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Consumer Behavior

The Sustainable Food Solution That Satisfies No One

Personal Perspective: The Problem of Marketing "Blended" Meats

Key points

  • Blended meat products win in taste tests and have lower environmental footprints.
  • Consumers see these products as inferior to full meat alternatives and sales remain low.
  • Behavioral science suggests a range of thinking biases are at play to explain what is going on.
  • Future marketing efforts must address these biases directly.

‘Would taste awful!’

The reaction on social media to a recent post explaining the environmental benefits of blended burgers. These are burger patties in which 30 to 50% of the beef has been replaced with plant-based ingredients like soy or mushrooms.

I agree – can’t think of anything worse to eat’…‘No thanks’.. Other commentators add, quickly drifting into a stream of abuse… ‘you’re lost’... ‘ridiculous’… ‘shut the f*ck up’...

This is a strong response to the relatively uncontroversial idea of changing a recipe to improve it. Also, a somewhat bizarre one given that the food industry reformulates recipes all the time, from fat free yoghurts and sugar-free sodas to salt-reduced soups and ready meals.

All widely accepted changes that many see as facilitating their freedom of choice.

Why, then, does reformulation of meat attract such a distinctively negative response? And one that is apparently unwarranted given that blended meat-plant products, like burgers and tacos, have repeatedly been shown to taste just as good as their 100% meat counterparts with far lower greenhouse gas emission footprints.

Blends are also not new idea. Beef-mushroom burgers have been available to consumers for over half a decade now, while Spam – the world’s most iconic blended meat product (a mix of two types of pig and potato) – has been a market staple since 1937.

Weird Fungus and Toxic Soy

A further read of social media comments reveals more about the psychology behind why blended meats have failed to excite consumer imagination despite a growing addressable market of ‘flexitarian’ consumers.

It seem that many people remain skeptical about combining meat with ‘weird’ ingredients, particularly meat-soy or meat-mycoprotein mixes. For soy, fears centre on hormonal health (given that soy isoflavones have weakly estrogenic effects if consumed in large quantities), and perceived degree of processing, while mycoprotein – a type of fermented fungus - has retained a (perhaps unfair) identity as an unpopular ‘franken-food’, despite clearly proven nutritional benefits.

Those who criticize blended meats on health grounds also tend to ignore examples of mixes with less controversial plants, like lentils and mushrooms. These provide consumers with a convenient ‘trojan horse’ to add more vegetables, fibre, and nutrients to their diets.

Others overlook the fact that around 80% of the world’s soybean crop is used to feed livestock. That’s the exact same livestock that makes our 100% meat burgers, steaks, and sausages.

Adding Plants or Removing Meat?

The fact that blended meats are seen as adulterated downgrades demonstrates a further psychological hurdle that these products must overcome to reach scale in the market – the contrast effect. This describes how direct comparisons between two similar items tends to draw attention to their (often minor) differences.

As more recent entrants to the market, blended meats are being judged against familiar meat options. Given that familiarity tends to create liking, this means that blends are starting from a disadvantage. They must provide consumers with a ‘better’ eating experience from the get-go. Parity in taste will not be enough to shift peoples’ choices.

A major consideration here is whether marketers can succeed in framing blended meats as adding value (‘more plants’) rather than taking something valuable away (‘less meat’).

Convincing consumers of the ‘value-add’ may be uniquely, however, given that meat is generally considered a higher value food compared to vegetables. As a result, blending vegetables with meat risks some consumers feeling short-changed, seeing this as a sneaky way for manufacturers to sell them ‘watered down’ products at the same price.

Neither virtue nor vice

By offering a ‘middle way’, blended meats also face another hurdle to widespread adoption - that is, inadvertently alienating the most pro-environmental consumers.

For those who are climate-concerned, and for ethical vegans and vegetarians, blended meats may be interpreted as a cynical attempt by the food industry to divert attention from more meaningful changes, such as taking meat off the menu entirely.

‘Nice soundbites with no scale to make any meaningful impact’ as one social media post puts it.

Blended meats also offer little in the way of Instagram-able images to virtue-signal dietary choices on social media. They are often indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill meat options, so are poor candidates for content creation.

By their very design, blended meats avoid extremes. This makes it a challenge to position them as either new, trendy options at the leading edge of an aspirational vegan market or as bloodied chunks of flesh that appeal to a masculine, meat-loving audience.

Lessons from Spam

So, what, if anything, can be done to counteract negative consumer perceptions and kick start a blended meat revolution?

Disguising the blend is one option. That is, listing full ingredients on pack or menu, but otherwise averting attention by avoiding reference to the blend in any conspicuous front-of-pack labelling.

This approach has worked well for Spam for almost 90 years. The brand has consistently highlighted ‘appealing’ product characteristics on the front of their tins using big, bold lettering (i.e. ‘25% less sodium’, ‘now with real Hormel bacon’). Remaining ingredients (Modified Potato Starch, Sugar, Sodium Nitrite etc.) are listed in tiny print on the side.

Spam may also be onto something with the name. A catchy, short moniker that reveals little about what the product is, or what it is trying to displace in the diet. Spam doesn’t position as itself a replacement for pure pork or ham slices. It is its own thing. Blends could learn from this and develop a punchy new category name, going beyond the ‘flips’ or ‘hybrids’ so far trialled.

Finally, the strategy that restaurants use to introduce blended meats onto their menus must also be considered carefully.

While media-worthy, introducing blended versions of best-selling meat items – like Big Macs or Whoppers – may be ill-advised. Owing to the ‘contrast effect’, reformulating everyone’s known and favorite meat dishes risks drawing attention to where blended products differ from meat, and so may backfire as a result.

Instead, focusing on items that are already largely unidentifiable as animal sourced (nuggets, for example) or are themselves already a blend (i.e. dumpling fillings, pies) could prove a better starting point to transition product portfolios.

Scientists and environmentalists agree our collective diets must change. Manufacturers have responded by developing blended versions of familiar meaty favorites with the added benefit of a lower environmental footprint.

As these products that are neither entirely virtuous, nor entirely ‘guilty-pleasure’ vices, it makes their major selling point - compromise - somewhat difficult to sell. It is now down to marketeers to address this challenge and find ways to tackle embedded consumer biases.

More from Sophie Attwood Ph.D., C. Psych.
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