What next for the meat-free sector?


According to figures released from the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) and Kantar more than a million fewer households bought meat-free products this January compared to last year. Further, according to data from IGD 7% of shoppers started taking part in Veganuary at the start of January but 70% of those failed to make it past the two-week mark. Of those that stopped 40% said that plant-based alternatives are too expensive and 40% claimed they could not find food or drinks that they enjoyed.

During January 2023 plant-based alternatives saw a volume decrease of 12.9% and a value decrease of 6.3% compared to last year. This compares to a meat, fish, poultry decline in volume of 3.2% and an increase in value of 8.3% due to price increases.

If these figures worry you regarding the future growth of the plant-based sector, then you might also be concerned to hear that according to figures from Pitchbook released by the international non-profit The Good Food Institute (GFI), global investment in sustainable proteins dropped last year from $5.1 billion to $2.9 billion. That is a drop of 43% from 2021 to 2022.

A steady 2% market share

The fact that up until the release of these figures the meat-free category in the UK had maintained a reasonably steady 2% of volume share for the last 4 years may come as a slight surprise to the more casual observer. They have seen the launch of many new meat-free brands, products, shops and restaurants during this period along with ample press coverage, and many may have assumed a more aggressive growth of the sector.

Unfortunately for those involved in the meat-free sector, while such positive coverage of the market and its apparent growth, may help to reassure some consumers and encourage them to try some of the products, it does not make these products any more palatable when they are tried.

Also, in order to attract a greater level of investment, the sector needs to demonstrate greater potential. Lots of positive press coverage does not convince investors. Sales figures, share growth, and a more concrete belief in the potential of the sector is needed to attract more money.

The plant-based sector needs some big wins

So, the plant-based sector needs some big wins. It needs a few brands and/or a few specific products to start converting meat eating consumers to a much greater consumption of these products. They need products that meat-eating consumers choose, on repeated occasions, over and above what they are eating now.

So far the vast majority of plant-based products have been imitating meat products. This makes sense. Any new product, no matter how radical, needs to be 80% familiar and only 20% new. This allows consumers to understand the product and how they should use it while also enjoying its novel aspects. When replacing meat for vegetarians or meat reducers it makes sense to provide them with something they recognise, that fits into their current behaviours, creates minimal disruption, while still giving them all the advantages of a non-meat product.

This approach has been successful in gaining a 2% share of the market. But, despite significant and ongoing product improvements in taste and texture resulting in these products getting closer and closer to their meat alternatives, overall share is not growing.

Meat free foods need to move onto the next stage of development

We need to move onto the next stage of development. We need to stop just imitating meat and find innovative and interesting ways to excite consumers and encourage them into the sector. The market is no longer vegans and vegetarians, or even meat reducers. It is all consumers. We are not providing meat alternative meals, but simply another option for consumers and we need to make that option more attractive, more exciting, than the other meal options available.

While 80% familiar and 20% new does constrain some product development, we need to be more imaginative about how we approach this issue.

So far we have relied on familiar product and meal options to provide the familiar while hoping our consumer will accept – or at least tolerate – the difference in taste and texture from the products that we are imitating.

Perhaps we can take a broader view of how to provide the 80% familiar. We do not have to imitate to be successful. We need now to innovate our offering. Different meal options that are more suited to the products that we have to offer, let’s make a feature of our differences instead of trying to hide them.

If you ask a consumer what they want, they want just what they know but “better”. Henry Ford did not dedicate his new factory to making faster horses, he created something that most of his future consumers could barely imagine.

Stop asking the consumer what they want and start understanding their psychological needs and then finding new innovative ways to satisfy those needs.

When you understand the underlying psychological needs of your consumers and meet that need, then the 80% familiar of your product comes from its positioning and function in meeting that need. The 20% new can be quite a novel approach to meeting that need.

Most great leaps in product design and use come from significantly innovative product advances that seem very novel but meet an easily recognised psychological need. The motorcar, the computer, the mobile phone, the smart phone…

The meat alternative market can continue to limp along at 2% share (if we are lucky) or it can move onto the next stage of development and create a new sector in the food and beverage market.

Finally, if you are one of those focused upon developing the best non-meat burger, I leave you with a thought:

What is the best-selling burger in the UK?

I believe it is the McDonalds Double Cheeseburger. (I stand to be corrected, but it is certainly one of the best-selling). Although I have not done the research myself, I am pretty sure it is not because it has the best patty. Perhaps it is because it is hitting other psychological needs that makes it so popular.

Chris Lukehurst is a Consumer Psychologist and a Director at The Marketing Clinic:

Understanding the connections between the consumer experience and emotional responses.