Triggered by a desire to have a closer, more tangible relationship with the food they’re eating, millennials urged food brands to pull back the curtain on their supply chains and product recipes. They wanted to see how the sausage is made, what it’s made of, and where it comes from. From artisanal ketchups to a surge in farmers markets, millennial appetites and expectations altered the course of food history–all in the name of authenticity.

But with this new generation, Gen Z, the same rules of “authenticity” do not apply. They are, after all, the teens and 20-somethings that live in a world of simulated realness—from finstagrams (fake Instagrams) to following non-human, AI influencers. The millennial way to be authentic can even come off as glaringly inauthentic and one-dimensional to the next generation. Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” is a widely hailed example of millennial-flavored authenticity depicting the journey from humble beginnings to industrialized farmer and back. It provided a glimpse into Chipotle’s business practices and supply chain that hit home with millennials, earning lots of love as a result. (That is, until the E. coli breakouts proved “Food with Integrity” wrong, leading to a mass exodus from which they haven’t quite been able to recover).

Compare that with Wendy’s now infamous reputation as fast food’s favorite troll. What began as a snarky clapback regarding their “Fresh, Never Frozen” tagline has since evolved into a sassy, manufactured Internet personality beloved by millions for–wait for it–their authenticity. Clearly, the definition of authenticity is getting a makeover. Wendy’s stands apart from the competition not because of their high-quality beef or transparent values—it’s their voice. Seemingly overnight, Wendy’s went from just another fast-food brand to one worth following because they became a brand worth listening to. For Gen Z, authenticity isn’t about transparency, and it doesn’t need to be “raw” to be real; it’s about having a story to tell, even if the story is absolute fiction.

Nothing captures food that’s pure fiction better than Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino—it’s Gen Z authenticity in a cup. A glittery, fantastical concoction that changes color and flavor right before your very eyes, the Unicorn Frap looks and sounds like fairy food. According to Starbucks, it’s actually “made with a sweet dusting of pink powder, blended into a crème Frappuccino with mango syrup and … a pleasantly sour blue drizzle. It is finished with … a sprinkle of sweet pink and sour blue powder topping.” Artisanal ketchup this is not, but that hardly matters to Gen Z. They aren’t paying attention to the ingredient list, nor do they care what the Unicorn Frap tastes like. It’s the pops of color, whimsy, and magic they’re attracted to–it’s a fairy tale, and Gen Z can’t help but buy into the illusion, even if the reality never measures up.

Now, Gen Z knows full well that there’s a team of social media managers and ad agencies working behind the scenes crafting witty tweets, recording mixtapes, and orchestrating inter-brand beef over at Wendy’s. They’re fully aware that Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino is chockfull of sugar, cream, and artificially colored powder to make it look “unicorn-y.” However, that doesn’t make them inauthentic, at least not with Gen Z. Curation and editing come second nature to them. They recognize that having a unique voice and perspective requires effort and doesn’t happen on the fly. It’s accepted and expected that for anyone to create something truly authentic, some assembly is required. While this interpretation might ruffle some millennial feathers, authenticity will certainly be on the menu for Generation Z. Just keep in mind that they are craving the illusion, not the reality.

Larissa Chen is a strategist who specializes in food at RPA, an advertising agency in Santa Monica. She spends most of her waking hours thinking about food, understanding people’s relationship to it, and deciphering its impact on culture at large. She was also a key contributor to Identity Shifters: A Gen Z Exploration, the new report that reflects the thoughts of more than 1,090 Gen Z researchers and research participants, yielding insight into virtually every aspect of their lives.
Customer Experience, Outside Insights, Story