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Can “milk core” get Gen Z to drink its liquid dairy?

Kai Ryssdal and Nicholas Guiang Apr 13, 2023
The "Got Milk?" ad campaign was a big hit in the 1990s and 2000s. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Can “milk core” get Gen Z to drink its liquid dairy?

Kai Ryssdal and Nicholas Guiang Apr 13, 2023
The "Got Milk?" ad campaign was a big hit in the 1990s and 2000s. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The milk industry is trying to get a new generation to drink its beverage, and this time it’s using a statement, not a question: “Gonna Need Milk.” The Milk Processor Education Program, the industry’s marketing and education arm, is targeting milk-averse Generation Z, those born between 1997 to 2012.

Since World War II, milk consumption has steadily declined, but in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “Big Milk” found success with its “Got Milk?” campaign featuring milk-mustachioed celebrities. Now, the industry is using gamers and social media influencers to delivery its message that milk is tasty and healthy.

Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Kim Severson, a national food correspondent for The New York Times, about her article on the “Gonna Need Milk” campaign and what might save that glass of liquid dairy.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: So let’s talk milk. First of all, before we get into what Big Milk is doing, I want to know why Gen Z is not drinking milk.

Kim Severson: It’s a big problem. It’s cultural. It’s social. It’s about animal rights. So, first of all, this is a generation that was raised on Obama-era nutrition standards. So, at school, they drank low-fat milk or no-fat milk. You know, these are kids who were raised by people who probably had almond milk in the fridge, the first sort of oat milk and almond milk generation. So, milk has had a lot of competition. Water has actually been a big competitor for milk for this generation. It’s quite a dilemma for Big Milk.”

Ryssdal: So, milk in the ’90s and 2000s, they had that home-run of a campaign with “Got Milk?” So, what are they doing now?

Severson: Well, they’ve shifted it to “You’re Gonna Need Milk.” And they’re trying to reposition milk as a sports drink. And there have been some studies that show chocolate milk has helped athletes in their recovery period after a workout. And milk does have a lot of calcium and other nutrients. So, they’re pitching it as the OG sports drink.

Ryssdal: But the last thing you want in your stomach either before or after workout, and maybe this is just me, is a big glass of milk just sitting there, and you get that taste in your mouth.

Severson: Well, see, you’re part of the problem. You aren’t buying their storyline.

Ryssdal: So, look, on occasion, when there are chocolate chip cookies in my house, I have a glass of skim milk, but otherwise, I do other things to hydrate myself. And I guess the question is: Is “You’re Gonna Need Milk” gonna work for Big Milk?

Severson: That’s a very good question. I mean, they are getting influencers, going to TwitchCon and gaming conventions. They’re getting gaming superstars, like Mr. Beast and Preston [Arsement] to go on Minecraft and talk about dairy farming and do Minecraft cows, and they’re throwing everything at it.

Ryssdal: I’m sorry, Minecraft cows, you say?

Severson: Oh, yeah, the dairy industry has sponsored some Minecrafters. And they talk about cows and dairy farming, and they have introduced seven little Minecraft cows that do different things. But I think the thing that may ultimately save milk is just the contrarian nature of young people. So it’s not going to be too long until someone decides that actually, drinking milk is cool. There’s a little bit of, I don’t know, “milk core,” this idea that people are more interested in farming, the flip phone and mending their own clothes. There’s a whole kind of vibe around that. And I think that milk core could ultimately save milk.

Ryssdal: I was interested to learn from this piece that you wrote, which is totally fascinating on a lot of levels, that milk consumption in this country has been in what you might call a secular decline since the end of the Second World War. I mean, this is not a new thing that milk has troubles.

Severson: Right, milk consumption has been going down pretty steadily. However, dairy consumption has been going up. People love cheese. People love yogurt. It’s just that glass of fluid milk.

Ryssdal: So, cheese and yogurt and all that jazz, that applies to Gen Z too, right? They’re eating that.

Severson: Oh yeah. Huge yogurt — love fermented things.

Ryssdal: Before we go, are you a milk drinker or no?

Severson: You know, I am and I believe in whole milk. You know, I like whole milk in my cappuccinos, friend. I’m not going to lie.

Ryssdal: Oh, you gotta do it. Gotta do it. Amen. Amen. My favorite Howard Schultz story ever, the guy who made Starbucks what it is, is that originally, he wasn’t going to let people use skim milk. And I’m like, wow, that’s a gutsy move.

Severson: Yeah listen, I’m with him. I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, but that I do. I feel like we have to get you off the skim milk thing, Kai.

Ryssdal: Yeah, you got to talk to my wife about that. I go whole milk in the coffee. And it’s a long story. No time for that.

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