Is the plant-based industry in free fall? Here’s what the behavioural data says

By Mirna Djuric, Innovation Director at EyeSee

As we see more and more reports on Gen Z and Millennials striving to align with sustainable consumption in regions like China, India, and other emerging countries, it seems that trends like flexitarianism, reducetarianism, or even just meat-free Mondays are taking the world by storm. But some are claiming that the plant-based industry is in free fall – so what gives?

To uncover just how (and if) consumers are buying plant-based products, we ran a passive tracking study following the online behaviour of 75 meat-eaters over three months, and with their permission we recorded their browsing histories and selected food-related online behaviours.

What is passive tracking?

Passive tracking is the first step in the holistic understanding of consumers’ path to purchase. This exploratory phase provides us with valuable insights into consumers’ natural (not claimed) behaviour when searching a category and brands online. With consumers’ consent, we are able to analyse respondents’ browsing history over 30, 60, or even 90 days. Passive tracking provides answers to some of the most common client questions related to category online behaviour:

  • Which touchpoints are most frequently visited when searching for a category online – retail websites, expert websites, or brand/corporate websites?
  • What is the typical number of visits?
  • Which websites do visitors come from?
  • Where do they land on the retailer’s website?
  • What are the most relevant search terms and queries in the category?

Almost half of shoppers want plant-based products

Plant-based products are a far cry from being a specialty food intended for vegans – quite the contrary, they are an everyday food choice many regular consumers make. To confirm this finding, we asked 1,000 respondents directly through a questionnaire whether they have tried these products and if they would be willing to. We found that ~35% of consumers have already purchased and consumed plant-based products, while another 40% are willing to do so. There is still great potential out there to grow the category further. Given our findings, there are good reasons to no longer keep plant-based products in specialty aisles. Moving them to regular aisles next to their animal-based counterparts would benefit consumers and brands alike.

Speaking from a climate change perspective, animal products are among the top three culprits contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. After all, we don’t need a handful of people to completely make the change to plant-based products, but we do need billions to do it partially. These findings suggest we may be on the right course.

A reason to curb optimism: plant-based-related online behaviour, although widespread, was still under around 1.5% of all meat- and food-related visits among these consumers. This is quite a small percentage that will hopefully grow in the future, but for now we can consider this a trial behaviour among meat-eaters.

Product detail pages are the place to be, both for brands and consumers 

Retailers’ websites are the most visited addresses related to plant-based products. 65% of the sample we followed visited an online retailer in search of vegan/plant-based products, with little research done before or after the visit. Retailers’ websites are probably very good at both informing the consumer and selling the product. If brands are looking for places to start reaching out to shoppers, their own PDPs on popular retailers’ websites are already a good choice.

Around a third of the sample visited food-related blogs searching for information on plant-based alternatives, and even fewer went through search engines like Google or Bing. Given the nature of the visited blogs (most of them were recipe blogs), it seems most likely that consumers encounter a product on a retailer’s website and then search for recipes and inspiration on blogs.

Restaurants are still growing in representation, with only 10% of the plant-based visits, but it is comforting to know they are being explored for plant-based options too. We may expect this to grow as the category gains importance.

Dairy is a fan favourite, but full meals are making their way up 

Meals like soups, chillis, curries, and burritos are more frequently searched for than meat substitutes, which may be an effect of familiarity. These are still mostly the same meals we’re used to, with one or two ingredients switched out. A plant-based burger patty, sausage, or chicken nugget may be expected to have too different a flavour from the meat version, so it may be saved for later trials.

Dairy is still the most frequently searched for alternative and a good entry point to the category. This may well be a spillover from brick-and-mortar stores, where plant-based dairy products were the first to earn a spot in the regular aisles. From what we see, these products have carved out a space for themselves next to animal dairy products in consumers’ minds too.

Mainstream brands still have more to learn

Plant-based specialty brands are still the most popular, but there is space for mainstream brands to innovate in plant-based options.

When looking at which PDPs shoppers visited for plant-based products, the top of the table was reserved for native plant-based brands. This is not unexpected, keeping in mind that, although many brands invest in plant-based products, not many of them are mainstream US brands.

For brands considering entering the category with new products, think about known (familiar) products in which only one ingredient is animal-based. Personal health is still more important than environmental impact (based on the topics researched in this sample), so when it comes to communication, this should be emphasized first.

Of course, if you’re unsure how the targeted audience will react, testing is the way to go, regardless of the product’s development stage. Testing can help you to prioritize ideas, select concepts for further development, and, of course, provide responses when the product is fully developed, including packaging.

This article was first published in the Q1 2023 edition of Asia Research Media

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