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by: Gert Jan Timmer - managing partner

meat substitutes, it’s time for a substitution

Now that it has been proven that slaughterhouses are almost as bad for humans as they are for animals, the meat substitutes win another round. It's not a knockout yet, but the newcomers certainly look like the favourite.

It could be a long match, however. The battles on sustainability, CO2, animal rights and future-proofing may already have been won on points. But how many more rounds will follow (and whether, in the end, the ref will intervene in this unequal fight) is uncertain. A bloody finish seems on the cards.

An interesting marketing question that arises is this: how long will the meat substitutes continue to align themselves with the losers? Right now, in my view, the lowlight in this lineup of imposters is the vega variant of Wagyu Beef (Australia, JAT Oppenheimer). Disgust disguised as delight. Or the other way around. It confuses me. What about you? 

Another one: Karma Shoarma. My first thought really is: Shoarma with garlic sauce that doesn’t leave you reeking from various orifices for two days — now that would be innovation.  

And as a final example: ‘Like Meat’. Funny, light-hearted, but the confusion remains: is it meat or not? Does it want to be? 

As a launch strategy, the ‘battle against the established order’ has been used more often, but the meat substitutes have already arrived in the adulthood phase. Five million Dutch people define themselves as flexitarians, switching on the basis of mindset (and behaviour), not based on what’s on the shelf.

Of course, the market share of meat substitutes is still a long way from conquering the original. But it is also no longer David vs Goliath. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have paved the way for giants like Unilever and Nestlé, who are making fast and long strides. 

It’s time to give the vega variant a name that does justice to its place in the market.

From a behavioural change perspective, the path of gradual steps might seem to be a logical one. The vegetarians once took the lead; this group has expanded and expressed itself more and more vocally. According to Rogers’ innovation theory, we are well past the phase of the Early Adopters — and the Early Majority increasingly embraces meatless days. Indeed, those meatless days account for the more than 5 million flexitarians. 

So we’re approaching a tipping point. Not slowly, but surely. How long is meat still the norm? And why would a more than fully-fledged alternative label itself as a “substitute for”? For many, this question is already irrelevant. Especially for vegetarians, the Innovators of the category according to Rogers. They don’t need any meat substitutes at all in their diet. For them, the moment that the original is no longer the norm has long been the reality.

Perhaps meat will return in the role it once had, a ‘luxury’ product for Sundays and holidays. As déjà vu for Boomers. So meat is more the exception than the rule. 

Saying goodbye to a luxury is hard. It feels like a step back. It takes conviction. And reflection. Let a world crisis like the present one be the ideal setting for it; never waste a good crisis. But in the long run, if you have something every day, it hardly has the right to be called a luxury at all.

These questions are challenges enough for marketers of a relatively new category that is ‘here to stay’. But an industry that stands on its own no longer needs to refer to what it’s against. The category name could, for example, refer to the most important nutrient: protein. In Greek (πρωτεΐνη) this term is used in many languages. 

At McDonald’s in the US they ask you at the counter: “What’s your protein?”. Protein is a universal and international concept so that’s fine. It’s a nice job for a naming agency, which could perhaps be expanded across the industry.

In short: meat substitutes, it’s time for a substitution.

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