What is treat culture?

Editor’s note: Dominique Peters is a life and style practice lead at 2CV. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared under the title “The Feel Good Factor: How can brands deliver more joy by harnessing an evolving treat culture? 

A few months ago, a brilliant Fortune article popped up on my feed. It looked at how Millennial and Gen Z economic malaise is creating a new “treat culture.” The article resonated with things we are consistently hearing from young consumers when researching in the food and drink, hospitality, gaming and media spaces. In our experience, this emergent treat culture feels like a broader, more emotionally charged version of the much-discussed lipstick effect – where shoppers cut back on high-value items in favor of lower-value indulgent items (such as lipstick).

Finding joy in the little things

In a world marked by difficult economic conditions and existential dread the “little treat” has become a powerful coping mechanism. As young people face the challenge of achieving big life goals amidst a shrinking economy and global uncertainties, finding joy and solace in the smaller things has become crucial. In this new treat culture, the definition of what is a treat has expanded from the indulgent snacks (although they can be that) to anything that delivers a much-needed dopamine hit, emotional relief and gratification – 15 minutes scrolling on TikTok, buying a new nail polish, popping out for a fancy coffee or perhaps streaming an episode of a favorite old TV show. To quote the Fortune article, “A Diet Coke can be the difference between a truly monotonous day and an okay one, a way of asserting agency over one's finances and life."

How brands can use treat culture to connect with younger audiences

This vital, evolving treat culture presents an opportunity for brands to connect with younger consumers on a deeper level by understanding their treat needs and desires and harnessing these to drive brand equity and, ultimately, commercial success. Some brands have been doing this well, for example:

  • The U.K. McDonalds “Raise Your Arches” campaign (with a brilliant ad directed by Edgar Wright) conveys the idea that McDonalds offers a break from the monotony – a happy lift in an otherwise boring day – without showing a single burger or restaurant.
  • The Lego “Adults Welcome” campaign goes beyond the products and highlights the restorative power of Lego for grown-ups – a moment of relaxation and mindfulness. The recent Lego Piece Garden pop-up created a space for adults to “cultivate their creativity and reconnect with a feeling of joyful focus.”
  • Liberty promoting its athleisure and water bottle collections using the “Hot Girl Walk” TikTok trend. The Hot Girl Walk is best summed up as daily stroll that is focused on mental health and self-esteem rather than physical health. Liberty encourages walkers to grab a “pair of feel-good leggings” and think about what they are grateful for, their life goals and “how hot they are.”

Five things that brands should consider in response to the emerging treat culture

1. Recognize and respond to the shift in treat culture.

As a starting point, brands need to understand that treats are no longer just moments of indulgence but can often feel like a form of emotional relief. In this context, campaigns that focus on the product are likely to do less well that those that recognize and communicate the emotional payoff.

2. Tap into different dimensions of treats.

As treat culture evolves, consumers are seeking treats that fulfil various core needs – from simple pick-me-ups and excitement to self-expression and self-love. Brands that can harness and talk to different treat needs are most likely to connect.

3. Focus on the experience.

The feeling of the “little treat” matters as much as the product itself. Brands should be considering how they can enhance the emotional impact of their treats by curating better experiences. Creating elevated or multisensorial moments can supercharge the treat moment and drive brand equity.

4. Be sympathetic and understanding.

Given young people’s need to find solace in a difficult world, brands should be communicating with empathy. Brands must recognize their role in providing a tiny bit of much-needed comfort.

5. Be treat-forward.

Even brands that sit outside of the traditional treat space should be considering how they can deliver a treat-forward brand identity that celebrates the importance of the small pleasures.

Recognizing that a treat is more than just a product, but a source of emotional relief, can help brands connect with younger consumers on a deeper level and in doing so drive commercial success. So, let's celebrate the small pleasures and make things a little better, one joyful moment at a time.