Brandwatch conducted a study for The Good Food Institute that analyzed consumer conversations around plant-based meat products, with the aim of uncovering strategies for product improvement and innovation.
We work with scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs to make groundbreaking good food a reality. We focus on clean meat and plant-based alternatives to animal products – foods that are more delicious, safer to eat, and better for the planet than their outdated counterparts.
GFI wanted to get insights into conversations around plant-based meat alternatives in order to understand consumers’ sensory experiences when consuming them, as well as consumers’ unmet needs. The aim of the study was to find out the focus of conversations relating to plant-based meat products in the US, how people are talking about meat alternatives, and what they like and dislike about them. This helped to inform product improvement priorities and to identify whitespace opportunities.
The evolution of plant-based meat
Gone are the days of bean burgers being the only type of plant-based burger available. With plant-based eating in all its forms on the rise, so too are plant-based meat products that closely mimic the look, feel, smell, and taste of meat. These products are not only aimed at vegan or vegetarian consumers, but also, and perhaps even more so, at meat-eaters looking to reduce their meat intake, be that for health or environmental reasons.
We looked at the searches for ‘vegan meat’ and found an ongoing increase which indicates that more people are getting interested in meat alternatives.
Words and products
Vegan, fake, or plant-based meat? People are using lots of different terms to describe the same thing. Below, we take a closer look at them and explore which are most likely to be used in a positive, negative, or neutral context.
Overall, we found high levels of negative sentiment around the term “fake meat.” Words like “fake,” “mock,” and “faux” can prime consumers to expect artificiality. Terms like “meat substitutes” or “meat replacement” which convey a broadening of options rather than a reduction drove the most positive sentiment.
As there are alternatives for many kinds of meats, we wanted to dive deeper and explore what products consumers discussed most online.
In over half of the conversations, consumers discussed alternatives to meat in general, rather than a specific product. People were much more likely to use the term “fake meat” (20% of total sample) than any other, followed by “meat alternatives” (7%) and “vegan meat” (5%).
25% of the conversations were about burger patties, such as the Impossible Burger which had the most mentions. Consumers talked about the burger after trying it at Burger King for the first time.
Plant-based chicken nuggets were the most popular chicken alternative, followed by tenders and burgers. Plant-based chicken sandwiches were often craved, searched for, or wished for.
Conversation around Greggs’ sausage roll traveled across the globe with it being the most-discussed plant-based sausage product in the US, too.
Cold cuts such as plant-based ham made up the bulk of the ‘other’ category. Fish, duck, or pork were barely mentioned at all, suggesting whitespace opportunities. Plant-based pork, in particular, is likely to be a promising area for innovation, given the popularity of conventional pork.
What about the sensory experience?
Overall, 71% of the mentions regarding sensory experiences around plant-based meat were about the taste, followed by 16% regarding the texture. Appearance (8%) and smell (5%) were the least discussed sensory categories.
Taste is the most important sense when eating. In addition, texture, appearance, and smell strongly influence our taste experience. The most used adjectives were ‘good’, ‘real’, ‘delicious’, ‘great’, and ‘not bad’.
Plant-based meat is becoming more ‘authentic’ than ever, leaving even meat enthusiasts pleasantly surprised by the deliciousness.
But it is not only the flavor that contributes to the positive experience. Consumers also made comments about products’ affordability, mentioning that some vegan alternatives are actually cheaper than meat.
Moreover, many praised the lighter texture and environmentally-friendly packaging that was used, as well as the fact the products were free of some of the textural aspects of meat that they didn’t like (e.g. gristle, fat, tendons, and skin).
This suggests that companies should continue creating products that closely imitate meat but omit the undesirable textural aspects, and make sure to call this out in their marketing messaging. This is likely to be particularly impactful for products which are notorious for having undesirable textural elements but which are widely loved, like chicken, for example.
But there is also some criticism. Consumers commented on the over-reliance on seasoning, which aroused suspicion in clean eaters and food purists. Additionally, some also complained about plant-based meat alternatives being bland and tasting like cardboard. Including recipe ideas on the packaging and giving simple and fail-proof flavor pairings could help solve this problem.
Also, when speaking about texture, some consumers made negative comments about alternatives being too dry, mushy, or overly chewy. The experiences varied, which could be due to different cooking methods. To counteract this, brands should show the preparation instructions on the pack clearly and understandably or even make demo videos.
While some consumers enjoy the resemblance to animal meat, others find the taste too similar and do not enjoy the experience.
In order to satisfy consumers who do not enjoy meat-like products, companies could turn plant ingredients into something completely new, without trying to imitate meat in taste, texture, appearance, and smell. Consumers expect new products with whole foods like quinoa without being reminded of actual meat. Therefore, companies should get creative when naming their products. An original name with no reference to meat also leaves less space for taste comparisons and automatically lowers the expectations for products to have a certain flavor, which could work in the brand’s favor.
In terms of appearance, not all consumers were happy about their products bleeding like a real steak. This characteristic led some to express disgust rather than delight. Others were missing the effect of browning when cooking. When consumers talked about the smell of the products, some drew negative comparisons to dog and cat food. Interestingly, a product smelling similar to meat was seen almost exclusively as positive which was not the case for the other senses.
When it comes to plant-based meat products, there is no “one size fits all.” What is considered to be delicious varies from segment to segment. Regardless of whether companies want to imitate meat or create something completely new, there is demand for both. The data showed that consumers either want a perfect imitation or a completely new product. Consumers seek the best of both worlds, wanting the taste of meat without the unappealing elements such as gristle, fat, tendons, and skin.
There are definitely whitespace opportunities when it comes to meats like pork, fish, and duck. But instead of producing a mock version of a certain kind of meat, companies could also work on innovations in order to please those who do not enjoy meat in the first place.
Since the market will ultimately decide what plant-based meat products are successful, companies developing and selling these products need as much information as possible about what consumers like and don't like. For this reason, we value the insights around consumer preferences uncovered by Brandwatch.
This study included Google search data, as well as US social data from Twitter, Reddit, and online forums. We looked at a year’s worth of relevant conversations from December 2018 to December 2019 which amounted to 7,292 mentions. We segmented the data using rules to discover the topics regarding plant-based meat that were discussed most. The tonality (sentiment) of these online conversations was also determined using established rules in the context of positive and negative phrases and words.