Marketers Deploy New Techniques to Crack Mysteries of Millennial Eating Habits

Campbell, Frito-Lay Doing Everything From Visiting 'Hipster Hubs' to Conducting 'Special Glasses' Tests

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Charles Vila isn't a millennial, but he sure spends a lot of time with them.

Mr. Vila, VP-consumer and customer insights at Campbell Soup, leads a team of researchers who spend hours with the young consumers, in return for cash or some other benefit. "We eat with them. We cook with them. We bar hop with them," Mr. Vila said.

The reason? Mercurial and disloyal, millennials have the potential to give big packaged-food companies fits. That's why marketers like Campbell are deploying new techniques to study this generation of 18-to-34-year-olds, which at 50 million-strong are expected to spend $65 billion on consumer-packaged goods in the next decade, according to Pew Research.

Campbell has focused its research on a handful of urban markets, such as Boston, New York and London, that it calls "hipster hubs." These are "food-forward locations where lots of millennials gather," said Mr. Vila. Through its immersion, Campbell has learned that millennials approach life like "hunters and gatherers, where they go through life sampling," he said.

Therefore, food marketers must "give them experiences that offer a range of things for them to sample." For Campbell, that has meant a bevy of new exotic flavors and soups meant to mimic take-out meals, such as microwavable soups in pouches branded as "Campbell's Go" that include flavors such as creamy red pepper with smoked gouda.

At PepsiCo's Frito-Lay, researchers have studied millennials by giving them special glasses equipped with a camera, which removes the distraction of another human. Millennial consumers "kind of clam up when you are with them," said Christine Kalvenes, Frito-Lay's VP-innovation, so the glasses enable the company to observe millennial behavior without physically being present.

And what has it learned? Millennials are looking for anything "out of the ordinary," Ms. Kalvenes said. That insight explains some of the snack brand's newest offerings, which include Dorito's "Jacked," a thicker chip that comes in flavors such as enchilada supreme. — E.J. SCHULTZ

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