As we begin October 2020, there's interesting news from Tesco. It is setting ambitious targets on plant-based food sales and are committing to boost their sales of meat alternatives to 300% within 5 years. They have laid out a plan for:
more plant-based meat alternatives across all its stores, in 20 different categories from burgers to party food
affordable price points
highly visible merchandising of meat alternatives side by side with equivalent meat products.
It’s a big target – to build hugely on the 50% increase in sales of chilled plant-based meat alternatives that they saw in 2019.
Impressive transparency in their strategy and commitments
What is clear is that this isn’t Tesco just about consolidating plant-based profits or accelerating the speed with which the ‘vegan bandwagon’ rolls. It’s part of a serious sustainability strategy to halve the impact on the environment of the average UK shopping basket.
Tesco’s want to position themselves as the inspiring advocate
It’s a clear statement about the Tesco brand and its sustainability values. The fact that Tesco have linked with WWF to identify appropriate measures, and they want to be accountable in their progress to achieving those measures, encourages us to re-appraise the brand.
We’re being invited to see Tesco as our advocate for a better way of living – they’re the ones empowering the consumer nation to ‘do better’ on protecting the environment and leading healthier lifestyles.
It’s about our Carbon Footprint, not about Vegan Lifestyles
It would be a fallacy to think that Tesco is trying to prompt a growth in vegan consumers. That is the myth about the plant-based consumer trend. We know from our own research that increasing plant-based consumption is a reflection of people’s desire to eat more healthily, reduce their carbon footprint and enjoy food experimentation – for most people it’s not about a desire to follow a vegan lifestyle per se.
That's why the huge growth in plant-based products over the last few years has not been matched by an equivalent growth in the proportion of people who describe themselves as vegan. This remains at around 1% of the population, despite a 40% increase in sales of meat-free foods from £582m in 2014 to an estimated £816m in 2019, according to Mintel.
A growing proportion of people quite simply want to reduce their meat consumption - not give it up (39% of meat eaters in 2019, compared to 28% in 2017, Mintel). So, if anything, Tesco’s strategy is realistic, aiming to encourage Flexitarian lifestyles, and ‘chip away’ at the 88% of Brits who eat red meat/poultry as the cornerstone of their diets.
Decision science seems to be at the heart of their strategy
Interestingly, Tesco's strategy seems rooted in decision science, evidenced by its commitment to merchandise meat alternatives right next to meat products (e.g. Richmond plant-based sausages next to Richmond meat sausages). They're subliminally shifting perceptions of the meat alternative through this framing of the plant-based product and making it easy for people to choose the meat alternative when shopping on auto-pilot. People who already have at the back of their mind the implicit goal of eating more healthily and/or doing better by the environment are likely to pick the meat alternatives up - because they don't have to make any effort or really think about it.
For that reason it is designed to succeed in creating those massive shifts in desired behaviour for the sake of our planet – so long as the quality of the product experience fulfils explicit expectations, and the price points feel acceptable.
But what will the other retailers do in response to this big challenge from Tesco?
This is the big question. All retailers are putting sustainability at the forefront of the their agenda. At the start of 2020:
Sainsbury’s announced that it will invest £1 billion to become carbon-neutral by 2040, 10 years ahead of the government’s net-zero target date.
Asda committed to halving its direct and power related emissions by 2025, based on a 2015 baseline.
The commitments of these retailers involve all sorts of initiatives - greater fridge efficiency, reducing food wastage, reducing plastic usage, more vehicles using low carbon fuels, switching to LED lighting. Encouraging shoppers to adopt more environmentally friendly behaviours, including recycling. as well as sustainable and healthy eating. However it is Tesco that has identified switching to meat alternatives as the key change which consumers should make as a step to improve global sustainability performance, and seems to be setting this as a challenge for the retail industry as a whole.
I wonder how the industry will respond? Will the other retailers join in the strategy, as Tesco seems to want them to? Interesting times ahead.
Caroline Thompson Associates (CTA) provides consumer insight to help companies to become more customer centric and deliver better customer experiences of their brand. We have developed specialist expertise in the plant-based category through our client experience and through managing @VegantoDinner.com which was set up to engage with and listen to consumers in this market. Caroline Thompson can be contacted onCaroline@CThompson.co.uk