Designing and framing plant-based products to increase consumption
ProVeg’s Food Industry and Retail International team spoke to Armando Perez-Cueto, Associate Professor at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen, about developing a better understanding of how best to design and frame plant-based products in order to increase their acceptance and, thus, consumption. Perez-Cueto will be talking at the New Food Conference, which will take place from 21-22 March.
How much of a role do you think food manufacturers and the food-service industry have played in accelerating consumers’ acceptance of plant-based foods?
I think most large companies, as far as I can see, have been very much moving in this direction for the last ten years or so – these companies have realised the potential this market sector holds, as well as the importance of the environmental sustainability of their businesses – it’s not a new phenomenon. I think the production of high-quality foods that have purely plant-based ingredients has contributed to consumer acceptance as people have increasingly been exposed to these innovative products which are good alternatives to what they are used to.
The quality of the products has also been improving in terms of taste and other sensory characteristics, which has inspired more people to start eating these kinds of products. There are particular companies that work with these products and that market them very well, such as Oatly. The company originally designed its product as an alternative for people who are lactose intolerant but suddenly entered the mainstream as it experienced unexpected demand from all kinds of consumers in Europe and in China. Demand for plant-based foods is growing and growing.
Can you mention an example of a brand which markets plant-based foods successfully?
In the case of Oatly, they have a very aggressive marketing campaign and the formulation of their messages is to-the-point. They focus on naturalness, they stress that the plant ingredients they use in their products are made for humans, and also, in my opinion, their communication campaign is very unified. Their packaging is very consistent along their entire range and has great youth appeal – although they use retro fonts. It is cool and it is very appealing to generation Z. The fact that their drinks say “shake me” on them makes them attractive to young people. Their products are also very tasty – so the deliciousness, the hedonic pleasure, is there, which, combined with them being very cool, makes them highly competitive.
What product placement advice would you give to retailers wishing to increase their sales of plant-based foods?
Plant-based products should be placed around 1.6 metres above floor level (roughly eye-level) to prime adult consumers to choose them. If you are targeting kids, of course, you need to place them lower down. Initially, plant-based foods were directed only towards a minority of people, i.e. vegans, but now that the consumer base is growing, they have passed the point of critical mass and are mainstream products. As such, at least in Europe, they are consumed by people from all kinds of self-identified lifestyles.
In terms of placing meat alternatives next to meat products and cheese alternatives next to cheese products, we actually did an experiment with the Institut Paul Bocuse related to this. If you are, for example, in a cafe setting and you ask people to choose between something that they know very well and something that is very similar to that, they will go with the former. Familiarity plays a key role in people’s decisions. On the other hand, if you have many choices and you want to prime a specific option, you could place the products together – but it is important to highlight the positive differences between the novel alternatives and the product with which consumers are more familiar.
Supermarkets in Denmark have placed some dairy alternatives in the dairy section whilst others have a special section for plant-based foods. If you want to encourage the consumption of a specific food type, placing alternatives near the entrance of the supermarket or towards the beginning of the customer’s journey through the physical space, just as many supermarkets do with fresh fruit and vegetables, is a good choice.
Do you think plant-based products should be branded differently or follow a different strategy to other food items?
I think that the marketing principles remain the same for whatever you are trying to sell. Communication should be fair, ethical, and evidence-based. That’s where synergy between different societal actors is necessary because there is good evidence to support the promotion of plant-based diets but it is not often properly translated for the average consumer, and sometimes it is not properly used by the different actors.
In my opinion, foods of plant origin deserve to have their own names. Aren’t we able to find names for new products? Are we so delayed in terms of human development that we cannot think of new names for food, that we cannot make new foods mainstream and change food cultures? Of course, there are things that are very much ingrained and passed down from generation to generation but nonetheless, change is possible. Such changes have happened before. In the early 1900s, people didn’t eat the same amounts of dairy and meat that they do today. So it is possible to change food consumption by changing the availability and the prices of certain foods and ensuring that they taste good. Companies can make new products which are healthy, sustainable, and produced in a way which allows for price competition and, in so doing, become mainstream and change food culture.
What language and tone should manufacturers of plant-based food adopt in order to appeal to non-vegans and non-vegetarians?
The more positive the language, the better. Focus on the deliciousness and hedonic properties of plant-based foods, how interesting they are, and how different they are from meat, gravy, and potato dishes. Appeal through texture, freshness, environmental sustainability, and ethical aspects. Focus on the positives and on the innovation potential. If there is innovation potential today, it’s in the plant-based arena. New plant-based offerings can compete by being clean-label, minimally processed, and free of additives. This is what consumers are demanding nowadays.
Are there any adjectives in particular that you think work well when describing different types of food?
Of course, the obvious natural adjectives would be: ‘healthy’ and ‘sustainable’ but I would also go for ‘tasty’, ‘pleasurable’, ‘delicious’, and ‘fresh’.
Some research has shown that using the word ‘vegan’ to describe food can be off-putting in certain countries, for example, in the US. Why do you think this could be and do you believe this to be the case? In your opinion, does this vary from country to country or between languages?
We recently conducted a survey on perceptions of terminology and what we found is that sometimes people don’t really know what ‘plant-based’ means and it’s true that most consumers are much more aware of ‘vegetarianism’ and ‘veganism’. Most probably, from the consumer’s point of view, ‘veganism’ is just a dietary choice. Not everybody understands that veganism is an ideology plus a lifestyle and so on – so the eating aspect is just one part of that identity rather than the core of the identity. This could create a sense of conflict in the minds of both mainstream consumers and practising vegans.
There is also a rise in the flexitarian trend that has to do with consumers wanting to have the freedom to choose. Flexitarians don’t want to miss out on any taste or hedonic experience. Whether it is better to use the word ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’ depends on the context. There are some situations in which the word ‘vegan’ is a no-go and where the emphasis should be on the natural aspects or original recipe and there are other situations in which using the word ‘vegan’ may be beneficial, e.g. in purchasing situations where most of the consumers are known to be vegan. If a company’s target audience is vegans, then using the word ‘vegan’ makes sense. But if a company wants its products to go mainstream, the word ‘vegan’ shouldn’t necessarily be used. Maybe in the future, if there is a better societal understanding of what is meant by the word ‘vegan’ and all it entails, then its use would be justified. But as long as it remains politically charged, using terms like ‘plant-based’ instead is advisable when targeting the mass market.
In your opinion, what menu design is optimal for driving sales of plant-based options?
I think the idea should be to change the whole concept of menu offerings and instead of centring the main courses around meat, centre the main courses around vegetables and allow them to be the main actors. When you have a well-designed meal, with beans for protein, for example, and lots of different colours and textures, you don’t actually need any products of animal origin to be satisfied. Meat dishes are rather standardised from restaurant to restaurant, while it’s the plant-based meals which are innovative. In terms of where on the menu vegan dishes should appear, they shouldn’t be located at the bottom right. Studies should be conducted to understand where people’s attention is drawn first and menus designed accordingly.
Armando Perez-Cueto, PhD, is Associate Professor at the Department of Food Science at Copenhagen University where he lectures in Food Consumer Research. He is interested in making it easier for consumers to choose foods of plant origin (healthy, sustainable, and ethical foods). He has worked on several EU projects which focused on how to promote the intake of foods of plant origin, and, more recently, has been investigating facilitators for the adoption of plant-based foods among consumers. Perez-Cueto will give a talk on the role of nudging in encouraging plant-based food choices on 21 March at the New Food Conference hosted by ProVeg International.