Soup-to-Nuts Podcast

Soup-to-Nuts Podcast: Strategies for growing sales of plant-based products

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When many mainstream consumers think of plant-based alternatives to animal products they think of non-dairy milks – and for good reason: it is one of the fastest growing sub-categories and a key driver in the growth of the overall plant-based segment.

In the past five years, for example, sales of almond milk grew 250% to more than $895.6 million in 2015, according to the Nielsen Company. This is only a small fraction of the larger non-dairy milk category, which market research firm Mintel estimates is worth about $2 billion after sales skyrocketed 30% since 2011. Thanks in part to this success, the global dairy alternative market overall is projected to reach a whopping $19.5 billion by 2020, according to Markets and Markets research.

Much of this growth can be attributed in part to macro trends that are driving consumer interest in plant-based products, in general, such as the perception these products are healthier, better for the planet, more humane for animals and increasingly innovative and accessible, as identified by industry stakeholders in the last episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup to Nuts Podcast, which was the first of a three part series examining plant-based product innovation. 

In the second part of this series, the same stakeholders took a closer look at the non-dairy category to identify unique strategies in this segment that could help fuel growth across other plant-based products that are not as developed. At the same time, additional lessons learned from the nascent vegan seafood and larger meat-alternative category could help plant-based product companies expand their footprint and increase sales.

Location, location, location

One of the most impactful lessons learned from the nut milk category is that bringing plant-based alternatives out of the shadows and stocking them in the most logical places that consumers would look for them can significantly boost sales.

“One of the biggest ways that non-dairy milk was able to compete with dairy milk was when they came out of hiding from the health food aisle and was on the shelf right along with the … regular dairy milk in the refrigerator case,” said Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association.

She acknowledged that answering the question of where is the best place for plant-based alternative to conventional animal products is not always obvious and consumer research should be conducted at the retailer and brand levels.

Other takeaways include:

  • Act like iconic conventional brands – Historically, plant-based alternatives to animal products were focused on formulation and not as much on elements that have helped sell conventional brands for years, such as premium packaging, cost competitiveness and sampling their products in stores. More recently, however, plant-based companies that are growing 100% year-over-year are embracing these strategies and as a result consumers see them as another option versus an off-beat alternative to conventional products, said Bruce Friedrich, executive director of The Good Food Institute and co-trustee of New Crop Capital, a $25 million VC fund that invests in plant-based and cultured products.
  • Embrace “small” opportunities as well as large ones – Segments that are comparatively small, such as vegan seafood compared to land-animal meat alternatives, still hold significant sales potential for innovative companies, says Eugene Wang, founder of Sophie’s Kitchen – a vegan seafood alternative manufacturer. He explained that while seafood consumption in the US is much lower than that of land animals, with the average American consuming 14.4 pounds of seafood a year compared to 143 pounds of poultry, meat and beef, Americans still spend a lot of money on seafood. He added that because there are not many players in this space, “there’ a great business out there for any plant-based food company” that can seize the opportunity.
  • Look beyond obvious ingredient – Many plant-based products use the same key ingredients – such as soy or gluten – but by branching out and using innovative ingredients, companies can create new textures and flavors, Wang said. For example, Sophie’s Kitchen uses the konjac root, which is relatively unknown in the US, to simulate the flakiness of fish in a way that soy cannot, he said.
  • Tap into other macro trends to become more than an alternative – Plant-based product that offer more than just an animal-product alternative are more likely to capture the attention of consumers’ who increasingly look for products to fill multiple desires and demands, said Greg Steltenpohl, co-founder and CEO of Califia Farms. He explained Califia Farms has grown 100% year-over-year for the past three years in part because it offer products that also tap into consumers’ desire for healthier products that have fewer calories, more functional benefits, global flavors and clean labels.
  • Branch out beyond traditional ingredients – If plant-based product manufacturers want consumers to bravely try new ingredients, they should, too, suggests Wang.
  • Look beyond the US – Many businesses and venture capitalists are focused on the US market, but Wang notes the number of vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians are much higher in many other countries – offering significant opportunities.

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