Years ago, my definition of dinner was a microwaved Gardenburger, a handful of pita chips, and a dollop of hummus that I would eat alone while standing at my kitchen counter. I was an editorial assistant climbing up the corporate ladder, and my days were consumed by work and taking long walks to clear my head. 

Those days of striving aren't so far behind now, yet when I look around it seems I keep running into products being marketed to my younger self, someone brands took for granted before. Forget Hamburger Helper for four. Now, single-size servings are everywhere. Living solo suddenly seems more... normal. 

Turns out, it is. "In many markets, living solo has become the norm rather than the exception," explains the latest trend report from marketing communications firm JWTIntelligence. And with more millennials delaying marriage and other adulthood checkpoints, marketers are forcibly rethinking their strategies, adjusting product sizes, accommodations, and food, just to start. Here's a look at what's driving this new trend and how your business can edge its way in. 

Living Single 

To understand this shift in marketing, one need only look at singles themselves. Whether they're focused on work or enjoying disposable income, singles aren't pining for a ring and a white picket fence. They're prone to view marriage as the end to their freedom, and feel reluctant about taking the plunge. (That's for good reason: many millennials grew up as children of divorce.) 

On the older end of the spectrum, boomers continue to get divorced, choosing to co-habitate with someone new or live apart as a couple, or just quit the whole dating game entirely. And as women of all ages continue making gains in education and work, the pressure to settle down has become little more than a distant refrain. 

Thanks to these factors, and probably more, today's singles look a lot different from the singles of the last century. They're more active, selfish, and wealthy--especially in growing markets like China, India, and Brazil, reports JWT. And marketers are keen to respond to their specific needs. 

In pricey cities such as New York, "micro-apartments" are slated to offer cheaper options for singles starting as soon as next year. Cities like London, Warsaw, Tokyo, and Shanghai are also experimenting with apartments ranging from 250 to 370 square feet. Ikea is now pushing the PS collection, aimed at 20-somethings on the move and in need of furnishings for smaller spaces. And in Korea, the e-commerce site AKMall features a "single life corner" for singles in need of self-help books and multipurpose furniture. 

Single-Serve Snacking

Perhaps the most interesting byproduct of this solo dweller trend can be seen at the dinner table. Foods are no longer geared toward Leave it to Beaver families sitting down for a meal at 5 p.m. After all, 47 percent of all eating occasions in the U.S. occur alone, according to The Hartman Group. 

These days, food brands are targeting millennials who want grab-and-go, snack-like items. "A lot of the food groups leading the charge are fresh fruit, salty snacks, and yogurt," says Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst with the NPD Group. That's because consumers aren't preparing as many side dishes as they used to. "These foods provide an opportunity to have a full meal with little preparation and cleanup time," a plus for anyone exhausted from work. 

"There's a health halo on these products as well," he adds before noting Greek yogurt is "really riding on the protein trend that consumers seem to be wanting more of these days." Green Giant has rolled out a Just for One line of vegetables, while DiGiorno and Celeste are two brands selling frozen pizza for a single dinner, according to JWT. Tribe Hummus, which competes with Sabra's beloved pretzel and hummus packets, launched Tribe To Go earlier this year, "two eminently portable packs of pure deliciousness," claims its site, in classic and sweet roasted red pepper. 

Seifer expects the snacking trend to grow around 5 percent over the next five years as more adults embrace living alone.

For his part, Justin Gold, the founder of Justin's, tells Inc. he was inspired to package his products in individual squeeze packets because "nobody was offering a portable, on-the-go protein snack with peanut butter almond."

What's really fascinating," he adds, "is it kind of became all these different things for people. For a lot of them, it became on-the-go healthy snacking. Some people have to put it on something. For others, it became portion control. Others wanted to try new things like almond butter for a dollar. The packs just worked on so many levels for my brand." 

What Brands Can Do 

"There's a huge percentage of the population who are single now, and a large percentage of them are doing that by choice," says Cameron Day, director of business development for The Marketing Store, a global marketing agency. So if you want to appeal to this group--and who doesn't?--you'd better be savvy. 

It's not enough to assume singles are a homogenous group, nor is it okay to stereotype them as lonely, says Day. That thinking went out with the 1950s. "There are lots of life stages [and reasons people are single]; they could be divorced, widowed, or have chosen to be single," he says. Rather than treat singletons as one and the same, think of them as a group as diverse as the boomers. 

And more important, have fun. Tribe's on-the-go canisters of pita chips certainly achieve this with their funky lettering and bold color scheme. And the novelty of Justin's nut butter packets has great appeal. "For a lot of singles, we found staying single was about a desire to delay adulthood," says Day, "so when you're thinking about targeting them, really make anything you're doing look as fun as it can." Bonus points if it's something they can share with friends or use to meet new people, such as a communal table or bar stool at a restaurant serving single diners. 

Beyond this, Day recommends looking at ways to lighten a singleton's burden, be it with handling laundry, chores at home, offering membership benefits, or other things that may have slipped his or her mind. "With the way the marketing's going, it's getting the simple stuff right that makes a difference," he says. "Little things that show a customer you're thinking of them can be a lot more memorable than any fancy ad." 

Published on: Sep 9, 2014