How much do we know about how attractive Clean Meat will be? It’s complicated.
If the first thing that comes to your mind when thinking about Market Research is “Consumer Acceptance”, you could say it’s a glass-half-full situation. Consumers get surveyed a lot with the popular “would you try Clean Meat” question, because an online sample of 1.000 consumers is dirt cheap nowadays and you can use those numbers perfectly in PR. There is also a body of qualitative research, because asking closed questions is of limited use when the topic is as intangible and full of questions like with Clean Meat.
It would be quite easy to dismiss this body of Consumer Research as too heterogeneous in terms of countries, samples, KPIs, or test material used. But there is still something to be learned here. The question is rather if Innovation Market Research should only examine the consumer – more on that later (and spoiler: the answer is no).
Who and why…?
There are a number of great academic articles about consumers’ attitudes regarding Clean Meat. We have a good collection of the main concerns regarding Clean Meat and first ideas about more or less compelling ways to talk about & sell “lab-grown meat” (first of all by not calling it lab-grown meat but rather Cultured or Clean Meat.) There is a remarkable focus on barriers instead of motivations: we kind of understand that benefits of Clean Meat might be sustainability, health or animal rights, but most of the research examines concerns in more detail.
Food culture varies from country to country, so the current basket of studies done in the Netherlands, the US etc. will not give you the Whole Global Picture. This doesn’t even take into account religions and religious borders. In other words, we know about drivers and barriers, but not really precisely who has them and where. As a marketer, you are longing for more specific segmentation information or have a feel about the First Customer „Persona“. Most segmentation information we have now is demographic, and the psychological-attitudinal dimensions that studies used are currently academic and unusual* in the marketing context. We are still far away from being able to target a certain consumer group, let alone understand what Nestlé Food Types think or what Sinus Milieus or GfK Roper segments make of Clean Meat. (*if you find a DMP that can target people who score low on „food neophobia“ or „belief in conspiracy theories“ – because those are more open towards Clean Meat – let me know!)
Trial interest seems higher with higher educated, more well-off, younger, more urban and left-leaning and less religious consumers. For the US a clearly „coastal“ profile – but GfK data from Germany 2017 („New patterns in nutrition“, published at the Anuga 2017) supports this pattern for Germany, where young DINKS and young affluent families were most open towards „in-vitro-meat“ or insect proteins. However, Cor van der Weele from Wageningen University pointed out that it is actually older consumers which display a high degree of ambivalence regarding their meat consumption, so it makes no sense to rule them out as Clean Meat advocates.
If you’re pressed for time, this must-read paper from Christopher Bryant and Julie Barnett sums up most relevant research before 2018 nicely.
How many… how big…?
Most people think the pinnacle of market research is coming up with market size projections. It is obviously too early to come up with exact numbers (there are slides out there saying Clean Meat might have 40% market share in 2040 but even the authors admit this may or may not come true.) Which makes sense because Clean Meat is a radical innovation; you can apply classic market research methodologies and sizing exercises but „garbage in, garbage out“ will apply. It is not the 1000th carbonated softdrink that consumers understand intuitively.
And as we all know, the competitive context is paramount; so how far will plant-based alternatives have evolved when Clean Meat hits the market? We don’t know though obviously plant-based has a huge headstart.
So typically you deal with Ersatz numbers like these: a 2018 Ipsos survey in the US and Canada found that 57% said “interested” when answering “Imagine clean meat has become widely available at grocery stores, restaurants, butchers, and markets.How interested are you in trying clean meat?” („What the future“, Fall 2018.) What does this number tell us? The question measures helicopter or category-level attitudes of acceptance or rejection. It is the sort of guesstimation consultancies use in white papers: everyone who is not against something will be optimistically counted as potential future customer. The thing is: food consumption is very much driven by context and occasion. A survey might find that 85% are favorable towards muesli – but good luck marketing it as dinner choice! General category-level data will only get you so far.
One thing that was demonstrated enough in my point of view: trial interest. A sizeable proportion of consumers everywhere thinks it worthwhile to sink their teeth into such a product. How much of that will translate into repeat purchase remains to be seen, and we don’t know who consumers would ask for their opinion before their first bite. Sure there is still a “yuck factor” for Clean Meat, but not an unsurmountable problem, even if a sizeable proportion throughout all studies said that unnaturalness would keep them from eating Clean Meat.
I’m a consumer research guy but even I have to admit that it is debatable if we should be so obsessed about end consumer data & surveys at this point.
True, the mantra of all innovation is to start with consumer or consumer Insights, but it is also true that food eating habits have a lot to do with the context in which choices are made: with pricing, but also availability and convenience. So if important players in the supply chain, like distributors, retailers or restaurants, are hesitant to add Clean Meat to their offers, it will be a severe bottleneck. Because some consumers might really, really prefer Clean Meat, but still not go to great lengths to find a restaurant or a store that has it.
Also, Clean Meat is a true basic research innovation endeavour. Which means: market demand is just one area of risk. You also need a lot of talent to advance the field. You could say the fact that startups exists is a grassroots vote for the attractiveness of working in this field, but will it scale? If you are a top scientist in cell biology or bioengineering, would you rather transform transplant medicine or create the first ton of Clean Minced Meat? (Needless to say, there are no Employer Branding-style studies exploring this topic.)
So Helge: imagine a Clean Meat market research fairy were to visit you and grant three wishes, what would you do?
Go beyond consumers
Yes, consumers will have to eat Clean Meat in the end, it needs to win its “share of stomach”. But I think equally important would be to know what gastronomy thinks about Clean Meat. And I don’t mean bleeding edge chefs from Silicon Valley to Tel Aviv, but more average that run the whole gamut from fine-dining to fast casual etc. Menu adoption drives consumer acceptance, especially so in a world of still growing away-from-home food consumption. Also, retailers or large (global) food companies’ plans for Clean Meat will be extremely important for market share in the future. CleanMeat will survive if Nestle or Unilever are slow to create CleanMeat products, but it would then need some midsized supporters to fill the gap. There is not a lot of (public) knowlegde of those plans out there – naturally, most of this planning happens behind closed doors.
Go-to-market & positioning
Finding a good name for Clean, Cultured, Cultivated Meat is not all. #altprotein is driven by sustainability and health. All the more reason to understand motivations of different consumer segments here. Is there only the plant-based (gentle, natural, grounded) way to satisfy those needs? Or is there a techno-optimistic segment, and where? This will be especially relevant vs plant-based products – Clean Meat will have to address those needs differently.
There are also more concrete and down-to-earth questions: should startups aim for low end, like chicken meatmix (as PHW/Wiesenhof says) or should they rather start in higher-end niches like foie gras, or by going for the elusive steak or chicken breast? Does Clean Meat really have to be as cheap as conventional meat to win, or wouldn’t it even profit from being a Veblen good for some time, making it more desirable? Will Clean Meat products work better as novel products and brands or as line extensions of existing brands & products (Clean Beef Jerky by Jack Link’s maybe?)
Trust & sources of information
Consumers will do a lot of research and start heated discussions when faced with a radical innovation like Clean Meat. To be honest, the #altprotein landscape is already super complex, and many a friendship has been tested about whether the Impossible Burger (OMG it’s GMO) is „good for you“ or not. Clean Meat will not make the debate easier. Whom will consumers trust and whom will the Clean Meat community have to get onboard as a multiplier? Will it be the food enthusiasts on Youtube or Instagram which tell us about quinoa or kale? Or is Clean Meat a more serious issue that will let consumers turn to more traditional voices – medicinal, scientific or governmental?