NEW YORK — When a chef dropped Kellogg's new products on an open griddle in a kitchen in the Big Apple yesterday, they sizzled, seared and browned just like an average burger or sausage. But these proteins aren't traditional beef and pork — they're Incogmeato.
Last year, the MorningStar Farms brand announced it was launching a line of plant-based meat products called Incogmeato. On Wednesday, the company held a tasting event in New York City and said its first ready-to-cook plant-based burger will hit shelves next month and its plant-based bratwurst and Italian sausage will launch in June.
"Consumers buy almost $800 million worth of meat in the weeks leading up to Fourth of July," Sara Young, general manager of MorningStar Farms, told Food Dive in an interview. "So it was important we brought forward a suite of products that consumers could try and experience with their family and their friends at a barbecue and have multiple offerings just in time for grilling season."
Despite the growing competition in the plant-based protein space, Young said the company developed these products because research shows 75% of consumers say they want to eat less meat, but the whole category still has less than 25% household penetration. And the market is still ripe for growth, with Euromonitor predicting sales of plant-based meat substitutes to reach $2.5 billion by 2023.
"What we have found to be most important to get consumers to try, and to repeat, is it has to be a great tasting product and broaden how we look at that total experience," she said.
This launch could raise its profile next to other popular plant-based meat alternatives, like the Beyond Burger, the Impossible Burger and Nestlé's Incredible Burger. Both Impossible and Beyond also offer sausage products.
Delivering a meat-like experience
When Kellogg decided to develop its first ready-to-cook plant-based burger, it spent a year getting it to taste and cook just like the real deal.
Young said the team focused on making sure consumers had a familiar, meat-like experience — from the moment they take the product out of the package to the first time they put it on the grill and take a bite — while still trying to give a better taste and nutritional value than its competitors and traditional meat.
"You taste with more than just your tongue, you taste with all your senses, and so we put together a product portfolio that delivers on taste… while delivering a positive nutritional profile," she said.
During product development, the company created prototypes and benchmarked them against their other products, their competition and real meat. Then MorningStar Farms worked with an external and internal culinary team on testing to make sure the products delivered on mouthfeel and taste, which studies have found to be the top reason why consumers eat plant-based.
Young said with a laugh that she personally tried "a lot of burgers" in the process of developing the new product.
"We did quite a bit of sensory testing to make sure that we deliver on those sensory aspects of meats," she said, adding that they worked to perfect the casing and snap of the sausage and the mouthfeel and caramelization of the burger.
The burger has 21 grams of protein and is made of soy protein, a blend of palm and canola oil, natural flavors, beet juice and a few others, she said. The Incogmeato products use soy, which is similar to the Impossible Burger and Incredible Burger, because it was the best way to deliver "quality protein that most closely mimics meat," Young said.
Although using soy can improve the taste and texture of the product, it could face challenges from consumers looking to avoid the ingredient, which is a top allergen.
The launch of these products, however, won’t be the end of the company's research and development. Young said the company is adapting to consumer trends and needs to continue to be nimble.
“As consumers come into this, some aspects of their experience are more important, like how it feels on their hand, how it chars, that first bite, and we need to continue to monitor that," she said.
Building on a legacy
Kellogg acquired the legacy veggie protein MorningStar Farms brand for $307 million back in 1999. The brand offers a variety of plant-based products, including veggie sausage patties, chorizo crumbles, nuggets, corn dogs, wings and burgers.
Last year, MorningStar announced a new vegan "Cheezeburger" and committed to becoming 100% plant-based by 2021. Young said that goal is on track and the company has already moved its Chik'n products and corn dogs fully vegan. She said consumer response to that commitment has been "phenomenal" and that segment of the business is up double digits.
Despite its success, increasing competition in the faux burger space has pushed legacy companies to fight for consumers. Although MorningStar Farms is still a market leader, it has lost market share in recent years, according to Euromonitor data.
"Consumers buy almost $800 million worth of meat in the weeks leading up to Fourth of July. So it was important we brought forward a suite of products that consumers could try and experience with their family and their friends at a barbecue and have multiple offerings just in time for grilling season."
General manager, MorningStar Farms
To gain back what it has lost, MorningStar is expanding beyond its reputation as an old-school brand from the early days of veggie burgers with this latest launch.
Young called Incogmeato and MorningStar Farms’ traditional products "complementary," but targeted at different types of consumers.
MorningStar is designed for vegan and vegetarian consumers who are committed to that lifestyle, while Incogmeato is aimed at flexitarians who want plant-based meat to taste and feel like the real thing, as well as have nutritional and environmental benefits, she said.
"You will not see us forget our strong heritage, strong growth potential and growing MorningStar Farms' business," she said. "At the same time, the launch of Incogmeato brings in new consumers into this space and we're leveraging our expertise, our history, our heritage and our ability and partnerships with retail to delight a new consumer."
Marketing its new brand
Why did MorningStar land on the name Incogmeato? Young said that when looking at consumer testing, being distinctive was essential. She said the name gives the brand a personality. Above the label on each package is an animal in disguise, changing from a cow or pig, for example, depending on the product. It's also memorable from the other burger names in the space, which mostly use superlatives like Impossible and Incredible, while being clear that it is plant based, Young said.
Beyond its name, Young said the first step of its marketing strategy is to get the product where consumers can find it. When Incogmeato burgers hit store shelves in March, they will have distribution at major retailers like Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway and Meijer and be found in the refrigerated meat case. The company then plans to roll out a campaign in line with grilling season in the summer.
Although the company calls it "the sneakiest plants you've ever met," Young said consumers are not confusing these products with traditional meat because they are clear in their labeling and name.
After rolling out its burgers and sausages, the brand plans to announce more about its Chik’n in the fall and additional products after that.
There are already high expectations for the company's plant-based growth. Analysts at Piper Jaffray speculated last year that Kellogg's MorningStar Farms brand could give Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods a run for their money.
Even as Kellogg continues to face struggles with its cereal division, the company's 2019 sales were at its best since 2012, with sales helped by its frozen products, including MorningStar Farms alternative meats, which rose 5% in the most recent quarter.
Kellogg’s CEO Steve Cahillane said in an earnings call this month that MorningStar Farms is continuing to build on its rapid growth.
"Consumption in the fourth quarter increased again at a double-digit rate, again, gaining share. Impressively, this accelerated consumption and share growth has been driven across product segments,” Cahillane said. “Clearly, the breadth of our product line, along with strong brand communication, is working, and we're expanding distribution.”