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Many people in the Millennial generation say they largely prefer more health-conscious restaurants despite McDonald's sustainable beef campaign

Millennials still skeptical despite McDonald’s sustainability campaign

by Katie Schubauer
Jan 21, 2014

Victoria Gallagher is a student at DePaul University. Despite being on a tight budget, she would still rather eat at a restaurant like Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread, or Corner Bakery than McDonald’s. “I know it’s more expensive but, it’s a little healthier in terms of fast food and you feel better after you eat it.”

Gallagher is part of the so-called Millennial generation, those born in the 1980s and1990s, and her distaste for Big Macs places her among a sizeable minority of that demographic cohort.

According to a report by Chicago restaurant industry consulting firm Technomic Inc., 31 percent of Millennials are willing to pay more to eat at a restaurant that is environmentally conscious. Twenty-nine percent would prefer a restaurant that is socially conscious.

Michelle Vile, professor of consumer insights at Northwestern University, attributes this to an inherent skepticism and more health-conscious perspective among 20-something consumers. “The younger generation is a lot more aware of what they’re eating and the ingredients of the food they’re consuming,” Vile said. “They’re used to challenging the foods they’re eating more than the older generation and making sure they’re getting fresher, healthier ingredients.”

That could be a problem for fast-food giant McDonald’s Corp. As its loyal customers age, the Oak Brook-based company needs to replace them. McDonald’s is well aware of the challenge.

In an effort to reach out to Millennials and other health-conscious consumers, McDonald’s recently said it would try to purchase all of its beef from verifiably sustainable sources by 2016.

In an interview with online journal GreenBiz, McDonald’s Vice President of Global Sustainability Bob Langert said the effort is “a core part of who we are at McDonald’s, our brand, where we want to be in the future.”

However, Morningstar Inc. analyst R.J. Hottovy said the announcement was probably more of a marketing strategy by McDonald’s than a serious environmental program.

“I think there are still some issues in terms of appeal among the Millennial generation and the move to use more sustainable products and ingredients will help in that regard,” Hottovy said in an interview.

Michael Giebelhausen, assistant professor of services marketing at Cornell University, agreed. “Absolutely it is a marketing strategy. McDonald’s is changing their product in response to perceived consumer preferences and then promoting that change.”

Since 2011, McDonald’s has paired with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the World Wildlife Fund and others to create the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which seeks to determine the practices that would define “sustainable beef” in a verifiable way.

However, some Millennials still express big doubts about the quality and sourcing of McDonald’s products.

“Sustainable beef isn’t going to make the food taste better,” said Chicago musician Mike Doyle, 27.

“It probably wouldn’t make a difference to me,” added 21-year-old Elissa Rasch of Wrigleyville. “I don’t even know what sustainable beef means.”

Hottovy agreed McDonald’s is going to have to educate consumers about the change. “From a marketing perspective, it might help the McDonald’s brand, but it ultimately depends on what’s on the menu.”