snack consumption. These demographics are passionately working to reconnect with their inner child and rediscover childlike joyfulness. More than just a buzzword, “inner child work” is a therapeutic technique that enables the rediscovery of playfulness and imagination. Sweets and snacks invite the inner child to come out and play. Similarly, mindfulness and self-care are critical to millennial and Gen Z consumers, who often carve out “mindful moments” to restore and recharge both mind and body. This includes taking time to indulge and savor, such as with a decadent treat.

As with generations before them, nostalgia is a major driver in the sentimental snacking journey of younger consumers. Who doesn’t associate a sweet treat with a walk to the candy store alongside a childhood friend, or a quick snack of cheddar puffs with the drive to soccer practice? More than ever, millennials and Gen Zers want to revisit those simpler, more analog times and reclaim their childhood joy.

Snacks That Embrace 21st Century Reinventions

Many candy and snack companies have figured out how to connect younger consumers with their inner child through approaches that transcend the branding process, from innovation to naming to packaging. Throwbacks and 21st century reinventions of childhood treasures instantly resonate with millennials and Gen Zers. Snow Days, for example, are grain- and gluten-free remakes of frozen pizza bites, with a name that conjures up a warm childhood memory and is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face. 

Frozen Chubby Snacks, meanwhile, has taken that quintessential childhood food, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and transformed it into a plant-based, high-protein snack with no added sugar that can be prepared in an air fryer. Shaped to resemble clouds, Chubby Snacks evoke the care mom or dad would take in crafting PB&Js into shapes with cookie cutters. 

Limited-edition retro packaging also cues nostalgia, such as this summer’s popular Pop-Tarts “Throwback Pack.”

Not surprisingly, better-for-you and better-for-the planet are key product attributes in garnering the attention of millennials and Gen Zers. Here, established and emerging snack brands are layering in childhood favorites to message that treats can not only taste good, but be good for you, and work towards sustainability to boot. Reese’s Plant-Based chocolate and peanut butter cups is just one example of The Hershey Co.’s innovation in the space, demonstrating that a sweet enjoyed as a child can grow up with you. Independent Cheddies Crackers, meanwhile, are made from whole cheese that relies on regenerative farming practices.

Today’s young consumers also embrace humor and wit in brand marketing, especially tongue-in-cheek plays that spark their rebellious teen spirit. Amid the seriousness and concerns of the day, these consumers are still looking for a laugh. Front Row Snacks, Inc.’s FFUPs puffs is a brand that doesn’t take itself seriously, proclaiming right on its package that it’s “not healthy.” Anthropomorphized characters can also strike a humor chord, such as with Sofrito Foods, LLC’s Fillo brand shelf-stable Walking Tamales corn bars. The brand’s mascot, depicted on the packaging, is none other than a walking tamale, complete with a wardrobe that changes with the flavor.

Cute Sells

Along the same lines, cute sells when it comes to targeting the inner child. Fortunately, brand designers and marketers have a plethora of tools that can connect with consumers, whether it’s the use of bright, primary colors and bubble lettering, fun illustrations, or whimsical brand names. 

There’s no better example of a winning brand based on the cute factor than Barbie. The hit movie has demonstrated that consumers have a strong desire to reconnect with the kid within them. With millennials and Gen Zers looking outwardly to look inward, Barbie serves as a commentary on the role brands play in helping us understand our place in life, even at a young, impressionable age. It’s also an exploration of what and how we consume in an effort to escape and feel good, much like sweet treats and snacks.

Just as with the popular movie, established and emerging snack brands are appealing to the child in millennials and Gen Zers — indeed, all of us — by delivering joyfulness and comfort on store shelves. With these consumers driving much of the growth in category sales, it’s important for brands to continue to appeal to and nurture their inner child even as they mature.

Contributor Info: Madeline Rosemurgy is a senior strategist with CBX Worldwide, LLC, an agency that provides brand positioning, identity design, package and private label design, and retail activation services. She can be reached at [email protected].