How meat-free brands stay competitive
We talk to Christopher Kong, CEO and Co-Founder of Better Nature, about the rapid growth of the meat-free revolution and how to manage costs, lean on support networks and adapt to shifting consumer preferences to remain competitive.
What’s driving the meat-free revolution?
Fundamentally, consumers are the driving force behind the rapid rise of meat-free. People are very aware of the positive health, environmental, and ethical impacts of adopting a more plant-based diet, and that’s created demand. Brands have reacted by innovating and launching more appealing meat-free products, which has further accelerated growth.
With greater adoption, we’re seeing prices drop… Meat-free products aren’t as susceptible to the same price pressures as animal products – the energy, labour and raw materials required to make meat is far greater than that to make plant-based proteins. Due to the war in Ukraine, rampant inflation and the cost-of-living crisis, the cost of meat production has risen at a faster rate than plant-based alternatives, resulting in meat-free options becoming comparatively less expensive. We’re not at price parity yet, but we’re very close. For example, our Organic Tempeh is sold for £2.70 per 200g pack or £13.50 per kg. This is cheaper than Tesco’s own-brand Organic Free Range Chicken Breast.
As the adoption of meat-free grows and prices come down, this creates a flywheel effect that further drives increased adoption. Soon, we’ll have meat-free products on the market that are at price parity with meat.
Plant-based categories are struggling to maintain growth as cost pressures rise and meat alternative brands are suffering from declining profits. What are your top tips to stay in the game?
Firstly, be 100% on top of your finances. Now more than ever, brands need to scrutinise all of their costs and remain highly disciplined with regard to where they spend their cash.
Secondly, lean on your suppliers, customers and community for support. Everyone knows how hard it is for businesses to operate. Lean on each other to extend payment terms, reduce costs etc. and find win-win scenarios that work best for all parties.
Lastly, adapt to shifts in consumer behaviour. Two years ago, consumers were being driven to try meat-free due to its novelty. Today, they’re done with the novelty and instead want meat-free foods they can eat on a regular basis. As a result, we’re now entering a new plant-forward era of meat-free, which is centred on health and nutrition. Meat-free brands need to make sure their products are not only delicious but also healthy enough to be eaten day in and day out. This means having fewer artificial ingredients without compromising on taste or nutrition.
All of our products are 100% Natural, yet are still high in protein and fibre. Tempeh is also delicious and super easy to cook, making it an ideal go-to source of plant-based protein.
You brought Tempeh to Tesco in June – what are your main learnings from this journey?
It was important to keep pushing and not lose sight of our mission. It took us three and a half years from first launching on our website to getting into Tesco. Along the way, we just kept on making small wins every day and never let the losses get under our skin.
We also learnt that it’s all about our team. If you surround yourself with dedicated and passionate people, things will get done to a high standard. Problems that seem insurmountable at first, will be overcome.
It was also vital to know our customers. We knew there was a huge opportunity for tempeh from flexitarians who wanted a wider choice of healthy and natural meat-free foods on the supermarket shelf. Knowing your target customer inside and out means you can make sure your product meets their needs.
Tempeh is quite a niche product. How did you bring it into the mainstream in just 3 years?
Education through social media, PR, sampling, word of mouth, and marketing was crucial. Three years ago, tempeh had relatively low awareness in the UK, so we focused our efforts on raising consumer awareness about what tempeh is and its benefits. We knew we had to extend our customer base beyond the vegan market to get mainstream attention, so that’s what we did.
Distribution was also key. By getting tempeh into more supermarkets, restaurants, cafés, schools, and hospitals, we increased the frequency people would be able to access it. Making the decision to close our website earlier this year was a difficult one, but it paid off. We’re now available in Tesco stores nationwide, with sell-out success at 900 Lidl stores in August, and another major UK supermarket in the pipeline.
Innovation was important too. To accelerate the adoption of tempeh, we developed a new range of ‘ready to heat’ Tempeh Pieces, tapping into growing demand for convenient meat-free foods that are also nutritious, affordable, and easy to cook.
With growing concern over highly processed faux-meat substitutes, what tech & innovation is coming out in the plant-based space?
A key issue with meat alternatives is that the ingredients used to mimic the texture of meat tend to be heavily processed and artificial. That said, there are lots of exciting innovations to replace these ingredients with more natural options e.g. Umami United’s egg-white replacer.
There are also lots of exciting innovations around precision fermentation to produce proteins that are identical to those made by animals, but without needing the animal. Proteins such as whey and casein, which are typically found in cow’s milk, are now being made without the cow and the first generation of precision fermentation-based dairy alternatives have started entering the market e.g. Perfect Day.
What do you expect to see in the meat-free market in the future?
With the new plant-forward era taking hold, this is a really exciting time for the sector. In 12 months’ time, the meat-free aisle will look very different from how it looks today; products will be less processed and there will be more whole foods and plant-centric products on the shelf. I also expect it to continue to grow at a rapid clip. We just had our warmest August globally since records began in the 1940s. Freak weather events are becoming commonplace. Droughts, floods and storms are threatening our food security and destroying lives. With all of these pressures on our food system, we’ll have to reduce our reliance on meat and dairy products and adopt more plant-based options. Thankfully, we’ll also see more innovation that will make this easier.
Better Nature donates 1% of sales to the charity YUM to tackle malnutrition in Indonesia, the home of tempeh. Can you tell us more about this?
Tempeh originated in Indonesia 400 years ago and continues to be a nutritious and affordable staple food there. One of our co-founders – Dr Driando Ahnan-Winarno – is actually from Indonesia and has eaten tempeh since childhood.
However, largely due to a lack of prenatal education, the country has one of the highest rates of infant malnutrition in the world. By donating 1% of our sales to YUM, we’re helping to tackle childhood malnutrition in Indonesia, giving back to the country that gave us tempeh.