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Sustainable Innovation: Takeaways from Plant Based World Expo 2023

David Gray, Catalyx Business Development Director, returned from Plant Based World Expo 2023 with sustainable innovation insights from the frontline of the sector. In this piece, David shares a breakdown of the challenges and opportunities for plant-based brands meaning to make a difference in the world – and against their competition.


CONTENTS:

1.  The news in sustainable innovation

2. Three main challenges for plant-based food

3. How to solve: Catalyx’s perspective

4. Key success stories

5. What does category’s future look like?

1. The news in sustainable innovation

On the one hand, I’d heard that the Expo had moved to a larger event space, such was the interest and the growth in the category over the last few years. On the other hand, I very much approached the event with a sense that the category was struggling in some way. The truth, as ever, was somewhere in-between…

Plant-based continues to be a category with a lot of attention and some loyal consumers. As shared in PBWE’s press release, Abigail Stevens, Marketing Director of show organiser JD Events, pointed out that “Plant-based options continue to appeal to Millennials, Gen-Z consumers” with 43% claiming to be cutting meat from their diet in 2023.

One speaker shared data that showed proteins, snacks and confectionery are still growing by around 10% in the US. Creamers are the same, and up by 15%; and dairy is broadly winning (again), particularly in families with small babies. A huge opportunity for all dairy alternatives because, as one speaker noted “once a baby starts on plant-based follow-on milk, why not switch on the adult cereal, or coffee?”

“The takeaway? Taste. Is. Everything.”

Prof. Andrew Godley, Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the University of Sussex Business School, made another resonant point. When considering what would be the future drivers for meat-eaters to really embrace meat alternatives, he told attendees, there is simply a lack of data.

Despite the success of meat-free Monday, Veganuary and the like, the obstacles to growth for the industry were, however, agreed upon…

 

2. Three main challenges for plant-based food

TASTE: Only a small amount of the meat-free products on offer really tastes like the thing it is trying to replace. And so, whilst barriers to trial have been readily overcome, the trial itself creates a barrier to adoption, because people try it, aren’t converted, and don’t try it again for a year or more. However, dairy-free has succeeded, which is why you have meat-eaters drinking soy lattes. The takeaway? Taste. Is. Everything.

PRICE: Meat-free options are nearly always more expensive than meat. The reasons are varied and valid, but it ultimately doesn’t wash with consumers. They are paying more for something that is less like what they wanted… so, the question is, what would make this worth it – especially in the current economic climate?

GROWTH: This has plateaued because of the combination of the above, but in addition, the actual number of vegetarians and vegans remains proportionately small. Brands can compete for their love, but can’t grow the sector unless omnivores come on board. Currently, this is not happening fast enough or at the right volume due to the issues of taste and price.

So the industry must solve taste, then solve price, and unlock the right drivers for each brand and each audience in order to flick that switch. 

“By tapping into the real emotional drivers of the meat-eating consumers, brands can position products closer to the gaps in the market…”

Attendees heard that consumers under 35 are more likely to switch and repeat, but are more emotionally-driven and varied. Older consumers may also repeat, but nearly always because of health drivers. The remaining segments seem yet to be convinced, with only 30% of omnivores open to trial.

It was even reported by Nestle representatives that meat-eaters are actually deterred by the word “Vegan”, and won’t buy products that use it in their communications.

3. How to solve: Catalyx’s perspective

Broadly, the industry needs to normalise eating meat alternatives at traditional meat occasions such as BBQs, dining out, and school lunches to drive demand, increase availability and lower price.

In terms of research, there is a huge window for brands to reassess their packaging and communications. Labelling and descriptions (with the whole nomenclature of the industry) are at the heart of many sticking points, and primed for analysis in order to understand what will really drive uptake.

Even if taste, texture, and price were solved tomorrow, there is still so much confusion with omnivores as to what they are eating. In most cases, as soon as the consumer is framing it within their meat experience, you have immediately lost. 

Opportunities for growth are present all the way from the entry point. If a brand exists primarily to appeal to vegans and then to switchers, the majority of attributes on display currently aren’t appealing enough. New attributes need to be developed to fill the unmet needs and the complex drivers and barriers to trial.

The expo also proved that product attribution is vital for brands with a dual offering. This was illustrated when Richmond sausages took the stage – pitching meat and meat-free sausages next to each other under the same brand.

By tapping into the real emotional drivers of the meat-eating consumers, brands can position products closer to the gaps in the market, taking into account the nuance of each product’s offer and the needs of each consumer segment.

“It’s really interesting to view these plant-based products in terms of consumer experience; how if you switch out, you don’t actually lose the original feeling.”

4. Key success stories

Greggs. McDonalds. KFC. Quorn.

Why? Because the first three absolutely nailed taste. Just as you can’t buy a chicken breast from Tesco and make it taste like KFC, you can’t take meat-free meat home and make it taste like meat. So why are brands trying to make it sound like you can?

Quorn by contrast invented a food. This gave the brand the benefit of experimenting and doing it in a playful way. The difference is that Quorn never claimed it tasted and looked like meat, instead exploring the experience of looking like meat but being a food of its own. 

It’s really interesting to view these plant-based products in terms of consumer experience; how if you switch out, you don’t actually lose the original feeling. Meat-free can begin to make a place for itself, if it can match the experience. Perhaps restaurants and food-service are the next battle grounds. 

 

5. What does the category’s future look like?

Plant-based finds itself torn between two camps – of making great food that truly doesn’t cost the environment, and in promising to be a replacement option while not exactly replicating the original. 

My perspective is that the biggest challenge is the significant lack of data surrounding consumer reactions to plant-based alternatives. Without those truths at the heart of future developments, the category will struggle to find niches and win loyal converters. This is especially true as new technology looms around the corner, threatening to take top spot – such as cultivated meat or lactose and their potential to close the vital taste gap for consumers.

But all of that is yet to come. At Catalyx, we’re all about keeping granular consumer truths at the heart of everything we do. This can not only crack the core issues and unmet needs of uncertain consumers, but also begin the preparations for future proofing your offering as the wheels keep turning.

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Catalyx is a Consumer-centric Innovation Consultancy. We help the world’s most forward-thinking consumer product companies unlock progress through more effective innovation.

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