Sarah, a small woman in a bandana and faded band t-shirt, stands before a room of seated Millennial Moms. A sign next to her reads “Welcome Tribeless Millennial Moms.”
SARAH: Hello, my name is Sarah. Formerly of the Exclusively Breast-Fed/Baby-Wearing/Baby-Led Weaning/Co-Sleeping/Stagger Vax Millennial Mom tribe.
MOMS: Hello, Sarah.
SARAH: I, um. I – I was put on probation among the tribal elders when I let my husband give my baby a pumped bottle of milk I had set aside to donate. I was just so tired … but that’s no excuse. Um …
MODERATOR: Go on, Sarah.
SARAH: And then … and then last fall I fed my toddler macaroni and cheese. From a-a … box.
MODERATOR: Annie’s Organic Mac & Cheese made with real cheese?
SARAH: YES … no. It was … KRAFT!
Sarah breaks down in sobs. A gasp erupts from the room. Sarah returns to her seat. Another mom takes her place. This mom sports a helmet of bleached blond hair and wears a pantsuit.
JENNIFER: Hello, my name is Jennifer. Formerly of the Formula Rocks/Cry It Out/Rub Some Dirt in It tribe.
MOMS: Hello, Jennifer.
JENNIFER: I was kicked out of my tribe when my son, Graham – he’s 10 now – wore a participation medal to school. He was proud of it and (she wipes a small tear), I didn’t have the heart to tell him he couldn’t. We were already on thin ice when I brought organic juice boxes to baseball practice instead of Gatorade, and-and … I guess this was just the last straw!
Several women murmur and nod. Sarah looks horrified.
MODERATOR: Okay, moms, I think we need to say our mantra together:
MOMS & MODERATOR: We’re all doing what we think is best for our children. We’re all trying our hardest. We all make mistakes. And that is ok.
SARAH: But … GATORADE? She’s poisoning her son!
JENNIFER: Hey! I grew up on Gatorade. It was fine for me, and it’s fine for my son, Ms. Kraft Mac & Cheese! IT HAS ELECTROLYTES!
SARAH: SO DOES WATER!
The room erupts in arguments. The moderator slips away from the room and pours herself a Scotch.
The only two things every Millennial Mom (or any post-Millennial generation mom) has in common are 1) that they are moms, and 2) that they have all experienced a version of the scene above. From the moment a modern mother finds out she is pregnant, she is inundated with a sea of conflicting information from other moms, articles she finds, books she reads and all the other media flying at her face.
Unlike previous generations, who all followed Dr. Spock, their mothers’ advice or whichever parenting guru was en vogue at the time, modern moms have access to literally everything anyone has ever known about or formed an opinion on concerning parenting. Moreover, social media culture both puts them on display and offers a forum for women to criticize each other publicly.
Couple those conditions with skyrocketing obesity rates and the prevalence of other food and weight-related health issues, and the question of “what to feed your kid” becomes the hottest, most divisive debate among mothers, second only, maybe, to vaccines. And it starts at the very beginning: formula or breast milk?
So why are some food brands still talking to this demographic as though they are a singular hive mind looking for blanket prescriptions? How can they better understand this audience beyond “moms prefer” and “choosy moms choose” and even “they want things to be healthy and convenient.”
Perhaps because motherhood has become such a public, displayed endeavor, brands often assume they “know” moms based on the mothers moms seem to aspire to be and not the mothers they are. According to this article from Forbes:
Though mothers control 85% of household purchases and have a spending power of $2.4 trillion, three out of four moms still say companies have no idea what it’s like being a mom.
Three out of four moms say brands don’t have any idea what moms are doing. Let that sink in. And yet Forbes also published this extremely generalized “peek” into the psyche of “all Millennial Moms”:
Millennials are a generation of influencers. Their influence is causing a ripple effect in today’s consumer trends especially those concentrated around food. Millennials are more conscious of food health than generations past, as well as more invested in finding food adventures; food that delivers a new flavor or new take on healthy indulgences. This is especially true now that Millennials are growing up and starting families of their own. As parents, the Millennial Mindset® take on food is now being shifted towards fruit and vegetable consumption.
The assumption here is that a single, Millennial consumer will have the same behavior as a Millennial parent. “They like healthy food. Healthy food is vegetables. Millennials are feeding kids vegetables. Simple.”
The first Forbes article mentioned above, however, champions a company called The Mom Complex, a research company that is exploring more nuance among this demographic:
The Mom Complex has debunked several insights about mothers once held by consumer product companies. Some of their collected insights include:
- 75% of mothers are in the workforce, and most don’t have a choice but to work.
- Parents today spend 2x more time with their kids than previous generations.
- One in five meals is eaten in the car.
- The average dinnertime (at a dinner table) lasts 12 minutes.
- 80% of moms don’t know what they are having for dinner at 4 p.m.
- Millennials substitute snacks for meals twice as often as other generations.
According to their website (linked above), The Mom Complex is gathering their information by involving moms in more than just conventional focus groups: they are including them in product development, they created an app called Passion & Pain to encourage truth telling and to track moms’ emotions and behavior in real time, and they are throwing opinion parties and mom workshops, all designed to unravel the specifics of this divided demographic.
As their CEO Katherine Wintsch is quoted:
It’s a big problem to get straight-talk from moms in a focus group setting. In fact, we’ve found that they outright lie in front of other moms to look good.
Brands must look beyond what moms post on Facebook or say in front of other mothers and get in touch with the realities of motherhood.
As the second Forbes article above explored, Millennial moms are interested in health, but they are also interested in convenience and economy, and these are often conflicting motivations for parents trying to feed their kids. Understanding the main debates among this demographic is critical to understanding how your brand fits in to their culture.
In other words, as a brand, you don’t necessarily have to pick a side, but if you aren’t aware of the issues, moms may pick your side for you:
- Formula vs. breastfeeding. “Breast is best” has been widely publicized, but so has acceptance and compassion for moms who either can’t breastfeed or simply choose not to.
- What age to start solid foods and which solid foods to start with. Rice cereal at four months? Finger food only starting at six months? Baby-led weaning? Early exposure to allergens? There is an entire subset of decisions to be made on this single question.
- Processed foods vs. whole foods. Whole foods are healthier, while processed foods are often more kid-friendly, economically accessible and convenient.
- GMOs. There is much debate as to whether genetically modified food is helpful or hurtful.
- Organic vs. not organic. Similar to the whole foods/processed foods debate, one is considered healthier, but the other is considered more economically accessible.
- Fair treatment (grass-fed, free-range, wild caught, etc.). With many modern documentaries exposing the way animals are treated at farms and in factories, some consumers have begun to prioritize brands that have, in their opinions, best practices to their animals.
- Allergens and the level of sensitivity to food-allergic kids. As life-threatening food allergy rates rise alongside food-sensitivity awareness, the etiquette among parents accommodating their kids and their kids’ friends is a major influence on food consumption among Millennial parents.
- Local/fresh vs. imported. Millennial parents value supporting local economies and purchasing fresh food, but again, imported is often more accessible.
- Family meals vs. separately prepared plates. Possibly one of the biggest points of contention is whether kids should “eat what the parent eats” or be allowed a more kid-friendly, convenient, often less-expensive meal.
Perhaps most important among these debates is understanding that most moms are not all-or-nothing. They are Sarahs who try to feed their kids fresh foods but sometimes need to break out the mac & cheese or run to McDonald’s. Or they are Jennifers who believe what they grew up with is fine but occasionally explore a little variety. Brands that prescribe risk sending a dual message of judgment and shame for mothers who don’t choose them.
Once you have done your research into the reality of motherhood and understand the issues surrounding food debates and mom shaming, consider how your product fits in.
For example, if you are creating prepared food boxes for moms to feed their kids, you are talking to affluent working moms who can afford to feed their kids prepared food, don’t have time to cook it themselves and/or maybe just want someone to guide them through healthy food choices.
The images in the article linked above are artful and feature whole, healthy, colorful foods for the Millennial mom demographic seeking the ideal food in the most convenient package. The services tout that they are organic, preservative and additive-free, etc. – things moms of this tribe value and pay for.
On another end of this spectrum, Kraft released this brilliant Mother’s Day ad, featuring the “real” side of motherhood in which moms cuss in front of their kids and occasionally feed them Kraft mac & cheese.
This ad is not for pearl clutchers or Pinterest-perfect, health-obsessed Millennial moms, especially not the ones who say “we would NEVER feed that to our kids.” It is for the moms who slip sometimes.
As previously mentioned, moms of this generation have experienced some form of food-related mom shaming, whether they are Sarahs or Jennifers or someone else entirely. They are looking for products that relate to them, that seem to be for and from “their people” – just like any other demographic seeking a brand.
But this demographic, unlike many others, is making decisions that will affect another human being for the rest of their lives. These decisions are so important to them that they identify with them among other mothers.
Brands should therefore take Millennial Moms as seriously and consider them with as much nuance as a mom who is trying to feed her children.