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The adoption process: insights from Uni Potsdam

What happens when you combine the innovative power of startups with the spirit of inquiry of academia? Student teams from the University of Potsdam partnered up with several ProVeg Incubator startups, leading to new insights on the adoption process of plant-based food products – and more effective market strategies.

Understanding the adoption process

For a food-tech startup, developing a great product is only half the journey. Understanding how consumers decide what to purchase, and why, is just as important. Business and marketing studies are a valuable source of information in that regard.

At the same time, applying those insights demands the industrial capacity required to bring a new product to market. As in a human body, action requires a head to plan it, and arms to put it into motion.

Hence, on one side we have the scholarly knowledge –  the postgraduate students – and on the other, access to exciting products and new markets – thanks to the startups – with the ProVeg Incubator bringing the two groups together.

Startups and students working together

The project brought together six teams from the Innovation Management course at the University of Potsdam and six alumni of the ProVeg Incubator. 

The student teams carried out a literature review on a specific area of the consumer adoption process. This is a field of study that looks at how consumers become aware of a new product, and at the factors that may lead them to adopt – or reject it. 

The partner startups drove the choice of the topic, basing it on their needs and upcoming plans. The best research papers created by the top three teams were submitted to the ISPIM Innovation Conference, where the students also created academic posters and presented them during a panel session.

Adoption process of meat alternatives in China

The collaboration with Haofood focussed on approaches to the Chinese market

The first team concerned itself with the Chinese market. Rising income levels in the country make an increase in meat consumption likely in the future (Sans & Combris, 2015). Understanding local perceptions of plant-based meat is therefore a matter of urgency.

This vast market was of particular interest to one of the partner startups, Haofood, which is based in Shanghai. Haofood produces plant-based chicken from peanut protein – one of the first companies in the world to use peanuts as a basis for a meat alternative.

The research question focussed on the key differences in the adoption process in China compared to markets in the West. Some of the factors were broadly similar, while others – such as the tradition of communal eating – were more specific to China. Such region-specific factors will require a similarly localised market approach.

Launching plant-based meat alternatives in India

Team number two looked next-door, at India. The country has a low per-capita meat consumption rate, but there are cultural challenges to meet when promoting meat alternatives. What is the best way to leverage specific cultural aspects to ease the adoption process of plant-based food? 

Naka Foods posed the question, leading to a research paper that looked into the matter. The Mysore-based company creates alternative foods based on microalgae, as well as plant-based chicken products inspired by traditional Indian cuisine.

The research team found that while vegetarianism is supported by local institutions, meat consumption was also seen as a sign of social status.

Using customer segmentation to promote plant-based meat

The third of the six teams looked at differences in the adoption process within – rather than between – countries. The existence of several market segments, made unique by socio-economic and cultural factors, demands a tailored approach for each.

Flexitarians differ from vegetarians, who differ from vegans. Adjusting communication strategies to the preferences of a specific target group is one of the keys to success.

The student team, with the help of Pow Foods, sought to shed light on the subject. The Chilean startup produces plant-based meat alternatives which contain more protein and less fat than animal-based options.

Adoption process of plant-based milk

Team four busied themselves with the matter of the uptake of plant-based milk. This product category already enjoys a high level of market acceptance. Still, there is a low general understanding of the factors leading consumers to switch to plant-based milk. 

The team collaborated with Update Foods. This startup creates plant-based dairy products based on microalgae and faba-bean protein. Hence the research questions: what are the factors leading consumers to choose – or decide against – plant-based milk? 

The authors found that motivating factors included the better nutritional value and lessened environmental impact of plant-based milk. The main impediments were a preference for familiar products, and a general wariness of the new.

Adoption of plant-based meals in Germany

Fast Good Company learned more about German consumers, and their purchasing habits

The German market is relatively advanced in its adoption of plant-based products. To fully cross the line from niche products to mainstream staples, however, plant-based food manufacturers need to win over the flexitarian majority.

This was the focus of the research of the fifth group, assisted by the startup Fast Good Company, a Dutch producer of frozen plant-based ready-meals. 

The company inquired about which factors influence the adoption of plant-based meals in Germany and the critical issues faced by companies entering this market. Environmental awareness and ethical concerns were key drivers in order to reach flexitarian consumers.

Consumer adoption behaviour: the European chocolate market

The spread of innovative, plant-based ingredients has taken the European chocolate market by storm. However, some population groups continue to be more likely than others to adopt plant-based chocolate.

The startup Fellow Creatures posed the question on the adoption process of novel chocolate alternatives, and their impact on the European market, to the sixth research team. The Scottish company produces plant-based milk-style and white chocolates.

Groups concerned about environmental issues, animal welfare, and labour conditions were reportedly most receptive to plant-based products. Taste, on the other hand, was found to be a potential barrier for new adopters.

The project managed to gather valuable insights into a diverse range of countries. The collaboration has shown that researchers and learning institutions have an important role to play in the transition towards a sustainable food system.

Find out more about the ProVeg Incubator alumni startups and the new teams who joined in April 2021.

Leipzig-based The Nu Company believes sustainable packaging is the way forward

Sustainable packaging – a good investment for food startups?

The importance of companies providing minimal, sustainable packaging is gaining momentum across the globe. Brands that overlook this factor risk being left in the dust, overtaken by those who embrace the change. In this blog post, Pierluigi Ortenzi from the ProVeg Incubator delves into the topic of environmentally-friendly packaging for food products.

The unboxing of a newly purchased product is an important customer experience. Consumers start forming opinions of your brand right then and there, even if they do not realise it. Your packaging shows the amount of care that has been put into manufacturing the item inside of it.

What kind of first impression do you want to make, given that consumers form their opinions instinctively and immediately. Shoddy packaging immediately suggests a shoddy product. Attention to detail, on the other hand, will associate your company’s brand and product line with quality and value.

Packaging design matters. Potential customers are drawn to beauty, and the packaging that encases a product is no exception. Customers expect immediacy and practicality from a purchase and will remember the branding on a package that is difficult to open,  poorly designed, or just plain wasteful. 

Until recently, consumers have not been that concerned about what happens to the packaging after a product has been unboxed. The shift in consumer attitude towards discarded packaging has been documented by McKinsey. Regardless of how environmentally conscious a person is, nobody appreciates having to fill their rubbish bin after every purchase.

Sustainable packaging: a balancing act

Finding a good alternative to plastics can be challenging – both the effectiveness and quality of the replacement matter. 

Take the switch from plastic straws to paper ones, for example. In fast-food chains, this move was met with praise for its impact in reducing waste, but also with eye-rolling from hapless customers who watched the new straws slowly melt into their drinks. Functional paper straws do exist, but sometimes the technology to replace fossil-fuel-based polymers with a less environmentally damaging product is just not there.

However, overcoming those challenges promises rewards for companies that manage to get sustainable packaging right. While some competitors may struggle to rid their products of 20th-century wrappings, nimbler startups can use the opportunity to improve their offerings in a way that resonates with their brand and their audience. 

At the ProVeg Incubator, we champion an all-around approach to sustainability. This not only helps us to further our mission, but it also helps to avoid creating dissonance for startups once their products hit the shelves. Even the best plant-based food brands will see their credibility dented if their products come smothered in layers of unrecyclable wrapping.

Who is getting sustainable packaging right?

The East German city of Leipzig may seem an unlikely birthplace for green innovation. Yet this would be a good starting point for those seeking evidence that a thoughtful approach to packaging can propel the growth of a startup.The Nu Company made its environmentally friendly approach to packaging part and parcel of its brand image. “For us, it was clear from the start that we wanted a plastic-free solution for our packaging”, said Co-Founder Thomas Stoffels. “The materials for that haven’t been on the market for long – but they do exist”. By working together with specialists, the team has developed a wrapping for their chocolate bars that is plastic-free and 100% compostable.

In the UK we find Better Nature, the company that’s making meat alternatives from tempeh. Due to the nature of tempeh – a fermented legume – packaging is a food safety issue. Avoiding plastic altogether may lead to higher chances of the products spoiling.

Despite facing this challenge, Better Nature remains committed to sustainable packaging and became plastic neutral in 2020.

By partnering with a social enterprise based in Indonesia, Better Nature now removes the same amount of plastic from the environment as is used for the packaging of their products. Even in cases where avoiding plastic entirely is not feasible, plastic neutrality can still be achieved.

Plastic-free certification: a worthwhile investment?

The Better Nature team achieved plastic neutrality by working together with an Indonesia-based social enterprise

The Better Nature team achieved plastic neutrality by working together with an Indonesia-based social enterprise

In a time when environmental awareness is increasingly rewarded by the market, using sustainable packaging will be another string to your company’s bow. Think about what your customers want and what your brand stands for. If sustainability is important, this should be evidenced not just in your food product, but also the package that it comes in.

The advantages include:

  • Showcasing your company’s commitment to a world free from plastic waste, to current customers as well as potential ones.
  • Setting your brand apart from competitors who may tout green credentials, without fully earning them.
  • Associating your brand with a proactive attitude towards tackling environmental degradation.

The disadvantages include:

  • As with all certifications, it comes with a price tag. This may seem like an unnecessary expenditure to just prove something your team has already accomplished.
  • Not all products can be packaged in a plastic-free container. One of your products may be certified, while others are not. This may end up increasing – not reducing – confusion for the consumer.

Using sustainable materials and obtaining industry-recognised certifications are effective ways to demonstrate that your products deserve to be purchased by consumers who take environmental matters seriously. Which, fortunately enough, happens to be a fast-growing market segment.

If you enjoyed this blog post, check out some of our other startup insight blogs on pitching, branding, and preparing to launch a new company.