The following is a guest post from Katie Thomas, leader of the Consumer Institute at Kearney, a global consulting firm, where she evaluates business challenges and opportunities through the eyes and experiences of consumers.
Product and category innovation can be the stuff of dreams — and for many people, it is. From entrepreneurs to brand marketers, creating new products to satisfy a myriad of customer needs, behaviors, or values can get many people out of bed in the morning. However, despite all their good intentions, in the craziness of distribution gains, revenue targets, and raw material sourcing, the consumer can often fall by the wayside.
Category managers love to stay up on trends and evolving consumer interests. Unfortunately, in most cases, your competition is tracking the exact same trends you are, so not following them can hurt you, but following them doesn’t particularly help. And in fact, the main challenge with trends is that by the time they are recognized, consumers have often moved on — so what you are responding to is where your customers were, not where they are. Despite all the best efforts of brand managers and marketers to grab consumer trends by the tail, more often than not, all they end up with is a handful of paradoxes. Turns out, just like there is no accounting for taste, there isn’t much logic to it either.
Consider the currently “popular” plant-based meat category. According to some industry pundits and brand advocates, the category seems on track to reach sales right around $30 billion by 2025 — give or take a billion or two. However, history indicates that from the Newton, to Google Glass, to smokeless cigarettes, and Satisfries, new products and categories’ real sales often fail to achieve their potential or live up to their hype. Oh, and if you don’t get the references, that’s the point.
Based on a certain set of consumer trends, that growth seems all but inevitable. Even during the pandemic, it’s almost impossible to avoid the daunting array of article, emails, podcasts and posts about how, in the “New Normal,” younger millennial and Gen Z consumers will still demand authenticity, be concerned with environmental sustainability, carefully monitor what they put in, on, and near their bodies, and eschew anything that hints at non-organic or genetic engineering. So, logically, plant-based meats should be the hottest retail food and foodservice category. After all, what could be a better food match for the clichéd version of consumers 35 and under than an Impossible Burger?
It turns out that the number of actual vegans and vegetarian Americans has hovered fairly consistently at five percent for the past few years. And most real vegans and vegetarians aren’t eating these new plant burgers — they are cooked up in a lab, based on GMO ingredients, may have eggs, are not organic, and in restaurants, are often broiled on the same line with the beef and chicken alternatives. So, if the vegan and organic set isn’t behind the category growth, who is? Well … everyone.
Last year, NPD Group released a study showing that 95% of plant-based burgers purchasers also ate meat. This year, a Gallup poll found purchases were divided across a broad range of demographics.
Ah … you say … well … people are cutting down on the amount of meat in their diets. Sounds right, but the facts are that overall, pre-COVID shortages, meat consumption is up and that just slightly less than 10 billion land animals were killed last year to satisfy Americans’ carnivorous impulses. So, what does all of this say for the real long- (or frankly, medium-) term value of the plant-based meat category?
The lesson here is that when it comes to thinking about the potential, or threat, of plant-based meats (or any other category,) you need to follow four simple rules:
Look at all the data first: See what other factors — in this case overall meat consumption and an increase in at-home eating, for example — are at play. Understand the full market (e.g. animal protein). Form conclusions last.
Don’t let marketers or salespeople “Snow the Snowman”: Don’t accept the hype at face value. “Gut check” your own reactions based on other new product/category introductions.
Put the numbers in perspective: Truly new categories are working off an initial baseline of zero products sold, so the only way is up. Marketers are fond of extrapolating dramatic sales percentage increases with actual down-the-line sales potential, which assumes that initial trajectory can be sustained indefinitely. In the early days of product launches, distribution gains and menu additions add quick and significant lift, which will stabilize over time.
Most importantly, watch and talk to your consumers: If someone is buying plant-based meat, or any other new item, ask them the reasons for their purchase. Is it a trial, a repeat purchase, or are they buying one thing for one person in their household and something else for the rest?
New products are always a risk and new categories are even more so. At the same time, they do attract customers; new category entrants addressing new consumer needs are a permanent fixture in our changing world. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. But before panic sets in at all other protein-first companies, before reworking your entire innovation plan to build your own plant-based meat line, consider first following these four guidelines to understand if you are reacting to hype or a permanent category shift. And then, remind yourself of your own brand values, and what your consumers expect from you and your brand. Innovate wisely, and always build consumer first.