Consumer Perceptions By Michael Uetz
Michael Uetz is a managing principal in the Chicago office of Midan Marketing where he oversees the work of the market research team.

Flexitarians: Don’t write them off

(The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author.)

I must admit I was amused by the banter that followed Gregory Bloom’s blog a few weeks ago entitled, “The fake meat fad will fade.” The extended list of comments showed that even within the meat industry, there are varied and very strong opinions on the potential long-term threat of alternatives to meat protein.

No matter what you think about the lifespan of plant-based and cell-based products that are being developed, many consumers ARE curious enough to give them a shot. In fact, Midan’s research shows that 44% say they are willing to take one or more meals a week that would have included a meat product and substitute it for one of the new meat alternatives proteins. For me, that’s a problem NOW.

We all know that there is tremendous capital behind these programs; even many of our own see opportunity in investing in their development (note the recent Beyond Meat public offering; it had the largest first-day gain for a U.S. initial public offering since at least 2008). Additionally, the makers of these new products have very loud voices that a large percentage of our consuming population is listening to.

That’s because they’ve perfected the notion of understanding the consumer: What type of messaging is going to resonate with them, how to build their interest in meat alternatives and what buzzwords to use to position their products as “better than” traditional meat offerings.

A portion of the segmentation research Midan recently conducted included a deep dive into key groups within the population who will be our consumers of the future. These include Gen Zs, Millennials and Flexitarians. While Flexitarians are not a generation (in fact they show up in significant numbers in all generations and in all five of our meat consumer segments), they are a group of consumers we need to pay attention to.

It is these consumers who are already replacing one, or more likely many, of their meat meals with the protein alternatives on the market, and they have proclaimed they plan to increase their alternative protein use in the future and decrease their meat consumption. Whether or not they will be committed to alternative proteins for the long haul or it’s just a temporary fad for them, the key is that they can be persuaded to step away from our products.

So who’s stepping out on meat?  Our research shows that in fact most of the Flexitarians we surveyed are either Gen Xs or Millennials (33% and 30% respectively). I was quite surprised that we didn’t see more Flexitarians show up in the younger Millennials and Gen Z (16%) generations. Almost half of these Flexitarians have children at home (41%) -- again, another surprise, and this poses a double threat:

1) Will the parents increase their interest in alternative proteins as the number and variety of these products increase and their creators perfect their eating characteristics and cost?

2) And, will their children, our consumers of tomorrow, grow up with a preference for meat alternatives simply because they have been exposed to them?

But there is some good news. Even though Flexitarians are looking for new and different, they are still meat eaters. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing them as a lost opportunity. If they can be persuaded to stray from our traditional meat products, in theory they can also be talked into staying.  We need to understand what they are looking for when they select a center of the plate protein and use our marketing programs to communicate the benefits of our meat offerings.

We also need to be more innovative with product development.  In a way, Flexitarians really aren’t that different than consumers that want grass-fed or no antibiotics ever or organic, and we see how the industry has evolved to develop products that address each of these needs. 

I predict Flexitarians will play a significant role in defining meat and protein consumption in the future and it will serve us well to figure out what drives them. Instead of writing off Flexitarians, the opposite is true:  We need to work harder to keep them in the fold.


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