A new survey from industry consultants Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC), New York, and Boston-based Fluent, a leading college marketing and insights agency, found that taught to make healthy choices from a young age, Gen Z college students take that lesson seriously when reaching for beverages. Practicality and natural products are preferred, while artificial ingredients and crazy fads are likely to cue a collective eye-roll, the companies say.

The survey of undergraduates offers clear direction to those who make, distribute and sell beverages to Gen Z — keep it simple and know your niche. Results will be shared at BMC’s Beverage Forum in Chicago (April 26-27) and available in depth in BMC reports and databases, the company says.

“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,” Fluent Executive Vice President Michael Carey said in a statement. “And while they reach for water first, there are opportunities for other beverages to fill niche roles, if they know where to look.”

BMC Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Michael Bellas added: “As Gen Z matures, there are exciting opportunities for our industry to engage with these consumers in a positive way. 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.”

Key findings from the survey provided by BMC follow.

  • Bottled water is the No. 1 beverage purchase among Gen Z consumers, with 43 percent consuming it 7 or more times each week. Coffee (hot or iced, not specialty) was next at No. 2 with 22 percent. Brewed tea was third at 12 percent in that category, and then beer at 9 percent. Hydration/thirst was the No. 1 reason students said they picked up something to drink.
  • As far as future consumption is concerned, 42 percent plan to drink more bottled water and only 8 percent plant to drink less of it, and 22 percent of students expect to drink more brewed tea vs. 7 percent saying they expect to drink less. Barring significant innovation, the carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) segment is likely to continue its decline, with 33 percent planning to drink less vs. 3 percent who plan to drink more. This correlates with recent data from BMC that finds bottled water is the second most popular beverage in the United States, likely to overtake CSDs’ supremacy late 2016 or in 2017.
  • While they find bottled water tastes better than tap water, 59 percent of Gen Z consumers try to fill up water bottles and/or use a filtered water system on a regular basis. Still, nearly 20 percent of students solely rely on bottled water over tap or filtered, for many of the same reasons bottled water scores over other non-alcoholic beverages: It’s healthier, more convenient and easier to find.
  • Gen Z students read labels, as 43 percent report regularly doing so and 38 percent say they do at least sometimes. The Top 3 descriptors influencing purchase are “all-natural” (52 percent), “low-calorie” (37 percent), and, to a lesser extent, “organic” (36 percent), with “vitamin-enhanced” at 31 percent and “zero-calorie” at 27 percent.
  • Around half of all students say they try to avoid artificial sweeteners, flavoring, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup. The sweetener they are most comfortable with is cane sugar (55 percent).
  • When it comes to why they try new beverages, students cite friends’ picks at 52 percent, “healthy/good for you” (49 percent), free samples (37 percent), interesting flavors (36 percent) and sale/ promotions (25 percent).
  • Sports drinks have clear roles to Gen Z consumers. Thirty-seven percent of respondents drink sports drinks for hydration and recovery, 14 percent drink them for taste and 13 percent to quench their thirst. They drink them most often while working out (54 percent) versus before or after, to combat hangovers (46 percent), and then because they are thirsty (45 percent).
  • Pick-me-up choices were the classics. The top go-to beverage was coffee at 49 percent, and then brewed tea at 15 percent. Water tied for third at 13 percent with soda, which seems to be a key messaging opportunity for CSDs – ahead of energy drinks (8 percent).
  • When it comes to alcohol beverages, 74 percent of respondents say they do consume alcohol and 81 percent of them report that they do drink beer on occasion. Asked what they prefer most, beer had a slight edge, while wine and spirits were somewhat equal.
  • When it comes to mixers, students reach first for soda (37 percent), and then juice (35 percent), followed by seltzers (10 percent).

The survey was conducted March 15 – 21, and polled 1,010 undergraduate respondents across the country, according to BMS. One-third of respondents were under 21 years old, with data on use of alcohol reflecting demographics, it adds. In addition to data shared at the Beverage Forum, survey results will be published and put in context in a BMC market report entitled “U.S. Student Beverage Consumption and Attitudes.” Findings also will be offered as a module within BMC’s DrinkTell Database with Market Forecasts.