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Gauging Engagement | by Christopher Wolf

A ‘New’ Generation
Forget the marketing gold mine of 18-to-34-year-olds, the real trend setters are the slightly older Generation Jones.
Christopher Wolf

For decades, the consumer of choice for quick-serves has been the 18-to-34-year-old crowd. But recent studies show these young adults are cutting back significantly on quick-serve visits, even while older generations of consumers are increasing their patronage. At the same time, the industry is witnessing double-digit growth of smaller chains offering more mature versions of traditional fast food in spite of young-adult tastes. Brands looking for change in their business prospects would be wise to consider branching out and aligning with a new (read: older) generation of consumers that offers promise.

Meet the Jones Dubbed “Generation Jones,” consumers age 44 to 55 are shaping not only America’s political and consumer culture of late, but appear to be leading growth trends in the quick-service industry as well. The challenge is to understand what messages and menus appeal to this target.

You’ve probably never heard of Generation Jones until now because the term “Baby Boomer” was traditionally assigned to all Americans born during a birthrate peak from 1946 to 1964. But over time that classification has lost credence partly because most generations typically span only 10 to 12 years (not 20) and also because it has become increasingly clear that front-end Boomers (think George W. Bush, Oprah Winfrey, and Donald Trump) represent a very different set of shared values and experiences than trailing-end Boomers (think the Obamas, Tom Cruise, and Madonna).

As early as 2000, cultural historians like Jonathan Pontell began encouraging the separation of consumers born between 1954 and 1965 from the Boomer behemoth and gave them their own identity: Generation Jones. This proposal received particularly widespread validation from the media and politicians in 2008 as it became clear this group would be the key swing vote in winning last year’s presidential race. Now, thanks to two prominent Gen Jonesers in the White House, this age wave is being seen as the new leadership and was identified by the Associated Press in January as the most important trend of 2009.

Breaking Old Habits Not only is Generation Jones attractive in size (comprising 53 million consumers, or one-fourth of America’s adult population), but it also appears to represent growth for the quick-service industry. Over the past five years, 18-to-24-year-olds have decreased their per capita quick-serve visits by an alarming 19 percent, with all generations below 35 years old decreasing their frequency, according to the NPD Group. In contrast, all consumer groups 35 and older have increased their annual patronage of quick-serves in the past five years, with the 35-to-49-year-old cohort, in particular, growing 6 percent and 50-to-64-year-olds growing 7 percent.

I asked Bonnie Riggs, an analyst for the NPD Group, for some insight on these dynamics. She explains, “Older generations are still financially better off than the younger group—more affluence and wealth. They’re employed, so they still use restaurants for convenience.”

Riggs also says that older consumers are going “more upscale in terms of their restaurant usage of quick-serves, even if they’re not going as often and spending as much.” But because these shifts began well before the economic downturn, Riggs cautions that it won’t be business as usual when the economy recovers. “Restaurant operators need to understand that their customer profiles are changing and it’s just not about the economy,” she says. “There are long-term behavioral shifts occurring and they need to have a greater understanding of who their customers are and what those customers are looking for in their restaurant experience.”

Following the Growth Speaking of behavioral shifts and new restaurant experiences, one only needs to look at the growth charts to see how these shifts have affected the industry in the past year. Generation Jones’ tastes appear to be at the forefront of the growth. It turns out that even before America was following the Obamas’ favorite fast-food haunts, patrons already were flocking to Five Guys Burgers and Fries, helping the 23-year-old Virginia-based chain’s sales to grow a whopping 59 percent in 2008. With hamburger prices starting at $4.59, Five Guys isn’t the first place you would expect consumers to visit in an economic downturn.

Jonesers are so starved for time, they are attracted to faster food. They have the money and will spend it, but they tend to be very value-conscious.”

Five Guys Burgers was the No. 1 growth chain in Technomic’s recent “Future 50” report highlighting mid-tier chains with at least $200 million in sales. Additional well-established quick-serve chains that grew more than 20 percent in 2008 include Jimmy John’s, Potbelly, Peet’s Coffee, Chipotle, and Pei Wei. The common thread is that these chains ostensibly offer a more grown-up version of what traditional quick-serves market and menu to the younger masses.

Tapping the Right Chord Pontell offers some clues on what makes Generation Jones tick: “Jonesers are so starved for time, they are attracted to faster food. They have the money and will spend it, but they tend to be very value-conscious. They are surprisingly big on coupons.”

In terms of marketing, Pontell says that Generation Jones members have a deep sense of entitlement, making them very responsive to marketing campaigns that cater to the “you deserve it” mindset.Of course, such appeals are not exclusive to the Generation Jones crowd. Nonetheless, quick-serves can use this swing-vote generation as a beacon to inspire fresh menu innovation and marketing efforts focused on fulfilling unmet expectations with budget-friendly, high-quality solutions. In doing this, brands will likely tap into common needs shared by older and younger generations as well.

As director of strategic innovation for The Turover Straus Group, Christopher Wolf serves a wide range of manufacturing and retail-based clients seeking strategic and culinary innovations for consumers and the food industry.