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Consumer identity key to plant-based product success [Interview]

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Over the past 30 years or so, plant-based products have moved inexorably from obscure supermarket shelves to prominent end-of-aisle displays. Mike Hughes, Head of Research and Insight at FMCG Gurus, discusses some of the key factors behind this revolution in consumption, and explains why this critical growth market is set to fragment.
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Plant-based products used to be targeted only at consumers following strict vegan or vegetarian diets.Even into the 1990s, plant-based alternatives were very much niche.

“This began to change in the early 2000s with the Meatless Monday campaign in the US,and the emergence of the term ‘flexitarian’,” explains Hughes.“This movement encouraged people to cut down on meat and has since evolved considerably.”

Around one in four consumers now say that they follow a flexitarian diet.

“It is important to note that consumers typically follow a flexitarian diet, rather than identify as flexitarian,” adds Hughes.“They are choosing to purchase plant-based products, even if they are not aware of the snazzy marketing term.”

Consumers are increasingly aware that tackling environmental issues is a proactive effort.The pandemic has made people question the state of the environment,but also identify signs for optimism. The reduction in car and plane journeys,for example,visibly improved air quality, and demonstrated that changes in behaviour can make a difference.

This has simply accelerated the larger trend towards sustainability being a cool, trendy and positive lifestyle choice.In other words, what is good for me is also good for the Earth.

“This is a trend that will only grow,” says Hughes.“Half of meat eaters say they are looking to cut down on their meat consumption. People are also concerned about animal welfare, especially in the wake of COVID-19.”

A diversified marketplace

The mainstreaming of plant-based alternatives means that product lines can no longer be targeted simply at homogenous groups,such as vegans or vegetarians.The market is therefore likely to become far more diversified,with products targeting different occasions,aspirations,and attitudes.Understanding what it is that appeals to specific consumers(environmental benefits, nutrition, trustworthiness)will be critical.Therefore,as demand continues to grow, the plant-based market will see massive fragmentation.

“For everyday consumers, manufacturers need to make sure that products are compromise- and hassle-free,” says Hughes. “Despite their best intentions, many consumers say they will struggle to give up meat and dairy over the long term. There is still the perception that plant-based products are lacking in taste and texture.”

For the everyday consumer, manufacturers need to think about streamlining ingredient lists and focusing on affordability.

“This is about making product categories tiered,” says Hughes. “You can have premium offerings, but you also need something that will appeal to families on a modest income. Manufacturers also need to address the needs of active nutrition consumers who have specific health goals and might link products to performance.

Hughes also links self-expression as a key factor in plant-based consumption.

“Consumers want to demonstrate that they are doing something good,” he says.“Sustainability is a lifestyle choice, and this is often projected on to social media.Consumer choices are often about demonstrating credentials and promoting an outlook on life.”

This can be seen in the food service sector, where demand for plant-based products is aligned with other trends that stress authenticity and sustainability, such as craft beer.Consumer choices are increasingly tied to the expression of individual identity,says Hughes,and this is something that manufacturers must take into account.

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