IPG Media Lab
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IPG Media Lab

Pink Sauce & Caviar Bumps: Decoding the Meme-Driven Gen Z Food Trends

And how food and beverage brands can react through distribution and marketing innovations

Photo by Yoav Aziz on Unsplash

The ways in which younger consumers discover and consume food and beverage products are increasingly driven by meme culture, and increasing on-demand availability of the food and grocery delivery services and ghost kitchens are further fueling the flame.

Memes are more powerful than ever, as socially driven discovery starts to take over Google search for Gen Z, and daily time spent on social media continues to rise globally. They have infiltrated every industry available, and, of course, became a huge influencing factor in how we discover new things to eat and drink. In response, digitally-savvy food and beverage brands can keep up with the fast-changing meme cycles — or perhaps even get ahead of them — through distribution and marketing innovations.

Memes are the New Communal Consumption

The communal experience of sharing food and drinks forms an important cornerstone in many cultures the world over, but in modern society, especially following the Covid-19 pandemic, the act of eating and drinking has become a solitary experience confined at home in most instances. 44% of U.S. consumers reported they have started cooking and eating at home more often since the start of the pandemic, according to a 2021 survey by Food Insights.

Demographic trends are also playing a part in the decline of the communal dinner table experience. A growing share of American adults is living the single life. The Pew Research Center found that in 2019, 38% of American adults between the ages of 25 and 54 were not married or living with a romantic partner. This number has increased significantly in the past two decades, with only 29% being unpartnered in 1990.

So, in place of coming together around a dinner table to share meals, we scroll through our social media feeds while shoving down single-serve takeouts. Cooking for one can be a tedious task that is hard to plan, so many started to look to social media, not only for inspiration on what to cook, but also to share what they made, thus perpetuating a feedback loop that spins way beyond the confines of our kitchens and contributing to the outsized influence that memes now have on what we end up buying and consuming.

Meme-fied Consumption: “TikTok Made Me Try It”

The dinner table is now online, and everyone you follow is invited to take a look at what you are serving. Never underestimate people’s craving for the social currency of being “on trend.”

From the infamous “Rick and Morty” Szechuan sauce that McDonald’s keeps bringing back periodically in limited quantities, to the mysterious pink sauce that went recently viral on TikTok and sparked widespread debate over its origin and food safety concerns, sometimes the memes taken off organically and unexpectedly, forcing brands to react in haste. How Ocean Spray reacted to its cranberry juice going viral on TikTok remains a prime example in recent memory.

Naturally, food and beverage brands want their 15 minutes of viral fame to capitalize on. However, some may be trying a little too hard to go viral. Whether it’s the “Velveeta martini” made with cheese-infused vodka, or the TikTok musical that Taco Bell made to promote its Mexican pizza (starring Dolly Parton, nonetheless), those efforts to manufacture a viral moment more often than not mounted to little organic viral spread and engagement.

Then again, there are the viral food trends that are spreading a bit more organically precisely because they have been manufactured to go viral. From the caviar bumps that make for perfect “showing-off” posts on Instagram, to the “great Chicken Nugget battle” born out of various QSR chains jumping on the revival bandwagon for a childhood favorite among Millennials, triggering a viral food trend is often a studied mix of catering to the demand for spectacles and crafting the perfect media narratives.

On the libation front, the canned cocktails are having a surge this summer, thanks to the new wave of portable cocktails and spirit-based seltzers, from canned Jack & Coke to the Dirty Shirley. This trend builds upon the viral rise of white claws and other low-alcoholic, flavored seltzers in previous years, and continuing the trend of consumers seeking Instagram-friendly, beach-ready drinks that they can easily take anywhere while earning street cred.

Celebrities also play a big part in this new era of meme-driven, digital communal consumption. In our 2022 Outlook report, we touched upon the rising ‘cults of personality’ that is increasingly influencing the purchase decisions for many avid social media users. The recent trends of QSR chains promoting celebrity-fronted meal combos is one tried-and-true way that brands can tap into existing fanbases; interestingly, the rise of celebrity-fronted ghost kitchens is bringing this trend into the meme arena as well.

Whether it’s Mr. Beast Burgers or the Grubhub-backed ghost kitchens cooking up items based on recipes from ‘MasterChef’ winners, the lowered entry barrier of the ghost kitchen model is allowing more celebrities to enter the food and restaurants businesses themselves by licensing their fame as a marketing hook. Celebrities have always opened restaurants, but now with ubiquitous online ordering, their name recognition carries a lot of weight in attracting prospective customers, especially when decision paralysis is common thanks to the abundance of choices on delivery platforms.

In other words, as the proliferation of various online ordering and delivery platforms, as well as ghost kitchens, collectively continue to reduce the friction of last-mile distribution for food and drink products, adding a celebrity name into the mix effectively helps reduce the friction in discovery. Coupled with a dynamic menu that only takes personal preferences into account, but also changes based on meme-able food trends of the moment to nudge customers into the items that are in demand, there is no limit on how frictionless memefied consumption could spread.

What It Means for Food and Beverage Brands

Popular food and beverages have always been part of the pop cultural zeitgeist, but the recent move towards digitized discovery and distribution of food and drinks has resulted in an accelerated trend towards memefied consumption. Today, the best brand marketers are always meme-savvy and know how to leverage proactive media planning and brand activations against the emerging cultural moments as they pop into the mainstream.

Lending into the aforementioned emergence of socially driven discovery instead of keyword-based search is a good place for brands to start. Gen Z is ditching Google as their main search engine, as they are looking to TikTok and Instagram for inspiration on what (and where) to eat and drink instead. According to Google’s own data, nearly 40% of Gen Z prefers searching on TikTok and Instagram over Google Search and Maps. The shifting prominence of social media formats is changing the way young people are browsing the internet, and all brands need to catch up.

This shift is practically prominent in local search today, which means it’s time for restaurants and bars to reconsider their SEO strategies. Instagram seized on this trend and rolled out a business-friendly, searchable in-app map that provides users with a more personalized and immersive experience when discovering popular local establishments. Similarly, Snapchat recently added social layers to its Snap Map feature, and one of those layers, made in partnership with restaurant review website The Infatuation, aims to help users to discover local restaurants and bars that their friends like. Through this feature, Snapchat users can easily mark the places they love and passively share them with friends, thus facilitating spontaneous discovery and peer recommendations. In short, if your establishment is not showing up on the maps on these popular social apps, no amount of SEO optimizations is going to properly surface your business to Gen Z.

Food and drink consumption also plays heavily into Gen Z’s self-identity, as the majority of Gen Z believe what they eat defines their identity. According to a recent study released by Cassandra, part of the Engine Group, Gen Z considers themselves the “foodie” generation — fueled by a desire to discover new recipes and find inspiration to become at-home chefs through social media, especially on TikTok. A big part of this “foodie” identity is, of course, a higher willingness to experiment with new food and drinks, which contributes to the meme-fied consumption.

Moreover, as their relationship with food and drinks evolves, more Gen Zs are embracing a holistic attitude that transcends taste and calories, but also factors in food ethics, nutrition, and its impact on mental health. All these elements factor into what goes viral on TikTok, and should all be taken into consideration by food and beverage brands in developing new products and marketing campaigns.

Looking ahead, innovations that seek to incorporate senses beyond sight and sound into the online discovery experience may further push the envelope on multi-sensory food ordering. Whether it’s a “taste synthesizer” device that people can lick for simulated tastes remotely, or the “electric chopsticks” that can make the food the touch taste more salty than they actually are, there are some early experimentations in digital taste that may further transform how we order food and drinks online in the not-too-distant future.

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Richard Yao

Richard Yao

Manager of Strategy & Content, IPG Media Lab