Why do some alt-protein products succeed while others fizzle?
According Jack Bobo, a long-time food industry consultant and author of the new book “Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices“, it’s a matter of timing and what customer segment you are targeting at a particular evolutionary stage of a market.
“One of the biggest challenges that most food companies have is how do you go from being a product for the innovator or early adopter to scaling to the early majority,” said Bobo in an interview with Marina Schmidt for the Red to Green podcast. “And that’s important, because that’s the moment when your relationship to the consumer changes.”
Bobo points to the early success of the Impossible Burger and how a more established company such as a Monsanto would not have had the same success. That’s because, according to Bobo, the early adopter consumer who embraces the very different product that the Impossible Burger may simply not have wanted it from a big multinational like Monsanto.
And while post-mortems may have pointed to the fact the hypothetical Monsanto burger was labeled as a genetically modified product (GMO), Bobo thinks it’s more about the company and its relationship with a particular consumer. Early adopters were okay with the buzzy Impossible, in spite of its long and exotic ingredient list.
But that relationship is changing as Impossible grows says Bobo.
“When Impossible Foods went from being $20 a burger in high end restaurants and only rich people could afford it to going into 18,000 Burger Kings when poor people could afford it, that’s the day the pushback happened,” said Bobo.
As companies grow and scale, Bobo believes one of their biggest challenges will be making that transition and figuring out how to the bridge that divide when it comes to market positioning.
It’s “important to understand that that’s the moment right when you’re trying to go from early adopter and innovator to early majority is the moment of risk because your relationship to the consumer changes.”
You can listen to the conversation between Schmidt and Bobo below by clicking play or finding it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get podcasts. You can also read the full transcript below.
Jack, good to be talking to you.
Jack A Bobo
Yeah, it’s great to be here.
So I’ve looked into some of the speeches that you have done on the topic of how to communicate alternative proteins. Let’s start on more of a general level. So how do you see alternative proteins being communicated in the field?
Jack A Bobo
Well today, there’s a lot of conversation around health and wellness in these foods. And yet when consumers look at the ingredients, there’s a little bit of a disconnect between how the products are marketed and perhaps some of the reality of the products. But I also see that a lot of products are developed by people who are doing it because they are animal rights activists or that they have a particular philosophical view of the world.
You know, they’re trying to create a world that’s free of, perhaps, animal agriculture. And they’re so passionate about that, that they want to market their products based on the beliefs that they have, which is perfectly reasonable. But that doesn’t always resonate with people who don’t share their beliefs.
And so it sort of leaves one with the question: if you’re trying to sell a product, do you only want to sell it to people who believe the way you believe, or do you want to sell it to everybody? And that’s a question I think that these new companies need to answer for themselves.
So in a previous interview, Isha Datar was saying that we should avoid the trap of veganism and vegetarianism. So it’s not a trap in and of itself. It’s more a trap because it got a bad rep like being vegan and I know that because I was vegan for a while myself. It’s kind of controversial and it becomes this that splits people apart in a way.
So would you say that it’s crucial for alt protein companies to get out of this sub-category?
Jack A Bobo
Well, in the end, I feel like companies have to make their own decisions. But what I do is I advise companies that are interested in reaching a broader audience and are trying to de-escalate the tension in the food system. Some people just want to throw bombs and get things going and mix it up.
And you know, that’s a choice, but for many companies, they know that some of these larger food companies are their investors and are potentially going to be partners, are going to acquire them. And so, you have to think about, what is your long-term strategy, not just your short term.
And so I’m often called by venture capitalists who say, hey, we’ve got this company, and the CEO has gotten themselves into a little bit of trouble. Can you help them to talk about their products in a way that’s genuine and authentic, but doesn’t create the pushback that makes it harder for them to achieve their goals?
And so, I’m happy to do that because I tell people that my personal mission is to de-escalate the tension in our food system so that we can all go about our business of saving the planet in our own way.
Okay, Jack, so you are talking about de-escalating the tension within our food system. Well, that goes against the grain of a lot of communication that we’re seeing so far where there’s actually also a sort of excitement of we are revolutionizing the whole food industry. We are putting everything upside down. And it also creates a sense of coolness. Like it’s cool to be part of something that’s revolutionary and to possibly be a consumer of something that is putting everything upside down. So how do you marry these two concepts of something being cool, and at the same time, you don’t want to create all the friction.
Jack A Bobo
Things are often cool because you’re part of a group and being part of a group, you know, the more insular the group is, the more unique you feel. And so, there’s a question about, do you only want to reach the innovators or the innovators and the early adopters, or do you want to reach everybody in the food chain?
And so, by the time you reach everybody in the food chain, it’s not going to be the same kind of buzz that you’re going to have, when you’re Oatly, you know, and you’re just hitting the market. And so one of the biggest challenges that most food companies have, or startups, is how do you go from being a product for the innovator and the early adopter to scaling to the early majority. And that’s important because that’s the moment when your relationship to the consumer changes. And I can give you an example. So think about, for a moment, what would have happened if a company like Monsanto had created the Impossible Burger? I think we could guess that it probably would have failed. And if you had read the newspaper articles after it, every article would have said, what were they thinking? Nobody will ever buy a GMO burger. Well, of course that’s not actually true. So it’s like everybody would have assumed that’s why it failed, but it might’ve failed because people didn’t want it from a large multinational company.
And so, the reason people think things happen, and the reason they actually happen can be quite different. That’s an important lesson because when Impossible Foods went from being $20 a burger in high-end restaurants and only rich people could afford it, to going into 18,000 Burger Kings when poor people could afford it, well that’s the day the pushback happened. It didn’t happen when rich people were buying GMO burgers that were ultra processed. It happened when it actually reached the masses. So, that’s important to understand that that’s the moment, right? When you’re trying to go from early adopter and innovator to early majority is the moment of risk, because your relationship to the consumer changes, and every company that wants to scale has to bridge that divide.
And they have to understand how to position their product, not just for the early adopter, but for a larger audience. And if you don’t do that, what happens is, I talk to startup CEOs all the time that say “this big company came in and stole my market.” No, they didn’t. They have the majority and you have the early adopters and the innovators, and you never made bridge the gap. You left that market to somebody else.
So understanding that is important. And for large companies, it’s important as well, because if they want to play in this space, they should know who is their audience as well. They might not want to try to target the early adopter and the innovator. They might want to target that early majority. I can give you two examples. People often talk about Chobani coming along and just crushing Yoplait in the yogurt wars. And in business schools, they talk about how Yoplait just didn’t see Greek yogurt coming. They missed this opportunity, but if they had come out with a Greek yogurt, consumers might’ve said, what’s this, this is not sweet.
This isn’t what we expect of the brand. So it still could have failed. And the fact that Chobani succeeded was that it brought a different product that was inconsistent with the early product. We see another example of how a big food company did get there first. Quaker Oats actually came out with oat milk a year before Oatly really made a splash in the United States.
So they were there first. I’m sure they can make a pretty decent product if they want to. They’ve got, you know, endless money to throw at it. The problem is that the innovator walked into the grocery store and looked around, saw oat milk on the shelf from Quaker Oats. And they thought, oh my God, can there be a more boring product? What are these guys thinking? And they walked right out and the early majority, well, they don’t buy new stuff.
And so there just was no consumer for Quaker Oats. They killed the product in January of 2020. That’s the month they should have introduced the product and they might’ve owned the oat milk world.
So the diffusion of innovation is what that’s based on and companies should understand what that means for them.
Jack, that’s a really fascinating point because what the first part of what you were just talking about, it says that right now, if you look at the market, a lot of companies feel that cultivated meat is going to be very successful. Overall, there is a rather positive view on it also amongst the general public.
At least that’s the impression you can sometimes get, but then if there’s a go-to market and that works out pretty fine, it will probably in the mass media reach, mostly the innovators, the ones that are actually interested in the topic enough to follow it. So obviously there will be a good response.
However, when then cell-cultured meat gets more traction and reaches the broader population, that’s where we should expect the issues coming up. And how much do you see topics like demonstrations, self-proclaimed health gurus, fake news, conspiracy theories around cultivated meat to be something of concern?
Jack A Bobo
So I’m less worried about fake news and people attacking the industry because maybe it’s unhealthy or unnatural. I’m more worried about the self-inflicted wounds of the industry itself because how the industry talks about the product relates to consumer psychology. And if there’s a conversation about making the products cheaper than regular beef, in order to drive out animal agriculture, you end up with two situations.
One, if your goal is to eliminate animal agriculture, you’re going to get pushback from that industry. So you’re going to have to fight that. The second thing is that if you were saying that you were going to do that and you’re going to make it cheaper. Well, that makes a conventional hamburger the premium product.
So, as soon as you reach that inflection point, all of the early adopters and innovators who were driving consumption of the product, they just move back and say, you know, I really just want artisanal beef. You know, I want grass fed because you’re changing the perception of the product. So your goal is to become a commodity that wealthy people don’t want.
And will then be piling on the fact that it’s ultra processed and all of these other things. It’s worth keeping in mind that consumers are not fixed in their beliefs. If you’ll go back to 2019, Beyond Meat was the biggest IPO of the year, but the biggest diet trend was clean eating, which is all about whole foods.
And so, at the same time for consumers, the biggest diet can be whole foods and the biggest IPO can be ultra processed foods, right? So the world is big enough for both of these ideas to co-exist, but it does influence how consumers think about those products.
So, with making it into a commodity, I mean, we need to also think about cultivated meat or alternative proteins, in terms of the separate brands. So there could be one brand which actually becomes the commodity brand, whereas another brand will stay more high-priced, more premium.
So does it actually really make sense to think about the whole field as becoming a commodity?
Jack A Bobo
It does, if in the minds of the consumer, these are just cheap products. So before you can get that differentiation, you have already convinced the consumer that these products are cheap. Right now that’s what the messaging is all about. We’re going to be cheaper, cheaper, cheaper. Instead of talking about, we deliver quality products that are going to be affordable. It’s the same thing from an economic standpoint, but it’s very different from a psychology standpoint. I think we also need to remember and keep in mind the bigger goal. We need to increase protein production by between 50 and a hundred percent by 2050.
So that means if we have a $2 trillion protein market today, it’s going to increase to $3 to $4 trillion by 2050. I think it’s quite unlikely that the alternative protein market is going to grow to a $2 trillion market in 2050, let alone a $4 trillion market. So, the reality is that what we’re really talking about is how much of that future growth will be captured by the alternative protein industry.
So, yeah, there’s competition with animal agriculture, but it’s competition for market share that doesn’t yet exist. By positioning these companies as a threat to the future of the livestock industry, I mean, you know, if that’s the industry you’re in, why wouldn’t you respond? If somebody says, they’re going to take away your job, why wouldn’t you want to protest that?
We saw that in the cell-based meat market in the United States; 28 states tried to ban the use of the term meat for a product that did not yet exist. And that’s entirely because producers took seriously the threats to take away their jobs.
Okay. So, the question is actually whether the whole alternative protein meat industry would drop their fights against the conventional meat industry and say, well, we are just creating a tastier product, a better product, communicating from a classic food standpoint, how you would communicate most food products in terms of attractiveness to the consumer, would that actually eliminate the threat to the conventional meat industry, because it’s still there, right? Even if we don’t talk about it.
Jack A Bobo
Yeah, but the beef guys talk to the pork guys and talk to the poultry guys every day. And yet, if you look at beef consumption in America, it’s down dramatically over the last 30 or 40 years. And almost a hundred percent of that loss has been to the benefit of the poultry industry, right? So they’re strongly fighting with each other for market share.
And they’re also able to get along as individuals. So my belief is that the animal ag industry is perfectly happy to have competition and it may even win some market share, but it’s how you talk about it that really matters. And I think a good example of that is the former use of the term clean meat to talk about cultivated meat, cultured meat, cell based meat.
And that was the original term that was being proposed. The Good Food Institute had done a lot of research that said, that’s the term that consumers like most. The problem is that they were doing it because they felt like it was kind of like clean energy, and it was going to be safer a product hopefully, and that it was going to be better for the planet.
The problem is that, when you say that the cultivated meat is clean, you’re suggesting that the current meat is dirty, which is something they actually kind of liked that that implication was there. But it’s also suggesting that it’s unethical and most consumers don’t want to be having a conversation about ethics at the moment they’re taking a bite of food. So when you bring ethics into the conversation, you force people to deal with cognitive dissonance. And that’s how PETA and other organizations approach it. You know, how can you pet a puppy and eat a pig? And they want to create that dissonance because some people will say, I guess that’s right, I should stop eating meat.
But if you don’t go along, if people don’t agree with you, then you get something called reactance. And that’s where people will intentionally try to fight and undermine what you’re doing. Because you say they’re an evil person and people don’t believe that they’re evil people.
So it’s not at all surprising. Reactants can take many forms. It could be that they go out and eat a double quarter pounder to stick it in your face. It could be that they try to pass legislation that bans the use of the term meat for your product. And so that’s why I spent about 10 months working with the cultivated meat industry to get them, ultimately, to agree that they wouldn’t use that term anymore.
And, you know, I think that that was really helpful in deescalating some of that tension that had existed.
Yeah, I mean, you are also known as the guy who stopped the term clean meat. So maybe there is a legacy of communication. Once upon a time there weren’t good alternatives either. It was you eat animal-based products or you don’t. And now we are entering a new era where it actually becomes a viable option, both in terms of taste and price to have alternatives.
In the first era, the conversation was a lot about morals and ethics. You should stop eating that because it’s bad. And how do you see our shift to having alternatives impacting our communication around it?
Jack A Bobo
There’s definitely been a shift and right now we have this interesting situation where, most of the alternative protein products on the market are plant-based alternative proteins and you have a bit of a disconnect. Ninety plus percent of consumers say they’re trying these products because they believe that they’re healthier. And yet most of these products are not healthy or not much healthier than the traditional beef. That disconnect, I think, is a bit of a risk to the industry. If you allow consumers to have that misconception, because consumers may feel tricked ultimately if they realize that they’re doing that, that they’re eating products that they think are healthier, that aren’t.
This gets into something called the halo effect, which is that once we think a product has one good quality, we just assume that all of the qualities are good. That’s why if you put low fat on a package or you say, low-calorie, people will eat an entire bag of low fat cookies.
Well, low fat doesn’t mean there aren’t calories. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t even more calories in the product. But people just assume that. If they have these misunderstandings and then they don’t use the product in the way that it really was intended to, then they may not achieve their personal goal.
And if the products don’t deliver on their brand promise, then they’re not going to be successful in the long run. So that’s why it’s really important for the messaging to help bring the consumer back to the actual brand promise and not allow them to sort of misunderstand what the brand stands for.
So now let’s say the brand promise that we have discussed so far, it is not replacing the animal agriculture. It is not talking about ethics. It is not being the healthier product. At least I think that’s a point that can be argued about like, depending on how much one beliefs that conventional meat and processed conventional meat is bad.
It’s always a question of comparison, but let’s assume that we’re not talking about health. So Jack, what should we talk about?
Jack A Bobo
So it doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about the benefits of your product. It doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about that your company is a company that stands for improving the health of the planet. You can still talk about what your product is doing to be a better product for the planet.
It’s just, once you start comparing it in a way that brings in additional moral and ethical values; you can elevate your product without trying to lower the other product. And I’ll give you an example. So a couple summers ago, Perfect Day came out with samples for their ice cream, and, I’m sure that the first thing that happened is that the journalists called up the dairy industry because they wanted to hear what does the dairy industry think about this new product?
And so if I were the dairy industry and I was being called to ask to comment on a product like Perfect Day, the easy thing to do would be to bash it as being unnatural, right? That’s just a natural response. But what you could say is, we were really interested in hearing about this development.
We believe that it validates the nutrition of dairy proteins. We believe consumers will continue to be interested in the full range of proteins in a glass of milk. And we feel like it’s a completely natural product. In other words, they could try to elevate dairy instead of trying to drag down Perfect Day.
I think that would have been a more effective response to the consumer than trying to undermine Perfect Day or these alternative proteins. So elevating your product, I think, is always taking the high ground versus trying to denigrate the opposition. Oatly talks all the time about how they’re growing so fast and they’re laying waste to the dairy industry by expanding, and the reality is that they’re mostly taking market share from almond milk.
And almond milk mostly took market share from soy milk. There might be some dairy that’s losing market share because of what they’re doing, but probably 95% of their gain is at the expense of their alternative protein competitors. So if you position your product as delivering this benefit for reducing animal ag and you’re not actually doing it, you know, again, I think that may be your goal, but if you’re not achieving your goal, then I think one should be careful about doing it.
You know, isn’t it enough to produce a product that has a better environmental footprint or that’s showing that you’re doing your part to make the planet a better place. I think that’s what consumers mostly care about.
So, I think that the idea is that these smaller startups have to decide what they’re going to be when they grow up. You know, they will either scale as independent companies or they will scale through partnership, or they will scale through acquisition. And that means that they’re going to work within the food system one way or another. If an alternative protein company wants to really dominate and, you know, be 20% of the market for, you know, protein, they’re going to be big food, right.
You know, you can’t sell, you know, $10 billion worth of product and not be a big food company. And so if you position big food as the enemy, well, that just means some other small alternative protein’s going to come along and say, we’re not big food. You know, we’re not Beyond Mea with a $10 billion market cap, you know, we’re really the small guy.
And then you end up fighting with companies within your own sphere for the alternative protein market.
So pretty much the red line and all that you’re talking about is you could call it non-confrontational in a way. What if somebody says, well, but that’s boring. Like people like the attention, people like the friction, that’s what gets press. That’s what gets you interviews. So what would you answer to that?
Jack A Bobo
It’s okay to have some tension, a little bit of pressure, you know. Friction is the place where people get excited, as you say, but there’s a difference between making a controversial remark every once in a while and having a marketing strategy that is intended to create pushback that ultimately makes it harder for you to do what you’re trying to do.
Every one of these companies at some point will have to realize that the language they’re using can achieve one goal, but it might undermine another goal. And if the alternative protein industry continues to talk in terms of cheapness, they will achieve their goal of becoming cheaper and nobody will want their product.
Hmm. That’s very, very controversial because that seems to be the end goal in a way. As soon as it has achieved price parity, or is cheaper than the conventional meat sources, isn’t that also the point at which it becomes a mass product?
Jack A Bobo
So I was reading a tweet by somebody from the Breakthrough Institute and they said that if alternative protein could replace ground beef, that American agriculture gas emissions would reduce by one sixth. And so I wrote back and I said, well, if you eliminate ground beef and you’re still producing steak, where does all the beef go?
Because you’re still producing it. And they said, oh, it’ll just get exported. Right. So eliminating ground beef, doesn’t eliminate ground beef. It just relocates it someplace else. So, I mean, again, we need to understand the economics of this. As long as there’s the same amount of steak in the world, there will always be exactly the same amount of ground beef in the world.
It’ll just go someplace else. And it might go someplace that actually needs more animal protein. And so maybe that’s a good thing, but the conversation around eliminating it, you know, we could produce no hamburger in America. We could export a hundred percent of it, but you didn’t eliminate hamburger. You just moved it someplace else.
As long as the same amount of steak exists in the world, there will always be the same amount of hamburger; it’s a by-product of steak. So all you can do is drive the price of hamburger down. You can’t make it disappear. Companies would give away hamburger if it didn’t have any value, right? If you couldn’t sell it someplace else cheaper, and people still wanted to buy steak. That’s the whole problem with this cheapness argument; is that hamburger can become cheaper and cheaper and cheaper as long as people still buy steak, because it’s a by-product. So, it will find a market somewhere.
Okay. Okay. Okay. But then we also need to replace a steak, that’s the core of this argument. Like you cannot just replace hamburgers because it’s being made out of the whole cow. If you need the steak, you need a certain part of the cow.
You still need a certain amount of cows that are not going anywhere. So we need to also replace steak to reduce actual cow production.
Jack A Bobo
And that’s if we were actually going to reduce animal agriculture, but you’ve got a $2 trillion opportunity that exists before you have to have this conversation. So, you know, in many ways the conversation is a threat to the livestock industry. That’s a theoretical threat that isn’t a real threat. And so why are we spending so much time and energy talking about something that can’t happen? Or if it does happen, won’t happen for 20 or 30 years. If you’re really telling people I’m going to put you out of business, but you’re not actually going to do it. Why would you create that kind of ill will? Alternatively, we could talk about, we need to produce 50% to 100% more protein, and we need to do it using a smaller environmental footprint than we do today. And what we need is the livestock industry to be dramatically more environmentally friendly than it is today. And we need to produce additional protein that is more environmentally friendly than if we just scaled animal agriculture. If we’ve achieved that, if we’ve gotten to 2050, without cutting down our forests and draining our rivers and our lakes and our aquifers, then we can have a conversation over who’s going to actually then control the market. But we have such a big task ahead of us that it doesn’t even involve anybody going out of business.
Yeah, that’s quite funny. Especially from cultivated meat companies. I mean, yeah, it’s early in the development. I think Paul Shapiro in the first episode we have had on Red to Green, he was saying something along the lines of cultured meat has been like five years away for an indefinite amount of time. Always in five years, we may say, well, it’s five years away and then it keeps moving on. So, it’s this thought concept structure, all of the pieces in your arguments fit together and they build up on each other. Is there something that we haven’t covered yet on that.
Jack A Bobo
Yeah. So that’s a good question. I think, you know, understanding consumer psychology is just going to be very important to these companies. So, I would encourage all of the companies in this space to think about what this means. Just to give one example, we didn’t talk about insects.
I don’t know if your listeners think about insect protein at all, but this idea of cognitive dissonance is on display with some of the companies in this space. So, you’ll have some alternative protein companies that create the cricket bar and they put the cricket right there on the package and they’re telling the consumer “you’re eating insects.” Now consumers have to get over that sense of disgust that insects create for many Western consumers in order to appreciate their product.
On the other hand, you have other energy bars like the Jungle Bar, which says insect powered on the label, but it’s not really that noticeable. And they’re giving the consumer permission to eat the product without having to think about the fact that it’s made of insects. So they’re not lying about it. They’re not hiding it, but they’re giving you permission to not worry about it. And so when we think about how you want to position products in the future, think about what Eat Just is doing with their alternative egg product. They’re not trying to convince me to eat yellow peas, and they’re not trying to convince me to eat mung beans.
They’re giving me an egg substitute. So why is it so important that insect protein be called insect protein? Why not just give me a super, protein bar and if it tastes great and it accomplishes its goal, isn’t that just good enough? So too often, I think we get hung up on our own technology and our own innovation.
And that’s often not the thing that’s going to drive the consumer success of your product.
Yeah, quite interesting. So I’m saying interesting a lot because there are a lot of interesting points here. How would you say uh, we should be dealing with that in the cultivated meat space? We have the issue that it is a new technology and people are demanding to understand what they eat. They want to know what they put inside their body and it’s novel.
There’s so many questions to be answered. So it’s like a Pandora’s box. And there’s also an argument for being very transparent on it because as I think Britta, Britta from LegenDairy has said in one of the interviews GMOs, for example, partially has got a bad reputation because there has been a lot of unclear information around it and big corporations in that sense sparking a sense of skepticism around what are they doing there? What are they up to? So there’s a need for transparency, but how do we balance that with the need of being appealing?
Jack A Bobo
Yeah. So there are a few different ways to think about it. You know, one of the problems with GMOs is that they happened at a unique moment in time. For all of human history, consumers just did not care how we produce food. You know, they weren’t thinking about pesticides. They weren’t thinking about tilling practices.
They just didn’t care. And so I think the seed companies were slow to realize the world had changed and that consumers actually knew their name. And so that was a learning process. But I think we know now how important transparency is. And the thing is that you can’t be transparent after you’re asked about transparency.
You need to be transparent before anybody asks you the question. And so I give you an example, there were people at McDonald’s who were trying to convince the company to put their ingredients on the web, and, they just didn’t feel like they needed to do it, that it was important, but they eventually relented and they put all of their ingredients on the website and nobody visited the website.
And so the executives are like what the heck’s going on? You know, we did what you asked us to do and nobody’s visiting the site. And the response from the comms guys was, yeah, that’s great. Because when you ask people, they’re just happy knowing it exists, they’re happy knowing they could visit that website.
And so concerns about the ingredients declined just by making something available that nobody ever visited.
Jack A Bobo
And so, you know, you want to make sure that your product is as transparent as you’re capable of being. And, you know, then when somebody says, well, what’s in your product, you’re like, well, it’s right here.
And there’s not really as much for them to get upset about because you’ve already answered the question before it was even asked, but there’s no amount of information you can provide when you don’t have trust. You know? I mean, think about it. If somebody asks, you know, is it safe to eat clean meat and you don’t trust me?
And I say, well, there are a thousand papers that demonstrate the safety of the product. You’re gonna be like, I don’t want to see your research because I don’t trust you. On the other hand, if you do trust me and I say, oh, I’ve got a thousand papers that show that clean cell based meat is safe.
You’re like, oh, that’s good enough for me. So, you know, in almost no situation is science really relevant. It’s always the trust that’s relevant. Now it should be backed by science, but you know, science at the beginning of a conversation, just polarizes the audience. Those who agree with you agree with you more.
And those who disagree, disagree more.
Yeah, it’s also quite fascinating how science itself has become more of a controversial topic in terms of people losing trust in institutions and our scientific process. So Isha Datar, in one of the other interviews, she was saying that her impression is that consumer research is possibly unhelpful because consumers, I’ll quote, “we are being informed by what consumers say, but consumers are always just recycling past experiences.” And another quote “I’m not so sure that companies should be not targeting their audience from the beginning.”
So on the one hand, the argument that consumer research is possibly going in the wrong direction and just making uninspiring marketing campaigns on the other hand that companies should zoom in on their target audience and that maybe a company decides to zoom in on the health people and another one on the ones that are into flavor and taste and weird experiences, et cetera, et cetera, segmenting their market and focusing on one niche of the market.
What would you respond to that?
Jack A Bobo
So I’ll start with the first on consumer research. I think she’s absolutely right that you have to be very cautious in what lessons you take from consumer research. Consumer research is still important, but I’ll give you an example. A few years ago, PepsiCo did a ton of research according to their vice president for science and research.
And the person said the single reason that consumers are no longer drinking diet soda is because of aspartame. That’s the reason, we figured it out. They took aspartame out of the product. Well, 10 months later, they had to put it back because it turns out that the reason that consumers said they didn’t want the product, wasn’t the real reason.
And it turns out consumers just didn’t know why they weren’t drinking diet soda anymore, but they had been hearing a lot about aspartame. And so consumers who still drink diet soda, they actually liked the product. Consumers who weren’t drinking it, they didn’t even know why they didn’t like it. And so, you know, so that’s part of the cautionary tale.
But social listening is still critically important. You know, it’s important to understand what people are saying, but you need to know also what people are doing because what people say they do and what they actually do aren’t always the same thing. But also actions eventually lead to thoughts, not thoughts lead to actions.
And so we need to actually realize that consumers often get it backwards. You know, we choose a product because a friend was using the product, but then when you asked me why I never say, oh, because I just want to be like my friends, you say, oh, because it’s better for the planet. Or, I hear that it’s more nutritious. The reason we give isn’t necessarily the reason that motivated us.
To your question about segmentation, I think that’s critical. The world does not need 20 plant-based burgers that all do the same thing, all taste a lot like conventional hamburger. We need a cheaper version. We need the mid price. We need a premium product. But we certainly, you know, one company could deliver all of those things. So, if the industry is going to remain vibrant and include a lot of different segments, you know, they’re going to be needing to deliver different things to the consumer.
And that could be health. That could be nutrition. That could be sustainability. That could be local, you know, so there are a lot of different ways of competing that are separate from just tasting a lot like beef.
And do you think that the nomenclature topic is chewed through.
Jack A Bobo
Um, I think that, you know, there’s too much attention paid to nomenclature. As long as the nomenclature doesn’t do harm, I think you’re just fine because people may know that the Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger is plant-based, but it’s still branded as the Impossible Burger. It will be a Memphis Meat burger. And, you know, maybe it’ll have a little footnote that says it’s cultivated, but you’ll be leading with branding. And so I don’t worry as much about that as long as it’s not counterproductive. So clean meat had to go cultivated cell based, you know, uh, cultured, I think that’s much less relevant.
Your points are quite unusual in that sense. And I do appreciate that. What are common push backs that you get or questions that you get regarding those , um, that we should maybe address?
Jack A Bobo
Um, so, you know, there’s often pushback, but I’m taking the long view that the more there’s fighting within the industry about cell based versus plant-based versus animal, the more we’re really undermining consumer confidence in our food system. Just to give one example, we, you know, we talk about the importance of alternative proteins and creating a sustainable future. If you look at what the World Resources Institute has said, they show like the menu of change necessary to create that sustainable future. And they focus on reducing food waste, shifting diets, alternative proteins, all of those different things.
And yet when you look at their bar graph, 61% of the improvements to our food system that must occur to get to the sustainable future are already baked into their assessment based on historic trends in traditional agriculture. So 61% of the improvements we need to do are going to happen because of big food and traditional ag that we’re already denigrating.
And yet they’re going to do 61% of the work. Why not look at it as they’re doing two thirds of the work and now these alternative protein companies and others are going to help to fill the gap? It’s that sustainable future I’m trying to get to. And we can each play our part in getting there.
But if we spend our time and energy trying to tear down the other guy, then they don’t get to do their work, you know? So they spend communication dollars fighting you and you spend it fighting them instead of spending money on R&D and research and efforts to actually improve your product and help the consumer to understand it.
Is there anything that you would like to communicate that we haven’t touched upon?
Jack A Bobo
So one thing I would encourage people to think about my new book that’s coming out, Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices, that’ll be available in bookstores on May 11th. It’s currently available for pre-order on Amazon and other places. But I mentioned it because the first third of the book is all about consumer psychology.
So to come to the ending questions, Jack, if you would have $50 million, in what businesses or initiatives would you invest in?
Jack A Bobo
I’m not the sort of person who places a bet on single industries or segments. I’m more of a total stock market kind of investor. You know, I want to help as many companies as possible to explore their opportunities, to improve the planet.
And I’m just confident that some of them will succeed. The next 30 years are not just the most important 30 years there have ever been in the history of the planet. The next 30 years are the most important 30 years there will ever be. If we can get to 2050 without screwing up the planet in many ways, we’re going to be good forever.
That’s how important this moment is.
We touched upon quite a few but what is another controversial opinion regarding food tech or agriculture that you hold that people may be surprised by?
Jack A Bobo
Well, you know, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of alternative proteins and things, but I’ve also worked with the dairy industry and the livestock industry. I think it’s important that we encourage those industries to be more productive and that we actually recognize how far they’ve come. The farmer today, the livestock producer today, is wildly more productive than they were 30 or 40 years ago. And there’s this feeling that agriculture is bad and getting worse, but by most measures, agriculture is good and getting better. And that’s important because if ag is bad and getting worse, farmers are the problem to solve.
If ag is getting good and getting better, but not fast enough, that means farmers are the solution to our problem.
If you tell 95% of people in the food system, that they’re the problem, why are they going to work with you? You know, why are they going to try to do things better? If we were producing food today the way we did in 1960 with the same technologies, we would have to have 1 billion hectors of additional farmland. That’s more than 25% of all the forest on the planet would have been cut down in order to produce the food that we have. So it’s hard for people to wrap their minds around the fact that agriculture is the number one driver of deforestation. And it’s the number one savior of forest. Those two things can be true at exactly the same time.
Wow. Well, couldn’t one say that it’s not necessarily the farmer that’s the problem. It’s just then the system, that’s the problem. The incentive to have a very nature-unfriendly production system and incentive to do monocultures, to drive away small-scale farmers and replace them with large scale productions.
Jack A Bobo
So I would say that, yes, but I don’t see that as the problem. I see that as an important feature in the system. So yeah, this is certainly a controversial one. It’s about trade-offs. If all of the farmers are small, they’re going to be less productive. If they’re less productive, food prices will be higher.
And if food prices are higher, more people will be hungry. The system we have has all of the negative consequences, you know, 40% of all the land on earth is devoted to agriculture. 70% of all freshwater goes to ag. 80% of deforestation is caused by ag. So those are things all true. But today only about seven or 8% of the people on the planet go to bed hungry.
But 30 or 50 years ago, a third of all the people on the planet went to bed hungry. And so that’s, you know, taking billions of people out of poverty is on the plus side. The green revolution had lots of negative environmental consequences, but it saved a billion lives. So there will always be trade offs.
The more intensively you produce food, the worse it is for your local environment, but the fewer forests get cut down in Brazil and Indonesia. So, you can’t have a system that’s based only on small farming. You know, Europe is driving towards that but their 2030 goal of having 25% of agriculture be organic, well, based on their own assessments, that means they’re going to produce 8% less food.
So if Europe produces 8% less food, who’s going to feed them? Well, the number one exporter to Europe is Brazil. Europe already imports 70% of its animal feed needs. So, you know, it takes a land mass the size of the agricultural land of Germany to produce soybeans for Europe. So Europe has exported its environmental footprint to arguably the most bio-diverse country on the planet.
If Europe were feeding itself, there would be no deforestation in Brazil. So, that’s a choice, you know. But Europe has more forest today than it did a hundred years ago. You know, one, because they’re wildly more productive, but two because they’re exporting their footprint. Our local sustainability comes at the cost of global sustainability. Global sustainability comes at the cost of local. And what I mean is an organic system may be better for the local environment, but if I need 20% more food someplace else, that’s a problem somewhere else.
And intensive agriculture may have run off and eutrophication of water and all of those negative consequences, but it is protecting forest someplace else. Anytime you scale an idea, it will come with some costs.
Oh, well, we could keep talking for another six hours easily. I wouldn’t run out of things to talk to you about. And how can listeners connect with you?
Jack A Bobo
So there are a few ways. My website is futurityfood.com. That’s futurityfood.com. There’s also LinkedIn where you can find me and you can always send me an email. You can put it in the comments, but it’s just firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also on Twitter and Instagram.
Wonderful Jack. It was really a pleasure to have you on.
Jack A Bobo
Yeah. This has been a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.