What will it take to keep conscious consumers coming back to plant-based meats?

Here's what we know about those who purchase plant-based meats: they are typically flexitarians, individuals who are gradually...
November 22, 2023 Commentary
What will it take to keep conscious consumers coming back to plant-based meats?

Here’s what we know about those who purchase plant-based meats: they are typically flexitarians, individuals who are gradually reducing their consumption of conventional meat while not entirely eliminating it, often motivated by health considerations. These conscious consumers are primarily seeking alternatives to conventional meat in their diets.

With consumer surveys revealing that anywhere between 20% and just over 30% of Australians are already reducing their meat intake, it’s clear that dietary habits are undergoing a significant transformation. The question now is, what will entice consumers to not only try the 300+ plant-based meat products available on our shelves but also become repeat buyers?

Experts suggest that the market is ripe for innovation, with a demand for plant-based meats that not only taste better but also cater to the preferences of their target audience. To achieve this, manufacturers must identify their growth market, understand who is open to change, and then engage in effective communication with the right consumers.

Expand variety and focus on product innovation

Most plant-based meat products available in Australian supermarkets are conventional meat mimics: mince, sausages, burgers, and crumbed utility products such as schnitzels and nuggets (chicken style crumbed products dominate the category, followed by ready meals); and while we’re seeing more versatile, functional formats hit shelves, such as beef-style strips and chunks, and whole cut style, some suggest the market is ready for more variety. Food Frontier’s most recent research report Alternative Proteins and Asia identifies the need for manufacturers to tailor formats to local tastes and cuisines, otherwise they won’t survive. Perhaps Australians and New Zealanders would be more tempted by ready-made Bolognese than burgers.

Megan Stanton, from research firm Mintel, told delegates at Food Frontier’s AltProteins 23 conference in October that there’s now some thinking that consumers are looking for plant-based options for variety and it doesn’t necessarily need to mimic a conventional meat product. She says, “We can push the boundaries a little bit further. Obviously, we know if we’re marketing something as a plant-based meat, consumers will of course then measure that against the product that is similar to it in an animal-based product, but if they’re looking for a different alternative … they’re interested in products that are a little more broader (sic) on a proteins spectrum.”

The burger market is arguably over-serviced; other categories have far fewer offerings. There’s scope both to improve existing offerings and to create completely new ones. Innovations in product formulations and ingredients such as fats will also lead to improvements in taste. New research, formulations, manufacturing tech, and culinary innovation present further opportunity to reduce ingredient lists, degrees of processing and enhance nutrition of plant-based meats.

Mark Field from Prof Consulting urges Australian and New Zealand manufacturers to go abroad and see what plant-based meats are on offer in other countries, where the markets are more mature and competition is stiffer. He told delegates at AltProteins 23 that there are some fantastic products available locally but there are also some amazing products out there internationally, “I think there’s a real opportunity to improve the sensory experience for consumers. I think in the current climate, you know every dollar counts and I think consumers are very focused on where they spend and food in Australia is incredibly expensive because of the pressures we know. How do you bring technology and ingredients together to really win in that space.”

Focus on the conscious consumer

If producers limit marketing their products to vegans and vegetarians they risk alienating the majority of plant-based meat consumers, conscious consumers, flexitarians and reducetarians. The latter are cutting back on conventional meat but not necessarily swapping it with something else; they could be tempting by plant-based options. It is common for the media to link alternative proteins with vegan or vegetarian diets, but the majority of the industry knows they aren’t the demographic that is creating growth in the market.

One of Australia’s largest plant-based meat manufacturers, v2food, is focused on the conscious consumer. The company’s Nathaniel Tupou says, “I couldn’t agree more that our target market for this sector is the conscious consumer.

“And the conscious consumers are, if we use marketing speak, single income, no kids, double income, no kids … more over indexed towards those households, they are more over indexed to millennials to Gen Z. They’re more likely to be metro based. They’re driven by health, sustainability, convenience, versatility. And, by the way, they make up 36% of spend in Australia today, but they will make up 50% come 2030.” He says it’s really important for the alternative protein sector to understand the conscious consumer and overcome their barriers towards plant-based meats: health, ease [of use], its accessibility and its taste. “We need to address those four key barriers to get more consumers to pick up our product and hopefully come back and continue to buy the category.”  

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