It’s suppertime at the Jeff and Tiffany Johnson house. Mason, age 3, and Kalvin, age 2, are excited to belly up to the hamburger casserole set on the table. It’s a favorite. “I’m sort of a casserole person,” Tiffany says. “Take whatever is around and throw in some beef and there you go.”

You're never too young for beefJohnson says she feeds her family beef around three to four times per week, above average according to Michele Murray, executive director of consumer marketing for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), which contracts to manage programs for the Beef Checkoff. “Our data shows most Millennials eat beef one to two times a week,” Murray says. “They love beef, but they want more information.” Johnson credits their farm-country upbringing in southwest Iowa for their beef familiarity, an advantage over some young urbans in the food choice game.

The Johnsons at age 31 are, by definition, the target of the latest marketing campaign to come out of the Beef Checkoff. “We’ve been watching the Millennial market for about two years,” Murray says. “We’ve monitored market research studies. We’ve studied their needs, their lifestyle trends, and assessed how we can make our message more relevant for that age group.”

There are 80 million Millennials in the United States today — born between 1982 and 2004. Another 50 million Generation X’ers (born 1965 to 1982) blend at the seam. For the past year, NCBA has targeted older Millennials and young Gen X’ers, those age 25-44. Now, it is shifting its focus to a slightly younger demographic, the 20-34 age group.

“These are the people who are just starting up their lives, learning how to parent and cook,” Murray says. “They’re getting their first grill, learning how to cook and prepare their first steak, and setting up their first kitchens.” And they’re feeding young families. “Millennial parents are the next generation of beef-eaters and the ones instilling the habit in young children today.”

Like the Johnsons, who have two full-time jobs, a part-time business and a full community calendar in addition to their two young boys, market research shows Millennials want a product that is nutritious, flavorful and convenient.

“They’re not so concerned about preventative health as what it does for their bodies now,” Murray says. Fifty-five percent believe too much red meat may be unhealthy, compared to 33 percent of Baby Boomers.

Efforts like Team BEEF work to spread the message of beef ’s health benefits to active Millennials. The Texas Beef Council (TBC) boasts an 800-member team. “This generation is health conscious,” says TBC senior manager of consumer communications Rachel Parsons Chou. “They need to hear information about beef ’s nutrition bundle that gives them ‘permission’ to eat beef.” Team BEEF members wear red shirts with a white beef logo in marathons and triathlons, cheer at races and make public appearances advocating for beef. “They show beef as a super food — a valuable source of protein both before and after a race,” she says.

 Finding the comfort zone

It’s not hard to sell the younger generation on the flavor of beef, though 66 percent say their children prefer chicken. But the desire for quick, easy ways to prepare it creates an ongoing challenge. Young cooks, often just starting to find their way around a kitchen, are partial to one-dish meals — tacos, stir-fry, casseroles. “They’re the most culturally diverse generation yet,” Murray says. “They’re creative and adventurous in the kitchen and are likely to fuse different cultures in their cuisine.”

They’re especially partial to ground beef. Research shows 80 percent express confidence with ground beef. Stew meat at 78 percent and stir-fry at 70 percent come in right behind, accentuating their preference for one-dish meals. Johnson says at their house it’s a matter of the kids’ taste. “A lot of times Jeff and I would rather have a steak, but there’s no guarantee the kids will eat it.”

Nearly one-half of Millennial cooks say they look to online sources for recipes, compared to previous generations who relied primarily on their mothers. Johnson says she gets some of her recipes from family and some from Pinterest, a website popular with the Facebook crowd. “My dishes don’t always come out looking like their pictures, but they usually taste good,” Johnson laughs.

Living in the digital world

It’s that digital connection that makes Millennials different from past generations. Sometimes referred to as the “two-screen generation” for their prowess at navigating multiple devices simultaneously, Millennials live in a mobile, digital world of cell phones, laptops, TV and iPads. What’s more, they talk to each other. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn — all feed the Millennial urge for constant communication and enable folks to share details of their lives previously reserved for those in close proximity.

“Things like Vine and Instagram didn’t even exist two or three years ago; now they enable sharing photos and other mediums instantly,” Murray says. A photo or video of tonight’s dinner hits Facebook or Vine before the first bite hits the mouth. “There’s an element of pride to it. Millennials run a constant dialogue with family and friends. That’s a powerful network.

“For a communicator, this means going direct with your message in a way that’s entertaining and educational,” Murray adds. YouTube how-to videos, step-by-step photo cooking instructions and infographics are all part of the new-age marketing arsenal. The digital age also allows for very specific targeting and measurement.

“Part of marketing to this age group is studying the way they use technology,” Murray says. “For instance, they go to social media for different reasons — to connect with friends and family, to get news, to follow the latest trends.” Digital forms of communication allow for detailed data collection. Who is talking to whom? What kinds of posts are garnering a response? What times of day are most popular?

The “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” website and Facebook page, funded by the Beef Checkoff , send out daily Facebook posts designed to steer consumers to a tasty meal of beef with colorful photos and easy recipes, as well as strategic timing. The e_ ort targets the 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. window — a time when preparing for the evening meal is on the mind of many of the page’s more than 800,000 fans.

Pinterest is aimed at women; ESPN ads, at men. Data shows that while men and women of the younger generation often share duties in the kitchen, making meal preparation a family affair, it is still women who do most of the grocery shopping. Studies also show the two gender demographics tend to have different priorities when it comes to menu planning.

 “Women are more interested in nutrition, health and family,” Murray says, “while men tend to put an emphasis on grilling and entertaining friends.”

The Iowa Beef Industry Council (IBIC) has found a way to reach the targeted Millennial demographic through a popular blog. “Iowa Girl Eats” is the creation of central-Iowa food blogger Kristin Porter. A young mother, runner, traveler and foodie, Porter’s posted recipes focus on “low-fuss dishes made with in-season ingredients.”

The Iowa Food and Family Project, a partnership of more than 30 ag and food industry affiliates (including IBIC), created by the Iowa Soybean Association, has enlisted Porter to venture on to the farm. A “city girl,” her “Journey Into Ag” gives readers a fresh view of ag production as she visits crop and livestock farms as well as the labs at DuPont Pioneer and the kitchen of a popular eatery.

“We want young consumers to reach out of their comfort zone,” says IBIC executive  director NancyDegner, “and reaching the ‘Iowa Girl Eats’ fan base is a good place to start. Like with any demographic, it’s about building consumer confidence with beef.”

The coalition bringing that message to young Iowans is one of many e_ orts across the country. “There are a lot of great partnerships happening out there right now,” Murray says. Indeed, there is a targeted, cooperative effort to reach young consumers, an effort that is based on marketing basics: Know your audience and learn to speak their language.

Millennials are the most numerous generation to date, outnumbering Baby Boomers, and with their focus on health and experiencing global flavors, a market ripe for beef ’s message. “They love beef, even if they’re sometimes unsure how to use it,” Murray says. “So it’s our job to _ nd and provide solutions that are relevant to their needs.”