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What's driving the alternative meat market’s explosive growth?

As brands and retailers look to feed consumers' interest in plant-based alternatives and capitalize on the growing demand, it’s helpful to understand the forces that are pushing the category forward.

Plant-based foods have been gaining traction for years, but the surge of fast food restaurants serving Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat is the kind of milestone that indicates it’s a long-term trend and not a fad; that plant-based meat alternatives are here to stay. Market intelligence firm Numerator has some data to help, based on a survey it conducted of more than 1,000 plant-based meat buyers. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights it identified.

Interestingly, dietary restrictions are not a top reason that people are trying these products–nearly half of meat alternative buyers don’t have any household members avoiding meat, and only 30% have a vegetarian or vegan in the house. Instead, the key drivers are health and curiosity. Environmental and ethical concerns were also a factor, but more among vegans and vegetarians than the group as a whole.

Among the other findings:

Word of mouth is crucial. About 40% of buyers heard about plant-based meats from friends or family, rather than from advertising. In-store experiences are the second-highest source for consumers, with 34% hearing about them through in-store displays or seeing it on the shelf.

Emphasis on health. The data showed that consumers love the perceived health benefit—three out of four believe the meat alternatives are healthier than real meat — and the fact that these products avoid harm to animals and have a smaller environmental footprint.

Here for the long haul. The feedback consumers gave was overwhelmingly positive: 62% were very or extremely satisfied, 83% would recommend to someone else, and 81% would try other plant-based meat alternatives. Only 15% think it’s a temporary fad. Half still prefer real meat—but Numerator’s data also showed that 80% intend to replace some or all real meat with plant-based alternatives in the next year.

Key takeaways for brands

The report has a few recommendations for brands based on the data it collected:

  • Develop products that prioritize the health and environmental benefits of plant-based eating, as those are key factors behind consumer purchases in the category.
  • Invest in product innovation. Consumers have communicated being open to plant-based alternatives for other meats, such as fish and chicken.
  • Focus on affordability. There are already a few dominant plant-based brands in grocery stores, and their cost was a concern for many consumers who tried them. (Existing plant-based buyers are typically high-income, highly-educated millennials of varying ethnicities and living in urban areas. To expand that base, expand the access.)
  • Continue to promote the ‘likeness’ to real meat. Half of the respondents still prefer the taste of real meat, but are willing to make a trade-off for other benefits.

Key takeaways for retailers

The report has some takeaways for retailers to take note of as well:

  • Consider plant-based alternatives, if you’re a retailer and not already carrying them. Consumers aren’t finding them easily at their regular store (only 35 percent found it “very easy,” and about a quarter had trouble finding them at their usual store) — and they tend to spend significantly more on all grocery items than the average shopper. That offers an opportunity to boost store-wide performance across other categories as well.
  • If you’re already carrying these products, consider in-store displays or expanding shelf-space. Helping valuable shoppers find these products can potentially bring higher-spend trips to your store.
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