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Gen Z's Thirst: Health Focus Drives College Students' Beverage Choices

Posted On: 7/18/2016

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TAGS: Gen Z water consumption, natural beverages, beverage consumption trends, vending machine, Beverage Marketing Corp., Michael Bellas, Fluent, Michael Carey, soda trends

Gen Z water consumption Taught to make healthy choices from a young age, Gen Z college students seek practical, natural beverages, according to a survey by Beverage Marketing Corp. and Boston-based Fluent, a college-focused marketing agency. The survey of undergraduates offers insight to those who make, distribute and sell beverages to Gen Z to keep it simple and know their niche, according to the researchers.

"From early-kindergarten lectures to constant health-related headlines on their phones, this generation knows about having to proactively make their own choices and not just take things at face value," said Fluent executive vice-president Michael Carey. "And while they reach for water first, there are opportunities for other beverages to fill niche roles, if they know where to look."

Bottled water is the top beverage purchase among surveyed college students, with 43% saying they consume it more than seven times per week. Coffee (hot or iced, not specialty) came in second at 22% and brewed tea was third. Hydration/thirst was the No. 1 reason students pick up something to drink.

Asked about future consumption, 42% said they plan to drink more bottled water and only 8% said they plan to drink less of it. Meanwhile, 22% of college students said they expect to drink more brewed tea, against 7% anticipating less.

Barring significant innovation, soda is likely to continue its decline, the researchers predict, with 33% of college students planning to drink less of it, compared with only 3% who expect to drink more of it. This correlates with recent data from BMC that find bottled water is the second-most popular beverage in the U.S., likely to overtake carbonated soft drinks' top spot by late 2016 or in 2017.

While they find bottled water tastes better than tap water, 59% of college students say they try to fill up water bottles and/or use a filtered water system on a regular basis. Still, nearly 20% of students rely solely on bottled water over tap or filtered, citing many of the same reasons bottled water scores over other nonalcoholic beverages: it's healthier, more convenient and easier to find.

College students read labels, with 43% reporting they do so regularly and 38% claiming to do so at least sometimes. The top three descriptors influencing purchase are "all-natural" (52%), "low-calorie" (37%), and to a lesser extent, "organic" (36%), with "vitamin-enhanced" at 31% and "zero-calorie" at 27%.

Around half of all students say they try to avoid artificial sweeteners, flavoring and preservatives, as well as high-fructose corn syrup. Cane sugar is the most acceptable sweetener, with 55% of respondents giving it a thumbs up.

The top reasons they try beverages? Students cite friends' picks (52%), "healthy-good for you" (49%), free samples (37%), interesting flavors (36%) and sales promotions (25%).

Sports drinks have clear roles in the eyes of college students, with 37% of respondents saying they drink them for hydration and recovery, 14% drinking them for taste, and 13% to quench their thirst. They drink them most often while working out (54%) versus before or after (46%) or because they are thirsty (45%).

The top go-to "pick-me-up" beverage among college students in the survey was coffee at 49%, and then brewed tea at 15%. Water and soda tied for third at 13%, ahead of energy drinks at 8%.

BMC and Fluent conducted the survey March 15-21, 2016, and polled 1,010 undergraduate students across the country.

"As Gen Z matures, there are exciting opportunities for our industry to engage with these consumers in a positive way," said BMC chairman and chief executive Michael Bellas. "We look forward to sharing how companies can reinforce strengths and create new experiences by listening to what this newest and typically hard-to-access audience has to say."