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 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
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.