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Consumer-based product development of alternative proteins

Published: 12-11-2015, | Member: Food for Impact

The successful launch of alternative proteins such as algae, seaweed or insect-based products depends on knowing who the target group is. “You need to know your consumers’ demands and take them into account when you develop innovative proteins. That increases your chances of success,” says Jeroen Willemsen, food innovator and founder of Food for Impact.

In The Netherlands alone, more than 100 entrepreneurs are currently investing in sustainably produced proteins. More and more businesspeople see the potential of these alternative protein sources. Some are plant-based, for example seaweed, lupin and water lentils (duckweed); others are animal-based, such as waste streams and insects.

What consumers want

Alternative protein technology has seen several breakthroughs in the past few years. Product launches have been less successful.

“Things often go wrong if you push a product too hard. If it doesn’t pique consumers’ interest, or if the product isn’t recognizable enough, consumers won’t buy it,” says Willemsen. Last year, he started Food for Impact, a company that helps food entrepreneurs innovate. Willemsen has experience developing ‘green proteins’, as he calls them: first at Wageningen UR and later as co-founder and CCO of Ojah, a meat analogue manufacturer.

Willemsen stresses the importance of recognizability. “Ojah’s product Plenti® is a good example. It has a texture very similar to chicken and it’s just as versatile. Dutch people eat a lot of chicken, so it’s relatively easy for them to incorporate this product into their diet. Another successful example is the Dutch Weed Burger. Instead of positioning this as meat substitute, it’s marketed as a ‘cool plant-based product’. It’s recognizably shaped like a burger, between a green algae-based bun. The product is targeted at a specific group of consumers and it’s a real hit, both in The Netherlands and abroad.”

These products were developed with the consumer in mind. There are many meat analogues on the market whose development did not revolve around the consumer, which are not a great success. “Market research should precede innovation,” says Willemsen. “Innovation should take the whole chain into account.”

Customer segment

Another crucial element in innovation is targeting a specific customer segment, he explains. “Truly innovative products, such as Insect Nuggets, are best targeted at young, educated urban people, representatives of Generation Y, hipsters. That’s where change begins. And let’s not forget that retail is not the only marketing channel. Many manufacturers still dream of getting their product on the supermarket shelves. But more and more people are dining out. So, it might be much smarter to target your ‘green’ protein products at the out-of-home segment. That’s where today’s trendsetters are, but in five years, that’s where the critical mass will be. You have to think ahead.”

Willemsen is also the driving force behind Het Planeet, a platform for novel protein products. “Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to know the value of collaboration. As a lobby group, we can speak as one when we deal with government ministries and other institutions. That allows us to ensure that ‘green proteins’ are included long-term in policy, with an emphasis on acceptance, legislation and international visibility.”

Another recent project involving Food for Impact is ‘Eiwit krijgt kleur’ [Getting green protein on the menu]. Food for Impact is collaborating with Food Valley NL, ABC Kroos and Oost NV to put small, innovative alternative protein companies in touch with each other. The project’s aim is to accelerate the development, launch and scaling up of alternative protein products.

“This innovative type of collaboration is really taking off,” Willemsen says. “We already have twenty participants, but other entrepreneurs who’d like to join are welcome!”

Food For Impact