One of the emergent trends accelerated by COVID-19 has been a consumer desire for healthier food and plant-based alternatives to animal products. This has manifested in many ways, including a spike in demand for alternative meat products, like the famous Beyond Burger, as well as other household-use food products like egg replacer, almond milk, and vegan cheeses. In fact, a September 2020 report by Meticulous Research estimates that the meat substitute market will be worth $17.5 billion by 2027.¹ But the fervor for alternatives to animal products brings to the fore an ongoing shortcoming in food production marketing: consumer education and transparency.
Year after year, clean food movements demand simpler labels and ingredient lists so consumers may clearly understand what they are purchasing and eating. These movements spurred popular slogans like “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it,” referring to the presence of multisyllabic compounds on ingredient lists.² But many of these confusing ingredients, as explained by MJ Kinney of FareScience, are necessary to create these plant-based alternatives at scale.
A Difficult Balance
“There is data to suggest that customers are looking for simpler labels—in description and listed length,” Kinney says. “They want to understand the purpose of every ingredient in that matrix.”³ This is an impulse which should be lauded: rather than blindly accepting whatever chemicals or waxes or plastics that might be present in a food product, consumers are increasingly compelled to interrogate and criticize these labels. They are advocating for their own and their family’s health but without sufficient education to reassure consumers of the health and safety of food products, this distrust will only grow—to the detriment of both consumers and producers.
This reality is especially crucial for food producers working in plant-based alternatives to animal products, like companies creating egg replacers or meat-free meatballs. “Where a hamburger would typically be made of one or two ingredients, the replacement product might contain ten,” says Kinney. “For complete protein claims, replacement products might contain pea protein, rice protein, and mung bean protein as the backbone for just the texturized component of a plant-based meat product.”³
Where consumers are comfortable purchasing an egg, which is one ingredient (being, of course, an egg), purchasing a replacement is complicated twice over. First, egg replacers generally cannot replace all the functions of an egg. A chia “egg” (stir together a small amount of chia seeds and water, then let it rest for several minutes) is a perfect substitute in baking. But fried up, or scrambled? An entirely different story. “Adding a combination of baking soda, baking powder, baking yeast, and certain types of gums could move the needle in that space of true egg replacement, but isn’t always an ideal path forward while trying to stay true to other consumer demands like simpler labels and nutritional equivalence,” says Kinney.³
The Food Producer’s Duty to Transparency
So, with the current consumer trend toward plant-based health food, food producers find themselves trying to strike a careful balance. Make the product good and versatile, but don’t scare consumers off with long lists of ingredients (though, for the record, the argument “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it,” has long been debunked by the scientific community).² Producers can opt to toe the line or they can roll out robust transparency and education campaigns to get consumers comfortable with the reality of the products being offered.
Transparency is one of our favourite brand marketing strategies for good reason. There’s little more you need to know than this: 94% of respondents to a Label Insight study were more likely to be loyal to a “transparent” brand (be sure to read our crash course on transparency marketing here⁵).⁴ This is a powerful figure that amply illustrates our point. Consumers want transparency from the brands they patronize. This transparency is a tool for building trust—comforting to present customers and reaching out to new ones.
Understanding the need—and benefits—of transparency marketing requires acknowledging the power of a central human emotion: fear. Consumers distrust long ingredient lists and ingredients they cannot pronounce because, ultimately, they are concerned that the things they don’t understand might hurt them. This caution is reasonable but easily remedied by transparency first and education second.
Going a Step Further
Consumer education is often not a welcome challenge for private food producers, but establishing a robust education and transparency campaign could result in serious profit growth. Countering this fear-induced distrust by proactively inviting consumers to engage with the specifics of a product will likely inspire consumers to not only feel more empowered in making their own educated decisions about the kind of food they choose to purchase and eat, but to also feel safer in those decisions. This is a surefire way to inspire loyalty from your customers—as is illustrated, again, by that 94% we mentioned above.
When we’re developing marketing strategies with this goal in mind, we seek to create opportunities for consumers to easily engage with and find more information about food production. This could take a variety of forms, from purpose-built web platforms to the occasional Instagram post when announcing a new product. But, in an industry so shrouded by mystery and so lacking clarity, a little transparency goes a very long way.
1 Meticulous Research. “Meat Substitute Market - Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast (2020-2027).” Accessed September 17, 2020. https://www.meticulousresearch.com/product/meat-substitute-market-4969/.
2 Senapathy, Kavin. “‘If You Can’t Pronounce It, Don’t Eat It’ And Other Food Mantras That Don’t Hold Water.” Forbes. Accessed September 17, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kavinsenapathy/2017/06/26/if-you-cant-pronounce-it-dont-eat-it-and-other-food-mantras-that-dont-hold-water/.
3 Pagliaroli, Alessia. “Supply Chain Logistics Tamp Plant-Based Market Growth.” Goldbeck Recruiting, September 3, 2020. https://www.goldbeck.com/expertise/production-operations/supply-chain-logistics-tamp-plant-based-market-growth/.
4 Inc, Label Insight. “Transparency Leads to Increased Brand Loyalty and Perceived Brand Worth.” Accessed June 25, 2020. https://blog.labelinsight.com/transparency-leads-to-increased-brand-loyalty-and-perceived-brand-worth.
5 McTavish, Amy. “The Value of Transparency Marketing.” rose-agency-inc, June 30, 2020. https://www.roseagency.ca/post/the-value-of-transparency-marketing.