Plant based foods. The phrase has infiltrated all manner of industry discussion in the past year. Visit the Prepared Foods website, search for “plant based foods,” and you’ll receive more than 30 pages of search results. Product developers continue to pursue the explosive plant based category, and we among the media are scrambling to cover new product introductions and evolving technologies.
But what is this plant based foods trend all about? Why are consumers and the food and beverage industry committed with such ferocity to the plant based landscape?
One general conception about plant based foods is that they are specifically better for the environment. There are plenty of contrasting ideas on this front. But nonetheless, at the moment, consumers believe plant based foods are more sustainable than those made from meat, and the industry is responding accordingly.
My sense is that the plant based food trend has taken hold for a simple reason: choice. Healthy markets thrive on choice. A product enters the marketplace, and before long, so does its complement, opposite and tangent. Access to alternatives sparks consumer awareness, promotes trial and leads to new generations of brand enthusiasts.
I believe consumers view plant based foods, specifically plant based proteins, as a natural counterpart to animal proteins. Whether the product is soy-based, composed of pea protein, developed with mushrooms swirled in a centrifuge, or designed with high-tech intellectual property, the end result for consumers is quite simply a marketplace alternative.
This notion of choice plays to a broader cultural drift toward intention and awareness. Slowly yet certainly, Americans are taking stock of daily practices and examining behaviors that have become routine, all the while seeking to understand underlying forces behind repeated action. To oversimplify this tectonic shift in the American psyche: people are asking themselves, why am I doing what I am doing?
These sorts of questions may send product marketers running for the hills, fearing they will never come to terms with consumers who ask fundamental questions that have little in the way of concrete answers. Could thoughtful personal inquiry shatter every metric we have for understanding consumer behavior?
Marketers want to know everything there is to know about consumers. Companies spend enormous sums in an effort to make the unknown known. Successful modern marketers are at ease with consumers who elect to deviate from patterned behavior. These cutting edge marketers position themselves alongside consumers as fundamental shifts in perspective take hold.
In no uncertain terms, the holy grail for marketers is to know why consumers do what they do. If marketers had the answer to this question, product launch risk would be alleviated. Again, this is the desire of the marketing community. Massive consumer data sets combed by sophisticated algorithms are putting marketers closer than ever been before to predicting consumer behavior. The only component throwing a monkey wrench into this elegant systemic design is the unfortunate and pervasive tendency for human beings to become spontaneous.
Perhaps someday, the marketing community will be able to solve the problem of spontaneity at the genetic level. Until then, marketers will follow the whims of consumers to the end of Earth and back. Alas, the decision made at the leading edge of the present moment leads us into the future we will soon know. And consumers, not marketers, will be the ones to take us there.