When Scott Norton and Mark Ramadan were undergraduates at Brown university in Rhode Island a decade ago, they were horrified not by the 2008 financial crisis but by Heinz tomato ketchup. The bright red sauce was so common in shops and kitchens round the world that it seemed it would be there forever. “At the centre of supermarkets were all these classic American brands that hadn’t evolved in 70 years,” recalls Mr Norton.
As they talked to their student friends, they realised that none of them wanted bland, mass market products shipped from factories by huge corporations. So they started to mix their own organic ketchup in an off-campus apartment. On graduation, they founded a company and, having no origin story with resonance, invented a joke one. They named it after a mythical Victorian called Sir Kensington, a monocled adventurer who had “advised the British East India company in the acquisition of spices”.
The pair are now 31, at the heart of a millennial generation that has come of age, transforming business not only in the US but round the world. In April, their company was acquired by Unilever, the British-Dutch group that had fended off a takeover by Kraft Heinz. Their ketchup, once a student jape, has just gone on shelves in Walmart and Target. “Sir Kensington’s is the playbook for reaching millennials,” says Richard Hartell, president of strategy and transformation at Publicis Media.
Millennials are ‘core’ business
This is the millennial moment, long expected and feared by companies that built their brands for baby boomers. They are ageing and their offspring, once called the “echo boom”, are no longer teenagers, or even students. Pew Research Center, the US research group, defines millennials as the 73m Americans aged between 22 and 37, who will next year overtake boomers in number. “We don’t think of them as special or different any more. They are the core of our business,” says Alan Jope, president of beauty and personal care at Unilever.
The coming of age of the world’s 2bn millennials is not only a generational shift: it is one of ethnicity and nationality. Forty three per cent of US millennials are non-white, and millennials in Asia vastly outnumber those in Europe and the US. Despite China’s former one-child policy, it has 400m millennials, more than five times the US figure (and more than the entire US population) while Morgan Stanley estimates that India’s 410m millennials will spend $330bn annually by 2020.
Millennials have reached what the bank calls “the most important age range for economic activity”, when households are formed, babies are born and money is spent not just on going out but on settling down. Simon Isaacs, co-founder of Fatherly, an information and ecommerce site for millennial parents, cites family camping as one of its most popular topics. “That does extremely well for us. They like to buy cool family tents and share videos of their trips.”
This reflects the depth to which technology is integrated into millennials’ lives and habits. The oldest were teenagers at the time of the Netscape initial public offering in 1995, as the internet became a mass medium, and the youngest were 11 when the Apple iPhone was launched in 2007. They are used not only to communicating online but buying most things: $25bn was spent on Alibaba’s Singles Day online shopping festival in China on November 11.
Big companies have scrambled to adjust to millennial tastes. “Local, original, and what they can feel and trust are all good. Maybe there is a bit of a reaction to globalisation,” says Laurent Freixe, who heads Nestlé’s US and Americas business, “Organic, natural, and non-GMO are crystallising in the US very fast.” Nestlé last year bought the Blue Bottle chain of coffee shops and in May signed a $7.1bn licensing deal with Starbucks to refresh its Nescafé and Nespresso brands.