Watch on demand: How can plant-based protein win over consumers, retailers ‘burned’ by past experiences with the category?

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: William Reed
Source: William Reed

Related tags plant-based meat

Rebuilding the plant-based meat category and reversing the downward trend in sales and volume that has plagued the category in recent years will require manufacturers to go back to basics when developing and pitching new products to retailers and consumers who may feel burned by bad past experiences with meat analogues, industry stakeholders said during a recent webinar hosted by FoodNavigator-USA.

According to data from Circana crunched by 210 Analytics, unit and volume sales of plant-based meat continued to fall double-digits in March 2024 as they have for the nearly two years. In March, unit sales of plant-based meat fell 10.3% to $17.2m and volume sales in pounds fell 10.6% to $13.1m. Dollar sales fell 8.3% to 104.7m in the five weeks ending March 31 over the same period a year ago. Figures for the full year were even steeper with dollar sales for the 52 weeks ending March 31 dropping 12% year-over-year and unit sales sliding 16.6%.

“Winding the clock back, the big challenge was the spread between what was promised and what was delivered … was pretty big. So, you ended up with products that maybe did not taste as good or were not as healthy for you” as their animal counterparts and when combined with plant-based products’ premium pricing “a perfect storm of dissatisfaction with consumers” emerged, Eben Bayer, co-founder of plant-based bacon brand MyForest Foods, said during FoodNavigator-USA’s webinar Plant-based 3:0: Emerging from the trough of disillusionment​, 
which is now free to watch on demand. 

He explained that consumers who were willing to try plant-based proteins once, are now hesitant to do so again.

In response to sluggish sales, retailers are cutting back on how many plant-based meat products they carry. Analysis of Circana data by 210 Analytics from the same period shows retailers carried an average of 10 to 11 refrigerated meat alternatives per store, which was down 14% year-over-year.

This SKU rationalization is compounding the downward sales of plant-based meat because consumers cannot find the products they want in stores as easily – if at all, explained Julie Emmett, vice president of marketplace development at the Plant Based Foods Association and Plant Based Foods Institute.

What will it take to earn back the trust of consumers?

The first step in convincing consumers to take another chance on plant-based proteins is to create “a great product,” that delivers on the taste and nutrition consumers want at a price point they deem reasonable, said Annie Ryu, CEO of Jack & Annie’s, which makes a range of jackfruit-based meat alternatives.

“It starts with having great tasting foods. We went to market with foods that we are incredibly proud of and got consumer feedback proactively and addressed the different areas where people wanted us to make changes,” she said.

A common request she heard from consumers is they wanted plant-based products made with whole foods and ingredients that they recognized – two demands that Jack & Annie’s easily meets as each product is made with minimally processed jackfruit, which the company explains in marketing materials and on packaging is a common plant that has been enjoyed as a meat alternative for thousands of years with minimal processing.

“Jackfruit is capable of replicating foods that are typically made from beef, pork, chicken and seafood,” in part because it has a texture that is “naturally similar to meat,” she said.

Using jackfruit as a base also allowed Jack & Annie’s to “get through some of the confusion that has impacted [the category] about consumers wondering what these foods are really made of and how are they made, because we started a whole education process about jackfruit before these questions really arose,” she said.

MyForest Foods likewise is able to bypass consumer concerns about over-processing by offering whole cut, organic mushroom root products that are grown on a farm, said Bayer.

The clean ingredients in Jack & Annie’s and MyForest Foods also allows them to deliver nutritional values that consumers want – including fiber and protein with less saturated fat.

Winning over retailers requires a strong business case

As for winning back the trust of retailers, and convincing them to stock a new or reformulated plant-based protein, Andrew Bluestein, co-founder and managing partner at Bluestein Ventures, advised manufacturers to complement “great products” with an equally compelling sales data story.

“You have to get a great product and you have to communicate to the retailers why your product is great, why it is different, what is unique about it, why does it need what consumers are looking for,” said. Brands need to pair that with data that shows they will be successful at retail, such as growth from direct-to-consumer sales or a promotion and marketing program that shows how they will drive velocities or how carrying their product might lead to an increase in complementary products – such as a plant-based condiments, pre-made sides from the deli or other items that round-out a meal.

“Go back to those fundamentals. It is not just about, ‘Hey, we have got these great things going on online – all these great celebrity influencers who maybe come some notice. At the end of the day it is about … how do I make sure [the product] is shining on shelf and how do I get it off the shelf? I think some of those things are … demos, promotional programs, great packaging,” he added.

Emmett encouraged retailers to proactively work with plant-based meats to create a merchandising strategy that benefits the overall category. This could include in-store signs, consistent placement or grouping products together alongside animal-based offerings so that consumers can see the full range of options.

Discover how else brands and retailers are leveraging storytelling, technological advancements and other strategies to drive innovation and consumer engagement around plant-based meat by watching on demand for free FoodNavigator-USA’s webinar Plant-based 3.0: Emerging from the trough of disillusionment​. Get all the details and watch online HERE​.

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