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The plant-based movement is looking at the “educated consumer” all wrong

I spent five years working in produce at a local co-op. Here’s what I learned about how consumers actually make food choices.

“Excuse me; where are the organic apples?”

I looked up from stacking kale into the produce cooler along the wall, unsurprised. It was a typical question from customers at the local co-op where I did my weekly Friday evening work shift in the produce department. The store’s focus on fresh, natural and organic drew the kind of crowd who preferred to avoid anything they believed might contaminate their food.

“Over there, along that wall, on the right,” I replied, pointing to the opposite side of the produce department. “We also have local apples at the other end.”

“Are they organic?” the customer wanted to know. (This, too, was typical.)

Man comparing two green apples
Photo by Raquel Martínez on Unsplash

“No, but we don’t stock anything that’s been bathed in pesticides.” I could assert this with confidence based on the co-op’s food sourcing guidelines. “And they’ll taste better because they didn’t come from as far away.”

“Thanks, but I think I want the organic,” the customer replied without hesitation. Never mind that the local apples were delivered from a nearby farm just a few days before, while the organic ones came all the way from New Zealand.

This conversation repeated itself countless times during the five years I spent working those shifts. It represents one of many points of confusion I witnessed among consumers—the very same consumers that the plant-based industry categorizes as “educated” or “savvy.” These consumers, the assumption goes, understand where their food comes from and how it’s produced and use this information to make better purchasing decisions.

But chatting with shoppers opened my eyes to a different reality: Many “educated” consumers are actually confused consumers. When deciding what to buy, consumers rely on what they believe about information—not what the information actually means.

Looking only at purchasing behaviors and self-reported preferences leads companies to erroneous conclusions about why consumers choose one product over another. Decisions about R&D and product positioning based on these conclusions are a waste of time, money and effort that can sometimes spell the end of a brand.

Getting product attributes and messaging right is essential for the plant-based and alternative protein industries to start driving meaningful dietary changes. Brands need to look beyond what “educated” consumers know to uncover how their beliefs influence what they put in their carts.

Consumer confusion: Insights from the co-op

Talking to people while they shop isn’t a luxury available to every brand founder or marketing team, but I had plenty of time during those five years of weekly shifts to engage in dozens of enlightening customer conversations.

These observations showed me that consumers want to make the best choices for their health, but all they know how to do is follow sets of food rules they’ve cobbled together from disparate health information they’ve heard and read over the years. These sets of rules influence how consumers think about plant-based products.

The plant-based movement faces the challenge of guiding its customers from confusion to understanding through thoughtful product positioning and marketing messages. To do that, brands need to rethink their own beliefs—beliefs about who their target customers actually are and how to deliver information in a way that helps those customers understand how plant-based foods fit into their dietary patterns.

It all starts with understanding what’s going on in consumers’ heads when they make food choices. Here are five main beliefs I encountered at the co-op and what they mean for plant-based brands.

1) Everything that isn’t organic is bathed in pesticides (and is probably GMO)

Consumers equate “organic” with “safe.” In their minds, buying organic means getting food free from pesticides and genetic modification. Non-organic food, particularly produce, is automatically suspect. If a food doesn’t sport an organic label, customers assume it’s covered in scary chemicals or harbors some bizarre manmade mutation that could do who knows what to their biology.

It doesn’t matter that organic farmers also use pesticides and that only five GMO crops are sold in U.S. produce departments as of this writing. Most people don’t know this. In fact, they’re so convinced that organic is good and conventional is bad that they’ll avoid local produce grown with minimal pesticide use in favor of organic produce grown thousands of miles away.

(They’ll also avoid seedless watermelons and grapes—because clearly anything without seeds must have been biologically manipulated in a lab. This is such a common misconception that the co-op put up myth-busting signs in the produce department to explain that it’s not true.)

2) The more labels a food has, the safer (and healthier) it is

The obsession with organic shows that fear is a strong driver of purchasing behavior for health-conscious consumers. They’re concerned about—or outright terrified of—how pesticides and GMOs might affect their health. The same goes for any ingredient or farming practice vilified by the media or denounced by influential voices in natural and holistic health circles.

“The rise of ‘clean eating’ and the marketing of ‘natural’ foods has not made us feel safer. Instead, these trends leave us less certain and less confident in the food choices we make.” - Jack A. Bobo, Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices

Some producers take advantage of these perceptions and slap as many labels on their packaging as possible to signal that they’re the safest, healthiest choice—and people fall for it. I saw this trend unfolding during the latter part of my time at the co-op, most notably with a brand of organic cauliflower that was also Non-GMO Project Verified. Not only is there no such thing as GMO cauliflower (yet), but the USDA also requires organic foods to be free of GMOs—making for a stunningly redundant label.

The problem with this practice is that it only makes customers freak out more. They begin to believe a specific label or combination of labels makes one product superior to another even if the labels are redundant or the products are the same. Data from the International Food Information Council’s yearly Food and Health Survey bears this out: People perceive “natural” foods as healthier and shun anything that resembles a “chemical.”

3) Buying local is vital (so bring on the Northeastern oranges)

buying produce at a local farmstand
Photo by RODNAE Productions

Although the local label continues to take the back seat to organic most of the time with co-op shoppers, it’s still an important signal. And, like organic, it’s wildly misunderstood.

Take, for instance, the customer who asked for local oranges. This would have been a reasonable request in, say, California or Florida. But given that the co-op is in upstate New York, it simply showed that the customer had no idea what “buying local” entailed, even though she was convinced she should do it.

The illusion of year-round seasonality magnifies this misconception. Even “educated” consumers predicate their diets on the assumption that all types of produce will be available regardless of the time of year. They don’t realize they’d have to subsist on greens and garlic scapes in the spring and potatoes and squash in the winter if they stuck with the standard of buying local. Blinded by the produce section’s timeless uniformity, aspiring locavores prioritize availability over health, environmental and social benefits.

4) The last bunch of kale in the bin can’t possibly be fresh

Whether or not it’s local, consumers want produce to be perfect. This bias persists to an insane degree despite efforts to normalize “ugly” fruits and vegetables. Most people won’t buy produce that has even the slightest sign of inferiority. From a tiny ding in an apple skin to a single spot of brown on a leaf, flaws are deemed unacceptable.

I had customers ask if there was any fresh lettuce only minutes after I filled the bins in the cooler. I watched a fellow produce worker put all the salad mixes with the current day’s date into the clearance section because customers were convinced the greens were moments away from going bad. And I can’t tell you how many times we culled the last bunch of kale or handful of potatoes because almost nobody would buy produce that was sitting by itself in the bin.

This same mentality carries over to packaged foods. Dented cans and boxes inevitably wind up on the clearance shelf—and sometimes even then, people won’t buy them. In consumers’ minds, if the outside isn’t pristine, the food inside can’t be any good, either.

5) Big Food is a bunch of liars, but celebrity doctors hold the magic keys to health

Firmly held beliefs about food aren’t limited to labels and appearances. The media—and social media—has done a fantastic job of convincing people that they must eat or avoid certain foods to achieve perfect health. Add to that the propensity toward seeking Dr. Google’s advice for every ailment, and it’s the perfect recipe for a whole range of dietary dogmas.

“It seems like there are new stories from social media influencers every day about potent food additives or ingredients that will either kill you or make you live forever.” - Jack A. Bobo, Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices

I saw this play out in customers who shopped with lists from The Latest Best-Selling Diet Book in hand, as if missing even one recommended food would render the protocol useless. And I’m sure the same mindset was behind the fear of conventional produce and GMOs.

Health-conscious consumers seem particularly prone to latching onto whatever the Natural Health Gurus tell them while harboring a deep distrust for Big Food and Big Pharma. These beliefs surrounding food and diet are powerful, and consumers who follow specific regimens aren’t easily persuaded to change.

Going beyond data to understand the educated consumer

All those Friday evening shifts at the co-op were customer research in disguise. My conversations with customers opened my eyes to what’s actually going on in people’s heads when they shop—and taught me that “educated” consumers are a diverse group that includes people who:

  • see organic, non-GMO, chemical-free food as safer and healthier.
  • believe local is better (but don’t necessarily know why).
  • read a lot of articles and books on alternative medicine and holistic health.
  • jump on every new health trend because they believe all the headlines.
  • read a book on a specific healthy diet and commit to following it exactly.
  • actually are more educated about how food is grown and produced.

Whatever category they fall into, every consumer has specific standards for what they will and won’t eat. To effectively communicate how a plant-based option fits these standards, brands need to look beyond data and trends and learn about beliefs, attitudes and mental barriers.

Including the desire to buy local oranges.

Thanks to Foster members Minnow Park, Jude Klinger, Daniel Sission, Lyle McKeany, Steven Ovadia and Caryn Tan for their help finalizing this piece!

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