Competing for NextGen consumers in the emerging protein market
Recently I was asked onto BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme, to give the meat industry’s perspective on the recent Kantar figures showing a larger percentage increase in sales of plant-based foods versus meat. Whilst I shan’t disagree with the hard numbers, there is much more to this than just the headlines.
Year-on year to date, total retail sales of meat and poultry were up 7.3%, whilst meat-free dishes were up 8.8%. Whilst the percentage increase is certainly higher, it must be remembered that the plant-based category is starting from a tiny base, and in actual terms the meat industry is over 11 times its size in value sales.
One nuance to this data is that it only covers retail sales. Almost 20% of red meat is sold in the foodservice sector, and as hospitality has had such a torrid time of late, the real red meat consumption figures for 2020 will inevitably be very skewed.
The industry is not immune to the competitive nature of the protein market and recognises that is has to maintain an offering that meets the needs of its wide consumer base.
Trends that have arisen as a result of the ongoing pandemic have included an increased focus on scratch cooking and eating together as a household. The lack of eating out options forced households to be more resourceful and creative in the kitchen, whilst others enjoyed the extra time together as children and parents were both at home. This focus included utilising fresh ingredients, which meat clearly is, and was also considered a staple ingredient by consumers. Meat quite literally flew off the shelves in the three weeks of panic buying, which then moved to a consistently strong retail performance in the following months.
Given this, should the industry be worried about the rise of plant-based foods? An estimated 3-4% of the UK population is vegetarian or vegan, and despite the disproportionate media attention, this hasn’t changed significantly over the last few decades. However, 14% of Brits now consider themselves flexitarians. This trend should not go unnoticed and is over-represented in younger people.
The industry is not immune to the competitive nature of the protein market and recognises that is has to maintain an offering that meets the needs of its wide consumer base. To ensure a strong offering especially to flexitarians or those eating less meat, the reasons why they have chosen to do so must be understood and products suited to their needs.
There are three standout reasons why people eat less meat: environmental, animal welfare and health. The industry can take all three factors and use them to positively promote sustainable meat consumption with its consumers. The first, environment, is where British agriculture has a topographical advantage and some ambitious sustainability targets – these could and should be promoted more widely. Animal welfare is another key concern, and whilst British minimum standards are high, the majority of animals are produced to higher standards again. Outside of the industry, the understanding of this isn’t brilliant, but it is often the case that undercover footage of rogue operators can pull the whole industry into disrepute.
Health can be a challenge but, whilst accepting some products are high in fat, few other foods offer anything close to the nutritional density of meat, and one must remember all good diets are about balance.
The key message that the industry can drive to promote its credentials to the wavering consumer is that there is a difference in British. This is clearly a USP that cannot be imitated, and rightly so.
To maintain long term sustainability however, the industry must step out of its comfort zone and stop preaching to the converted consumer – their needs are, by and large, already met by the current offering. We must focus on those consumers turning away from meat by helping to differentiate British from global production, to really get the facts across in an objective but concise way and promoting the great leaps in sustainability the industry is achieving. We cannot solely rely on this though. We must also use NPD and innovation to meet the needs of new demographics such as millennials.
Younger generations are always looking for new and exciting products, flavours and cuisines – exactly what the consumer-focussed plant-based movement is providing. We should look to consider meat in a different context than our traditional consumer – large roasting joints do not wash with millennials. In fact, I have only ever roasted a whole joint when my mother went through a rather unusual phase of presenting me with a gammon every time I popped home for a visit. New dish-based foods call for different protein formats, versatility and quick-cook credentials.
In my Radio 4 interview I stated that the plant-based movement is no more of a threat to the red meat sector than other proteins such as fish – this is true. Being defensive of the industry is always portrayed negatively in mainstream media; instead we must see this competition as an opportunity to showcase what the sector has to offer. Let’s keep up the momentum of a strong retail performance the industry has enjoyed this year, by being flexible to meet demands of the ‘new’ consumer, the next generation, as well as communicating and celebrating the story of great British meat.