Are we at a crucial moment for plant-based & animal-free meat/dairy substitutes?


Have we reached a tipping point for plant-based and animal-free meat and dairy substitutes?

The growth of plant-based over the last few years has been impressive, even if it has been from a very low base. The number of companies advancing alternative animal-free technologies is also substantial. Singapore has become the first market to approve cultivated meat for sale to consumers and now a ‘no questions letter’ for cultivated chicken in the USA moves them significantly closer to approval.

As excitement mounts about plant-based and animal-free products, I am also reading more and more articles arguing that consumers are not yet convinced. That meat and dairy sales are still growing rather than declining and that the current excitement is media hype and wishful thinking from a progressive, vegan biased few rather than a true sustainable market reality.

So, are we at a Tipping Point?

Are plant-based and animal-free alternatives going to continue to grow and if so, will this be at the expense of meat and dairy? Will the world experience the much vaunted benefits of more environmentally friendly food sources and will consumers experience the claimed health benefits of such a change? Or is the bubble about to burst?

It will come down to consumer acceptance and the level of consumer enthusiasm for the new and novel products. If enough consumers embrace the plant-based and animal-free alternatives, then they will fly. If, however, brand owners, authorities and governments fail to convince society that they are safe, nutritious and preferable, then their growth will be held back and any potential benefits slow in being realised.

It is not unfair to look back at the introduction of genetically modified crops into the food chain. A leading-edge science that had huge potential benefits for disease resistance, lower use of pesticides and the expansion of food production into more marginal areas, but the key brand owner – Monsanto – along with the regularity authorities failed to convince societies of the safety and the benefits. The whole industry, and any potential benefit, was set back by decades.

So far brand owners of plant-based products have focused their attention on creating the best products that they can and further inspiring an increasingly sympathetic audience. This, however will not be enough, especially as novel technologies come on-line that consumers may not be immediately so familiar or comfortable with.

Logical arguments and proofs of nutritional, environmental and sustainability benefits will get us only so far. In fact, are unlikely to get us very far at all.

Consumers do not think rationally or logically, they think emotionally. Building high walls and fences around us may rationally make us safer, but they don’t always make us feel safe. In fact, often just the opposite. Giving a loved one a hug makes them feel safer, while logically doing nothing to actually achieve it.

Now is the time to start understanding consumers’ emotional responses to these technologies and products. Now is the time to be thinking very carefully about how we talk about precision fermentation and lab grown meat, about what types of products consumers will be comfortable with at first (as opposed to what we can achieve), and how we can introduce these products into their diets.

What benefits should we focus upon? How do we deal with, or head-off, their – often irrational – concerns?

Do we just replace meat and dairy products, or can we create a whole new category of products that broaden and improve consumers’ diets?

These are important issues and cannot be dealt with through a rational presentation of the advantages of the new technologies or through simple nutritional or sustainability arguments.

We need to understand consumer emotional responses to these technologies and to the brands and products that are coming. We need to influence and be part of the media coverage at the scientific, the industry and at the consumer level.

We need to monitor how the story is working in consumers’ minds, we need to be able to adapt as we see the story evolving.

Science is offering the food industry some fascinating and potentially fantastic new products with greater sustainability, enhanced nutritional profiles and hopefully some exciting consumption experiences. However, unless we engage with consumer behavioural science well before we start preparing for launch, these technologies too could be rejected by consumers and their advantages could be lost for a generation.

Chris Lukehurst is a Director at The Marketing Clinic:

Understanding the connections between the consumer experience and emotional responses.