How plant-based brands can expand appeal with flexitarians

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Posted May 15, 2024
Matthew Mahan

The plant-based alternatives industry is at a crossroads, with plant-based diets in steady decline since their peak in 2019, prompting some brands to consider “putting meat back on the menu.” We partnered with our friends at Vita Coco conducted a 12-minute survey among household grocery shoppers to understand market sentiments around plant-based food and uncover ways to maximize the appeal of plant-based products.

Consumer food attitudes, diet, and motivations 

Consumers who prioritize plant-based foods believe that nutrition plays a key role in their overall health (89%)—with many tracking their nutrient intake (65%) and paying attention to what they eat (51%). Additionally, shoppers enjoy trying new foods (83%) and connecting with others through food (70%). 

Interestingly, Gen Z is less likely to believe in the connection between food and overall health than their older counterparts.

However, these consumers do not necessarily follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet—with most either describing themselves as flexitarians (28%) or saying they don’t follow a particular diet (29%). Few follow a vegetarian (11%), keto (9%), or vegan (9%) diet.

Motivations for prioritizing plant-based foods

At the heart of a consumer’s decision to eat plant-based is a desire to improve their health, improve the health of the planet, and end suffering on factory farms

“Plant-based foods are healthier and can be just as flavorful with a variety of seasonings and preparations.”
“Plants have a lot of nutrients that animal products don’t, and it’s more ethical to eat plant-based foods because animals are suffering on factory farms.”

While these three factors play a significant role in prioritizing plant-based foods, consumers are most motivated by improving their health and the health of their family (54%), including minimizing health concerns associated with eating other foods (47%) and addressing existing health issues (46%).  These health factors are especially motivating to boomers and flexitarians. Purpose-driven factors such as concerns about environmental impact and animal welfare are especially important to women, boomers, vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians.

“It helps my health and I enjoy taking care of the environment.”
Why consumers prioritize plant-based foods in their diets

Plant-based brand awareness and purchase

When asked which brands come to mind when they think of plant-based foods or beverages, most consumers mention meat alternatives, like Beyond Meat, Impossible, MorningStar, and Gardein. That being said, only 28% of consumers could think of a plant-based brand off the top of their heads.

Plant-based brands that generate the strongest aided awareness include Almond Breeze (64%),  Silk (51%), and Beyond (50%). MorningStar Farms (43%) and Impossible (42%) follow closely beyond.

Almond Breeze (36%), Silk (26%), and Beyond Meat (21%), also capture the most purchases, followed closely by Amy’s (20%), MorningStar (19%), and Impossible (18%). Surprisingly, Almond Breeze was not top of mind unaided despite being the most purchased brand.

Aided awareness of plant-based brands

Plant-based opportunity: Barriers, demand, innovation

Barriers

In a “perfect world,” nearly half (48%) would eat more plant-based foods than they do now—particularly those who follow no diet (57%) or are flexitarian (55%), keto (45%), or pescatarian (43%). This inclination suggests a significant opportunity for the market to expand its consumer base.

48% of consumers don't eat as much plant-based foods as they'd like

Among those who are not fully plant-based, the majority (52%) simply enjoy the taste of animal-based foods, while others (42%) seek more variety in their diet. However, a considerable proportion are dissuaded from transitioning to a fully plant-based diet due to cost concerns (34%) and the perceived challenge of getting enough protein (33%). Additionally, some shoppers express a dislike for the taste of plant-based foods (22%) or find it inconvenient to find options they enjoy (21%).

Gen Z is more likely to encounter barriers when it comes to being plant-based, including the hassle of finding plant-based options they like (30%), not wanting to inconvenience meal companions (28%), the difficulty of preparing plant-based meals (27%), and not knowing where to start (17%).

To address these obstacles, consumers need access to a range of affordable, minimally processed plant-based options that are also convenient to prepare. Key product factors showing potential to boost plant-based food consumption include affordability (35%), increased variety (34%), ease of preparation (29%), and minimal processing (28%). Moreover, there is an opportunity for retailers to contribute by improving the ease of finding plant-based foods in stores (28%).

Category demand

The interest in integrating more plant-based options into daily diets spans various product categories. 

Leading in consumer interest are frozen and ready-to-eat meals (51%) and fast-food menu items (50%). When asked which brands they wish to offer plant-based options, most mention frozen meal/ready-to-eat brands like  Tyson (34%) and Kraft (20%)  and/or fast food retailers such as McDonald’s (22%), Wendy’s (8%), and Taco Bell (7%).

Dairy alternatives (45%) and meat alternatives (44%) closely follow, reflecting a shift towards plant-based protein sources. Beverages (41%), bakery items (40%), and shelf-stable snacks—both savory (38%) and sweet (37%)—also garner interest. Even specialized categories like sports nutrition (27%) and baby foods (18%) show a growing inclination towards plant-based alternatives. 

This broad spectrum underscores the widespread appeal and growth potential of the plant-based consumer goods market, providing an opportunity for brands to specialize and capitalize on their unique competencies.

Consumer interest in plant-based options by category

Innovation

When it comes to compelling product innovations in the plant-based realm, coconut-based alternatives (36%) and products tailored for specific health benefits (36%) stand out as the most appealing options. Options formulated for particular health benefits align with consumers’ motivation to improve their health.

Beyond these, plant-based seafood emerges as a noteworthy innovation, appealing to 26% of respondents and offering an ethical alternative to traditional seafood. Further down the spectrum, emerging innovations like mycoproteins (17%), chickpea “milk” (16%), potato “milk” (16%), and fermented fava bean “meat” protein (15%) pique curiosity and interest. These innovations provide an opportunity to promote improved personal health and environmental sustainability, addressing key concerns that consumers prioritize.

“It is healthier for personal reasons and environmental reasons. There are fewer trans fats in plant-based foods. There are also animal health reasons that have a significant impact on climate change that plant-based foods reduce or eliminate.”

Key takeaways and implications

Key takeaways

  • Target beyond vegans and vegetarians: Interest in plant-based foods has entered the mainstream and is on the rise among meat and dairy consumers.
  • Health concerns drive plant-based adoption: Most consumers reach for plant-based alternatives as a way to improve their health, while ethical and environmental concerns for meat and dairy production also play a role for some.
  • Consumers want convenient plant-based options: By category, consumers show the most interest in frozen/ready-to-eat meals and fast food menu options. 
  • Opportunity exists to increase consumption: Even among vegans and vegetarians, consumers are looking for opportunities to incorporate more plant-based options into their diet.
  • There’s room for top-of-funnel growth: While the plant-based market is home to several established brands, few consumers can name a plant-based brand off the top of their head.

Recommendations for brands

  • Increase trial by addressing barriers: Focus on taste equivalence (particularly for meat and dairy substitutes), variety, and specific nutrition benefits (protein, specifically). 
    • Address the cost barrier: A refined cost structure could open the door to increased consumption.
      of plant-based foods—innovate via pack sizes and formulations that can help consumers realize value for price.  
    • Address the access barrier: Retail presents an additional opportunity for improved access if barriers here—namely findability and distribution—can be addressed.
  • Support your brand’s innovation pipeline: Explore coconut-based products and formulations with specific health benefits. Mindfully innovate to be as “natural” as possible, as consumers want options that aren’t highly processed. 
  • Target based on broader attitudes and motivations: Our segmentation suggests that this is a more useful way than diet to understand, effectively innovate for, and communicate to this market.

Don’t make it an “all or nothing” issue: Consumers are motivated to eat plant-based foods for health reasons and are looking to incorporate more plant-based, not necessarily completely replace animal-based products.

Learn more by digging into the full research report

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