Does Meatless Meat Have Merit with Consumers?

Jan 8, 2020

It used to be that the veggie burger you’d order at a restaurant or choose from the frozen food aisle wasn’t meant to imitate meat. It was simply a plant-based alternative to a common meat item.

But today, there are meat alternatives that look, feel, and taste like their real meat counterparts, making imitation the unabashed name of the game. Ads for Burger King’s Impossible Whopper are all over the place, while Subway now sells competitor-brand Beyond Meat meatball subs. As more meat alternatives hit the mainstream, the opportunity is ripe for actionable market intelligence.

Though there’s been a recent influx of meat alternatives into the market, the concept has been gaining steam for a while. Back in 2017, Plant-Based Foods Association (PBFA) in partnership with Nielsen reported that sales of meat substitutes had reached $555 million, up 6.1% from the previous year. With consumer interest growing, some experts predict the “alternative protein” category will grab as much as 10% of the meat market in the next 15 years.

As more consumers give meatless meat a try, brands are likely to become increasingly focused on consumer needs, preferences, and expectations. Putting consumer insights to work for them can help brands introduce new meat alternative products that satisfy and delight.

We became increasingly interested ourselves and wanted to conduct our own research into consumer perceptions around meat alternatives. We also wanted to develop a base-level understanding of the overall trend and its impact on purchase decisions. To do so, we set out to discover:

  • If and how meat alternatives play a role in consumers’ daily lives
  • The impact of sustainability and green initiatives on purchase decisions, specifically around meat alternatives
  • The key behaviors and influencers along the customer journey

Our qualitative research was conducted online with a group of 30 participants, male and female, ages 18-65. Respondents were asked open-ended questions and follow-ups by a trained moderator. Here’s what we found out.

Values and emotions influence perceptions about meat alternatives

The Impossible Whopper is sparking increased awareness of meat alternatives for many consumers. As one respondent said, “Impossible Burger has a lot of publicity right now, so that’s why I think of them.”

But the “meat alternative” term has deeper connotations than a curious new menu item at a fast food chain. Though many consumers associate the term with the actual brands and products they may already be familiar with in the category, others associate it with health, environment, and diet-related issues. And some associate the term with concern for animals and avoiding animal cruelty.

Depending how consumers think about the “meat alternative” term, their consumption habits are influenced accordingly. For example, one of the biggest draws toward meat alternatives is an association with family because consumers see it becoming a part of their family identity or a shared family experience. One 18-year-old respondent said her vegan brother is the one who inspired her to try meat alternatives. Another 48-year-old respondent said, “I first tried a veggie burger at my aunt’s house when I was a teenager and decided I wasn’t going to eat meat anymore.”

Other draws are a combination of cultural factors, dietary restrictions, and concern for animals and the environment. One respondent, who considers himself a pescatarian, said, “I have never eaten any pork during my entire life because of [my] customs and have always eaten a Mediterranean diet consisting of mainly vegetables, rice, and fish.” Another respondent explained, “A love of animals was the original rationale for my decision, but over time the environmental impact of raising animals for food and the health benefits of a plant-based diet have become important to me as well.”

Health-related issues are another big influence. As health becomes a greater concern for some consumers, they’re paying attention to the benefits of cutting back on meat. They listed lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, and the risks for type II diabetes, heart disease, and cancer as some of their reasons for trying meat alternatives.

Consumers open to meat alternatives want sustainability and good flavor

Most consumers were first introduced to meat alternatives as children while eating with their families. For example, “My mom made Boca burgers when I was growing up. She didn’t tell me they weren’t real meat, and shockingly, I really couldn’t tell the difference,” said one respondent. Others tried meat alternatives for the first time as adults, either in restaurants or while shopping for food. Today, most consumers in the study say they eat meat alternatives on a daily or weekly basis.

When a consumer learns about meat alternatives, it’s often through friends or family, social media or internet research, coupons, or sampling a product in the grocery store. Said one respondent, “I learn about new products usually through Instagram advertising or by others that I follow on there. I will see an ad or I will see someone post about a new product that I can look into. Occasionally I will Google to find specific vegan versions of foods.”

When they shop for meat alternatives, consumers prefer to do so locally since it has the greatest impact on sustainability, as confirmed by one respondent who shops at her local farmers market since it reduces transportation “which in turn reduces emissions.” The sustainability initiatives by specific meat alternative products matter to consumers, too. That means purchasing organic fruits and vegetables and sustainably harvested seafood that appear to have less of an environmental impact. It naturally follows suit that meat alternative brands with sustainable initiatives are appealing as well. Consumers listed the following as their preferred brands:

  • MorningStar Farms
  • Gardein
  • Boca
  • Organic Valley
  • Plum Organics
  • Beyond Meat
  • Impossible Foods
  • Honest Kids
  • Trader Joe’s
  • Whole Foods
  • Ben & Jerry’s

Sustainability is all well and good, but for consumers, taste matters the most when purchasing meat alternatives. Other important factors include quality of ingredients, price and value, and how easy it is to prepare.

One 51-year-old respondent summarized it well: “The main factors I consider are taste and value. I hope they’re all sustainable, but I haven’t researched each product to confirm that. Taste is my primary factor because if it doesn’t taste good, I won’t eat it—so that’s poor value because it will likely be thrown out. And if it’s thrown out, that pretty much negates sustainability in my mind.”

There are also some barriers to purchasing meat alternatives. Certain red flags that discourage consumers include:

  • If the product has a bad taste and is too expensive
  • If the product got bad reviews
  • If a consumer had a prior bad experience with a product
  • If the ingredients are low quality or the ingredients list is too long

How meat alternative brands can stand out

No doubt more food companies will want to tap into the growing interest in meat alternatives. But to do so effectively, they need to develop meat alternative brands that can address many of the findings above, or hone and grow existing brands through customer acquisition and other strategies.

Meat alternative brands could get a leg up in the market by:

  • Developing meat alternatives that will appeal to children. Since many consumers first ate meat alternatives during childhood and continue to consume them into adulthood, this is a point of entry that brands can seize upon.
  • Focusing on taste and healthy ingredients. As long as the product tastes good and is made with high-quality ingredients, consumers are likely willing to spend more on meat alternatives.
  • Selling locally. Consumers prefer to buy meat alternatives locally so introducing them in the local places they shop is a win.
  • Highlighting sustainability in ads and packaging. Consumers have indicated their preference for sustainable and environmentally responsible brands and products. Product promotion should lead with these benefits.

Whether it’s meatless meat to you or alternative protein to someone else, it will be fascinating to watch how the category and consumers evolve in the months and years to come.

Check out the full report to see more insights on consumer’s perceptions of meat alternatives.

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