Eat Your Greens – the commercial opportunities for plant-based food for restaurants, retailers and brands
Wednesday 17th January
As the highest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) per gram of protein, the environmental impact of meat-production is well-documented and widely known. While the benefits of adopting a plant-based diet are evident for both our health and the planet’s, with consumption of animal-based food projected to increase by 70% by 2050, it would be wildly unrealistic to force populations to go vegetarian.
However, there are great opportunities for restaurants, retailers and brands trying to encourage their customers to eat more plant-based food. This lies in influencing consumer behaviours. We are not talking about nefarious Orwellian schemes involving blatant mind control, but simply through a better understanding of consumer psychology and behaviour.
Daniel Vennard, Programme Director at the World Resources Institute runs the Better Buying Lab programme. Through in-depth market research, the Better Buying Lab has identified the key elements that influence what and how people buy; including habit, what consumers remember, what consumers notice, communication, perception of taste, indulgence & satience, and social norms. It aims to advise retailers and brands on the practical application of these insights. We spoke to Daniel who shared some of the programme’s results and how restaurants and retailers can use the findings to encourage their customers to eat more plant-based food.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman discusses a two-system model for decision-making. System one describes decision-making that is quick, intuitive, innate and reflex-like. System two describes decision-making that is slower, analytical, effortful and full of reasoning.
By applying this understanding of consumer behaviour to retail, we can start to see why shoppers decide the way they do. For instance, when shopping for a newborn child or a new recipe – shoppers will start off analytically and be very considerate in making choices. They take their time to think through a range of attributes and alternatives. This is system two decision-making. But realistically this can’t be done for every purchase otherwise shoppers would spend all of their free time in stores or on shopping websites! Eventually, through habit this becomes second nature and decision-making evolves into system one.
Food shopping predominantly happens in system one. On average, a shopper takes thirteen seconds to decide what to buy. In restaurants a diner takes an average 109 seconds to decide what to eat. In those environments, decision-making is driven by habit.
What we remember and notice
What people buy is best indicated by what they have previously bought as well as salience and recalling a certain product or brand. This is rooted in System one’s survival function, which was developed by our ancestors during their days as hunter-gatherers, when memory and familiarity were important factors in avoiding being poisoned by food. This explains why FMCG retailers don’t just inform or educate consumers about their products in their marketing campaigns. They invest millions into creating memorable ads that build top-of-mind brand recall and stick in their target audiences’ heads – remember, our natural instincts tell us familiarity ensures survival. This drives the other key influencer that drives purchase – buying what we notice. A large proportion of what shoppers buy is influenced by what we notice in-store and online and plant-based foods tend to perform poorly in this area.
One of the key focuses of the Better Buying Lab is to fully understand and identify how food is communicated to consumers, especially the language used to describe food across different touchpoints and platforms.
Stop to think for a second, and it becomes obvious that plant-based foods are predominantly framed as “vegetarian”, “healthy” and “meat-free”. Research informs us that such framing significantly suppresses sales of this category of food, highlighting how crucial framing and language is in influencing the consumption of products.
Perception of taste, indulgence and satience
Several experiments conducted have shown how a consumer’s perception of taste, indulgence and satience can be influenced by how food is presented and marketed to them.
One experiment (Raghunathan, et.al, 2006) involved participants being given a glass of lassi that was either labelled healthy or unhealthy – but in reality they were the same beverages. Test subjects were asked to consume the lassi and report how satisfied they felt. The ‘unhealthy’ consumers reported 55% less satisfaction in taste compared to the ‘healthy’ ones – concluding that the language used to describe the products had a profound effect on how participants would perceive the product’s taste.
Similarly, in an experiment seeking to understand the effect of health portrayals on people’s judgments of the fillingness of food (Suher, Jacob, Raj Raghunathan, and Wayne D. Hoyer, 2016), evidence was found that people hold an implicit belief that healthy foods are less filling than unhealthy foods. Test subjects who were fed cookies labeled ‘healthy’, versus being fed the exact same cookie that was labelled ‘unhealthy’, reported feeling 39% less full, and even started to over-consume those cookies! Tests have even shown that this perception can in fact have physical effects on your body due to the psychological effect of food consumption on the “hunger stimulating hormone”, ghrelin, which keeps you feeling hungrier if a food is perceived to be healthy (Crum, 2011).
Language and social norms
According to research, the term “vegetarian” elicits negative connotations. Most think of vegetarian foods as less tasty. Some research suggests women who see men eating red meat think they are more masculine than vegetarians. In research vegetarians are also perceived to be smarter, wiser, healthier but extremely boring! The current language of communicating vegetarian and plant-based products are doing a great disservice to the vegetarian lifestyle.
However there is evidence from a recent experiment conducted by Stanford University which gives us hope! Researchers selected a series of vegetable side dishes sold in their canteen and changed the descriptive names of these dishes. They framed these dishes in languages that were either “Indulgent” or “healthy”. Describing the vegetables using indulgent language saw consumption increase by 25% while use of the healthier languages saw sales suppressed.
These studies reveal fantastic and easy to implement learnings for restaurants, retailers and brands in relation to marketing, menu creation and customer language that could help to shift diets and behaviours at scale. Food industry players must work towards creating innovative plant-based products that appeal to consumers. But there also needs to be a profound and in-depth understanding of consumer behaviour to advise the right approach, solution and strategy needed to effectively influence healthier and more sustainable buying choices. The Better Buying Lab will be releasing principles this year for the type of language that can be used on plant-based foods that actually helps drive preference, consumption and sales so keep a lookout!
Daniel Vennard, is a Program Director at the World Resources Institute – the world's number one environmental think tank. He runs the Better Buying Lab program. Daniel shared these insights during his keynote talk on the ‘The Hyper (R)Evolution of Eating’ Day of London Food Tech Week 2017.
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