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  • Writer's pictureGloria Rettore

Alternative proteins and Gen Z: which are the opportunities for the companies?

Today health, environment and food are considered hot topics, especially for younger consumers. Meat, in particular red one, is perceived as a highly polluting and unhealthy food. As a result, more and more plant-based alternatives are emerging in the market, abroad as well as in Italy. Burgers, meatballs and even fillets able to replace meat and fish made of legumes are more and more easy to find in our supermarkets and restaurants. But is this just a trend or a category meant to stay on our store shelves? And what are the perceptions of younger people regarding this type of products?

This is the topic of research developed by Gloria Rettore, with the aim of defining an effective strategy for the launch of new alternative protein products sold by a company currently in the animal proteins market, in order to attract Generation Z.

Data on these types of products are very promising: sales of alternative proteins in the next few years will continue to grow, new products launched in the market are more and more similar to their animal version in taste, texture, and appearance, and at the same time governments will provide incentives for growing vegetarian protein used for these types of foods.

But what are the perceptions of younger people about alternative proteins? Would they really be willing to consider them as true substitutes for meat and fish? And if so, how should the new offering look like?

A qualitative research was carried out to answer these questions. First, thanks to a netnography’s phase, users' interactions on social networks were analyzed in order to see what they spontaneously say about these types of products. Then, 6 qualitative interviews were conducted on a sample with an age range of 18-26 years old. Questions concerned eating habits in general as well as perception and consumption of alternative proteins. It emerged that Gen Z consumers have no time to cook, but at the same time they want to eat healthy foods. Alternative proteins are seen as products that inspire curiosity, mainly because respondents want to see if they are like the animal version of the product. They are more willing to buy and taste burgers and meatballs, in fresh version over frozen, with a catchy graphic on the packaging. The price of alternative proteins is considered quite high, but discounts and promotions could make consumers more willing to buy these products. On the other hand, people seem concerned about the ingredients of these foods, considered chemical and artificial. Finally, from the point of view of product sustainability, respondents explained that pollution in their mind is not connected to products themselves, but rather to the packaging in which they are wrapped, especially if they have several layers of plastic.

The insights of this first part of analysis, were used to develop the quantitative research: a web-based questionnaire consisting of 20 closed-ended questions. The survey considered several topics: sample's diet, respondents’ consumption and perceptions about alternative proteins, drivers of choice of these types of foods and their importance, the brands they know and purchase, and finally their sociodemographic variables.

The questionnaire collected 210 responses, from people aged between 11 and 27 years, mainly from Northern Italy and female (75% of respondents).

The results showed that Italian Gen Z mainly follows an omnivorous diet and has a varied (58% of the sample), balanced (42% of the sample), simple (31% of the sample), healthy (28% of the sample), and disordered (26% of the sample) diet. On the other hand, only few respondents eat innovative, eccentric, and expensive food.

The dishes mostly prepared by the sample are simple dishes made of a low number of ingredients (option selected by 86% of respondents). Complex dishes composed of a high number of ingredients, ready-to-eat dishes, and frozen dishes, collected a significantly lower number of selections. Then, considering protein consumption, alternative proteins turn out to be the less purchased one (35% of the sample never tried them). Moreover, it emerged that red meat is the least frequently consumed protein, followed by fish and white meat. White meat, in particular chicken, is really appreciated by Generation Z as it can be used for different types of dishes, it is considered healthier than red meat and at the same time less expensive than fish.

The following section of the questionnaire examined in detail the consumption of alternative proteins as well as the perceptions related to them. It turned out that these types of foods are mainly identified as sustainable and healthy. Burgers and meatballs are the kind of alternative products Gen Z appreciate the most, information coherent with current sales data. The best-known brands are Valsoia and Findus Green Cusine, which are those that have maintained their original brand also in this new market. However, considering the ratio of respondents who said they knew a brand to the number of individuals who said they would buy it, Valsoia turns out to be one of the brands with the lowest consumer conversion rate. This, according to the interviews, could be connected to the fact that Gen Z perceived their products as cholesterol-lowering.

Then, individuals who declared that they usually eat alternative proteins (138 people) were segmented through a factor and cluster analysis. They had to rate, from 1 to 9, the importance of 14 different drivers of choice. Through a factor analysis these drivers were grouped into the 5 macro-factors to reduce the complexity of the analysis. Thus, these were the new drivers of choice: purchase category (consisting of frozen product, I can find it at restaurants, it is similar to the animal version), simplicity of choice (consisting of easy and quick to prepare, price, flavor), communication on the packaging (consisting of visible product, eye-catching graphics, well-known brand), sustainability (sustainable packaging, it is vegan) and finally composition (nutritional values, short and clear ingredient list). Using them, it has been possible to identify 5 different groups of respondents through a cluster analysis. The first group, called “the curious”, is composed of individuals primarily attracted by the communication on the packaging, the second, “the busy” group, focuses mainly on the simplicity of the choice, “the health-conscious” group on the composition of the product, “the all-in” group on the simplicity of the choice, sustainability and composition, and finally “the category focused” group to similarity with the animal version of the product.

Finally, in the last part of the research, all respondents, both consumers and non-consumers of alternative proteins, were subjected to a conjoint analysis. To identify which attributes are considered most relevant by the sample, they were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 9 the likelihood of purchasing 9 different offering profiles. The cards presented products different for: type of protein (animal protein, veg protein), price (€2, €4, €6), brand (known brand, new brand, combination of a known brand and a new brand), and type of packaging (paper, recycled plastic).

The analysis showed that the most important attribute for the Italian Generation Z is brand, in detail in a new product, they prefer to buy an item that has a combination of a known brand and a new one. Then, they consider the type of protein, giving more value to plant-based ones. They prefer an intermediate price, the right compromise between convenience and the idea of quality. Finally, the attribute considered less important is the packaging, which is slightly preferred when made of recycled plastic.

Going back to the questions behind this research: should an animal protein company enter in the plant-based protein market? It would seem so: data on the future of this category are encouraging, and consumers are increasingly open to trying these types of foods. So, what should the new offering look like to attract Generation Z? From a branding perspective, the company should focus on a combination of its initial brand, to leverage on the trust consumers place in it, combined with a new one created to characterize the new products. The first types of alternative proteins launched should be burgers and meatballs, fresh and not frozen, wrapped in a recycled plastic package that allows a to see the product and representing it inside a tasty dish. The sales channel should be large-scale retail, in order to exploit packaging and brand, which would not be possible selling to restaurant industry.

In conclusion, this seems to be the right time to enter this new and fragmented market. The main lever to be exploited is the brand. A strong brand in the animal protein sector would be able to become, with the right offering, just as strong in the "meat of the future" industry.


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