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028 - The move away from meat: how the pandemic has turbo-charged plant-based.​

How the pandemic has turbo-charged the vegan market place. Before the pandemic, half of all UK adults already said they had adopted some form of vegan buying behaviour – such as having meat-free days or choosing plant milk over dairy. But a recent survey by The Vegan Society also found that 1 in 5 people in the UK cut down on eating meat as a result of the pandemic, supercharging the plant-based sector even further.

We know that Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, or rather it is a disease transferred from animals, usually as a result of eating them, farming them or wildlife trading. And with three-quarters of the world’s new infectious diseases emerging this way, a lot more people are examining our species’ relationships with animals. This is now playing out on the supermarket shelves, in the food and the products that people are buying. What does that mean for the meat industry? What does it mean for consumer buying behaviour? And what does it mean for your vegan business?

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Full episode transcript

Hello and welcome to episode twenty-eight of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe.  If you have a vegan business, or are thinking of starting one, then Vegan Business Tribe is here to support and inspire you not just to build a vegan business, but to build a SUCCESSFUL vegan business.
 
And if you want to go beyond the podcast and connect with our community of like-minded vegan entrepreneurs then head over to Vegan Business Tribe .com where you can get support with your vegan business, study our vegan marketing course, get access to both me and Lisa and just be part of a wonderful community of vegan business people just like you.  And, actually – I tell you what.  Instead of me telling you how great Vegan Business Tribe is, do you mind if I just hand over to some of our members to tell you instead?  So, over to you Tribe – why don’t you introduce yourself?
 
(video plays of Vegan Business Tribe members)
 
And just to repeat, that was our members Jackie and Gareth from Vegan FTA based in New Zealand; Natasha and Ed from Bred in Whistler, Canada; Kevin from Humaine WIldlife Solutions in Scotland; Dr Laura from Plant Based Health Online, and Susan from Little Green Pigeon in the UK.  And I can’t think you guys enough for sending in those video testimonials telling us what being members of Vegan Business Tribe has meant to you – and if you want to watch the video versions instead, just head over to the testimonials page on the website to see all their lovely, happy smiling little vegan faces!
 
And the reason getting those videos testimonials really cheered Lisa and me up so much is because wherever you are in the world, it’s been a challenging couple of years.  We were hit with a global pandemic, we’ve all been cut off from each other and that’s had a real impact on pretty much everyone’s lives and businesses.  And we’ve had to really go looking for silver linings from the situation – which has been, and we mustn’t forget, a real tragedy for millions of people around the world – but those silver linings have been there.  The amount of people I’ve met, and indeed a large number of our members at Vegan Business Tribe, that have started up their own businesses as a result of the pandemic is amazing and shows real resilience.  After all, if you can build a successful business during a pandemic, then that really sets the foundations for the future.  And whereas some businesses were completely wiped out by the changes that the pandemic brought, especially those in hospitality and entertainment, others have discovered whole new ways of doing businesses and a whole new customer bases.  For some, the world getting turned upside-down is what they needed for all the pieces of their business to fall in place.
 
And this was demonstrated really strongly when Lisa and I went to our local vegan cafe,  which is The Peppercorn in Huddersfield – and hello if Alex or her daughter is listening!  And we went there once everything had been allowed to open again after the first Coronavirus lock-down in the UK.  And as you’ll know if you have a local vegan cafe, you get to recognise the regulars and they are great places to find other vegans in the area.  And as we were waiting for our order we were chatting with the owner, Alex, as we always do when we drop in, and I asked her how business had been since they reopened their doors.  And she told me something really insightful:  she told me that business had been booming since they re-opened, but they were all people she hadn’t seen in the cafe before.  Some people were even politely putting their head around the door, apologising that they were not vegan but asking if it was still OK if they ate there.  After the pandemic lock-down, Alex saw a big increase in non-vegans wanting to eat at her vegan cafe.
 
So what’s going on here?  And I assure you that the food at The Peppercorn is amazing, but why were so many non-vegans flocking to a vegan cafe after being locked down for so long?  Well, it’s not just vegan cafes.  A survey by The Vegan Society in the UK found that 1 in 5 people, that’s 20%, have cut down on eating meat during the pandemic.  And that wasn’t just because animal products were harder to get in the early days of pandemic when supermarket shelves were empty from panic buying, people were saying the reasons were health, environment or animal welfare.  We know that Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, or rather it is transferred from animals, usually by eating them or as a result of farming or wildlife trading.  Three quarters, so three in four, of the world’s new infectious diseases emerged this way: SARS, MERS, bird flu, Ebola, AIDS and now Covid-19 all come from animals.  In Germany, Coronavirus outbreaks in meat processing plants resulted in a third of people who were surveyed in the country saying they were planning to reduce their meat consumption because of this. If the pandemic has done anything positive for the animal rights movement, it has made a lot more people examine their relationships with animals, and this is now playing out in the food and the products they are buying.
 
The seeds of all this change had already been planted before the pandemic however.  Half of all UK adults surveyed said they had already adopted some form of vegan buying behaviour without identifying as vegan or vegetarian.  That might be having meat-free days or choosing plant milk over dairy milk and this was from research that World Vegan Day did back in 2017.  One of my favourite posts I ever saw in a vegan Facebook group was a builder complaining that all the lads kept stealing his oat milk for their cups of tea when working at a building site – the typical ideas we have about who is and isn’t a customer for vegan products is really changing.  And I’ve talked about the size of the vegan and plant-based marketplace in other podcast episodes – in fact go listen to episode 10 where I do a full half-hour on the size of the market for vegan products.  But what we’ve been seeing in the research for the last few years is now really playing out on the shelves.  The pandemic has supercharged the vegan and plant-based marketplace, and in the discussions I’ve had with some of the larger food manufacturers, they have said if anything, it’s brought the market forwards by probably two years.
 
Ethan Brown, the founder of Beyond Meat revealed in an interview with CNBC that a staggering 93% of their Beyond Burger customers were not vegan, they were not even vegetarian.  They were meat eaters who were looking to eat less meat.  This was one of the first clear cases of a meat-alternative actively taking spend away from the meat sector. Their competitors, Impossible Foods, have also released similar statistics from their customer polling, showing that up to 95% of the people buying their products are also meat-eaters.  And I know that a lot of vegans don’t like to buy these kinds of meat replacement products, or these ‘fake meats’ as they are known.  I’m one of them.  Lisa and I tried the Impossible Burger when it first came to Vegan Campout – and we struggled to eat them!  Don’t get me wrong, they were great burgers, just too close to the real thing for someone who hasn’t eaten meat for about 8 years!  But that’s fine, because I know that we’re not the target customer.  Although a lot of vegans do eat fake meats, the longer someone has gone without eating meat the less they want these kinds of alternatives. However, if you can offer someone the opportunity to move to a plant-based diet without actually having to change their eating habits – then it might not be amazing for their health, but I tell you, that’s amazing for the animals.
 
And this is what we’re seeing more of.  The team at Impossible are now turning their technical talents to developing Impossible Milk that is indistinguishable from dairy but without the need for a cow.  It tastes just like the real dairy thing.  Now, go back even just five years ago and there just would not have been the demand for this kind of product and it would have been a real labour of love to bring it to market – remember that it took Oatly 15 years to get their product onto supermarket shelves.  But the surge of interest in reducing our use of animals in the food chain following the pandemic has allowed Impossible to double their R&D budget into developing Impossible Milk.
 
Brands that would have been laughed off the high street have found they are selling out.  Rudy’s Vegan Butchers opened in North London on World Vegan Day 2020 and sold out of their entire inventory in their first day.  They took over 100 online orders in the first ten minutes with long queues outside their door before they even opened – and let me tell you, that demand can’t all be from vegans!  This is plant-based hitting the mainstream, to the extent that Rudy’s Vegan Butchers have now opened their second location in Selfridges’ flagship department store on Oxford Street.  Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s has also announced that it is closing its meat and fish counters amongst declining meat sales, and is now trialling stocking meat-alternative products (such as plant-based sausages and burgers) next to animal products in a number of stores.  And again, as a vegan, I don’t want my vegan products thrown in with the bodies of dead animals.  I have made that connection with where my food comes from and I don’t want to have to reach over the butchered remains of an animal that desperately wanted to live when I’m in the supermarket.  But if we’re going to capitalise on the current interest, and get more people to move away from meat, then you can argue that the meat section is the logical place for meat-alternatives to get noticed.
 
The message for companies looking to develop new product lines is clear. Plant-based is no longer the niche micro-sector it was 10 years ago, (or even 24 months ago).  ‘Vegan’ has now broken into mainstream buying behaviour even though, at the most optimistic counts, only 2 to 3% of people identify as vegan.  What started as a trend is now becoming a new normal, and it will only continue one way.  And once a consumer starts adopting plant-based buying behaviours they expose themselves to a whole range of studies, information and campaigning which then influences their behaviour to move even further away from animal products.  That is how the internet works – one moment you find yourself Googling how to make cupcakes without using dairy and the next thing YouTube is suggesting an Earthling Ed or Joey Carbstrong video to you!
 
Over half a million people signed up to the Veganuary challenge in 2021 to eat plant-based for a month, compared to 400,000 in 2020 and 250,000 in 2019.  And these consumers, who are right at the start of eating plant-based, will likely choose a different type of product to someone who has been vegan for much longer. This is why it IS important to develop familiar ‘like-for-like’ replacement products for people who are new to eating meat-alternatives, give them something that they can still cook in the same way, throw on the grill in the same way and will give them a similar, familiar result.  But it’s also why other companies are developing more innovative alternatives to meat which really stand out as an exciting new choice for more established vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians.  Take Better Nature, who are stocked in hundreds of shops across the country – they produce tempeh made into cubes, mince and rashes that don’t try to mimic the taste and texture of meat, but can be thrown into your dish in the same simple way as cooked meats can.
 
And because of this move in customer buying behaviour, it’s become really important that manufacturers and retailers understand these complex plant-based buying decisions.  Those companies that took the early lead on understanding vegan have seen huge results in returns. Greggs bakery stores released their annual report in 2019 showing that the launch of their vegan sausage roll helped drive a surge in customer numbers, generating a 15% rise in pre-tax profits.  And as part of that, it’s worth pointing out that Greggs did a lot of behind the scenes research in their product development.  They launched their vegan products with different patterns on the top to distinguish them to both the customer and the server in the store – I mean, how many times have you asked for the vegan option, and then gone back and asked the server if they were SURE they gave you the right one?!  I’ve seen the operation procedures they have in place, I’ve spoken with their team about the training they had on handling and serving vegan products.  And other companies have launched into the vegan market without this clear understanding, got it very wrong and faced a resulting consumer backlash.  I’m mentioning no names, but I am sure you could name as many brands as I can who got ‘vegan’ wrong!
 
So, all this is truly great, and it’s good to just pause and look at how the landscape has changed over the last couple of years in regards to plant-based.  An unexpected upside of the pandemic, and if we’re being honest, we really need some upsides after the last couple of years, is that the number of consumers questioning the food on their plates and the products on their skin has massively increased.  But what does this actually mean for vegan businesses? Well, as vegan companies, we are already experts in this marketplace – and so many of us forget that.  We understand the ethics and behaviours that the big brands are still catching up on.  But they WILL catch up – make no mistake.  These are companies that have survived a very long time by knowing what customers want to buy before they do.  And whilst we saw the head of McDonald’s say in an earnings call with investors that they “don’t participially ‘do’ hobbies” – in other words, they don’t cater for what they call ‘trend eating’, we have other fast-food chains and QSRs such as Burger King publically state that they are working towards a 50% plant-based menu.  We are constantly seeing more and more huge entries into the vegan marketplace – from Mars to Landrover – but what they don’t have, however, is your passion to create a fairer, cruelty-free vegan world. The large brands ARE actively changing the landscape to make it easier than ever for customers to go plant-based – and, as vegan businesses, we can all use that. 
 
These large brands are reacting to pressure and demand from customers; vegan businesses, on the other hand, lead with that change.  Again, earlier I mentioned Better Nature Tempeh.  Their co-founder Chris told me they are driven by their love for people, the planet and animals. They want to provide protein without compromise.  And as a vegan business, you can combine your passion and ethics with this changing landscape to create vegan products AND services that draw people further along their vegan journey.  And what I would say is that if you make a vegan product or have a vegan service that people passionately care about and support, then you have never had a bigger available audience than you do right now.   If you’ve been sitting on the fence about launching a vegan product, or about really pushing what you already produce, then now is the time to hop down off that fence and get serious about it. The pandemic, as devastating as it has been to all of us, has moved the plant-based market forward by at least two years, if not more. There has never been so much interest in veganism as there is now, and you may find a valuable new market of NON-vegan customers who are taking initial steps to reduce their reliance on animal products. You can connect with them, educate them, and help them along that journey like the big brands never will.  Remember: a fast-food brand launching a vegan burger has no wish to turn its customers vegan because they still make most of their money from animal products.
 
But for many people, that first time ordering a vegan burger instead of one made from an animal is their first step towards plant-based.  BUT, it’s also a massive change in buying behaviour.  To get them to that point, a lot of things have had to happen:  first, they need to have been convinced to try a new kind of product which they will have had a lot of preconceptions about.  Part of their drive to try a plant-based product will be a concern, some kind of emotional driver – either about their health, their impact on the environment, or now (as we’re seeing) the impact of diseases coming from animals in the food chain.  But then there are all other things riding on that decision.  Maybe they are buying food for a family meal that evening and don’t want to have to cook a second meal if their partner or children reject what’s put on their plate. Maybe it’s going to cost them a lot more to buy a meat alternative in the supermarket because they are buying a branded product. All these things are the decisions that, as a small vegan business with a restricted budget, you are fighting against.  As a smaller brand, you will struggle to convince a meat-eater to try your vegan product – it will take a lot of time and effort.  However, the supermarkets and big brands CAN influence a customer – it’s what they are good at. The amount of marketing, advertising and in-store promotions someone like Sainsbury’s supermarket can do to get someone to try their new meat-alternative is immense – so let them do that work for you.  Let the big brands give someone their first experience of plant-based with their glossy, unhealthy, branded and expensive like-for-like product because this will then open that customer up to trying more.  Getting someone to change their buying habits as an unknown brand is very difficult, so let the big brands start customers on their journey for you.
 
Because, as more and more people bring vegan buying behaviours into their everyday life, they soon realise two things:  first, they find themselves spending more and second, they are not necessarily eating that well!  Many large brand plant-based alternatives are still nutritionally very poor and full of oils and fats and let’s just all agree that vegan junk food is getting seriously out of hand!  If you thought going plant-based would mean you lost weight, then I’ve got some disappointing news for you!  But on that first point about spending more, the ‘vegan aisle’ as I like to call it, or the fruit and veg aisle as everyone else calls it, is the cheapest in the supermarket. But this isn’t usually what people think of when they think of buying vegan products. And I have had conversations with brand managers of big multi-national food manufacturers, and they have openly told me that ‘vegan attracts a premium’.  They will happily charge more for plant-based products, not because they cost more to make but because they know that customers will pay more.  And if you have grown up with a brand, and now you’re vegan you can’t have it, then if they release a vegan version you WILL pay above the odds for it.  That’s what leads to a Vegan Galaxy chocolate bar selling out across the country at £3 a bar.  But once these products become part of someone’s weekly shop, it becomes really expensive and people look to the alternatives.  THEN people are open to try the vegan brands they haven’t seen before.  But first, many people HAD to start with something they knew and recognised before they were ready to try other products.  So be there ready to welcome these people with what YOU produce, once the sweep away from animal products and towards plant-based has already started to change people’s buying behaviour.  The hard work really is being done for you right now.
 
Now, I always wrap up by saying that this has been a really interesting topic, mainly because I like to finish with some energy – but this REALLY HAS been an interesting topic to talk about.  It is worthwhile just taking a moment to look at the change that is happening – because you might not see it.  You might have been vegan for years, and maybe make the majority of your food, but we are seeing, living and working through a real shift in consumer behaviour. And it’s rare that you see it happening so quickly and obviously. Whether that’s the rise of the vegan superbrands like Oatly and Beyond Meat that seemed to take everyone by surprise – even though both those companies are 20 years old – or by you being surprised yourself when your best friend and die-hard meat-eater texts you to ask what the best plant-milk is for coffee.
 
OK, let’s have a quick recap of some of the salient points that we’ve just gone through about the move away from meat and how the pandemic has turbo-charged plant-based.:
 
  1. 1 in 5 people, that’s 20%, have cut down on eating meat during the pandemic.  This isn’t because products have not been unavailable, it’s because the pandemic has led people to really examine our species’ relationship with animals.  3 in four of the world’s new infectious diseases have come from us eating animals, farming animals or trading wildlife.
  2. Before the pandemic, more than half of adults said they had already adopted some form of vegan buying behaviour without identifying as vegan or vegetarian – the pandemic has now supercharged that, with some people saying that the vegan and plant-based marketplace has been brought forward by two years.
  3. Vegan butchers selling out within hours of opening.  Supermarkets closing down their meat counters. Vegan Sausage rolls giving companies a 15% rise in pre-tax profits – these are all real indicators of how people’s buying behaviours are changing.
  4. These changes are meaning that the big brands are following the trend, as they always will do.  It’s why they are the big brands. But don’t fear that as a vegan business, let them do all the hard work of convincing people to try plant-based and then pick up the customer when they start looking in more detail for something that is more ethical, more innovative, healthier, more cost-effective or just suits them BETTER.
  5. Remember, a fast-food chain selling vegan burgers has no wish to convert their customers to vegan – because they still make most of their money from animals. As a vegan business, you can combine your passion and ethics with this changing landscape to create vegan products and services that draw people further along their vegan journey.  You have never had a bigger audience for what you do than you do right now.
 
And I mean it when I say what a time to be alive as a vegan.  I know people who have been vegan for more than half a century, and if I’d have told them that you can walk into almost any high-street chain and have a selection of vegan options they would never have believed it would happen in their lifetime.  The move away from meat that we’re seeing now is just the start.  En mass, people are starting to pay attention to how the food gets to their plate, and if there’s one thing we can thank Coronavirus for – it’s for turbo-charging plant-based.
 
So that is it!  As always, thank you for listening – you will never know how much I appreciate you giving up your time to listen each week. And if I can ask you one last favour before you go:  Lisa and I founded Vegan Business Tribe because we don’t think that ‘vegan’ businesses should be the ones with a label. Why should we have to point out that our businesses don’t cause cruelty or harm to animals – it should be the one’s that DO that have to carry a warning.  If you believe this as well and want to support us on this mission, then go take a look at veganbusinesstribe.com where you can join us, our community and this mission.
 
I’d love to see you there, also come find and connect with me on LinkedIn – just search for David Pannell – two Ns and two Ls – and let me know that you listened to this podcast.
 
Thank you so much for listening, and I will see you on the next one!

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