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Getting real about unreal meat

Faux burgers are here to stay. It's a product that is doing very well at finding its niche in the market and it will prove to be significant

To gain a competitive advantage in business, we are often urged to understand market direction by ‘connecting the dots.’ Most smart business people can do that simple trick. The hardest and most rewarding trick, though, is to connect the dots that others don't see.

Some call it creating a disruptive business model; ignoring the way things are traditionally done and creating a whole new approach. It lets the little guy sneak into an old marketplace by restarting it as though he was the first one in; the inventor, not the upstart.

Scrap the rules. Ignore the way things ‘have always been done.’ Scoff at all those wise old men who built it decades ago and wrote the book on how to compete. Understand what drove country music outlaws like Waylon, Willie and the boys to disrupt and reinvent what they no longer believed in.

Competing ‘nice’ never got anyone from newbie to number one. Tearing up the old, previously agreed on rules of marketing -- playing to win the war, not the popularity contest -- usually did the trick. In long-standing market after long-standing market, today's kingpin was usually yesterday's son-of-a-bitch. We also can add emerging market after emerging market -- those new arenas that never existed before some irrational but creative idiot thought there should be a business opportunity that never existed until day before yesterday.

Of course, every new idea has been met by scorn. Computers? "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers," said famed IBM CEO Thomas Watson in 1943. He also said the upper limit for copiers was around 5,000.

In 2006, David Pogue, who was the New York Times savvy tech editor said, "Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cell phone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.’ Oops! The first iPhone came out a year later.

In 1998, Adele Douglass, a veteran Washington lobbyist (full disclosure: Now my wife), saw how poorly too many farm animals were treated. Horrified, she put her retirement fund into seed money for Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), an organization created to develop science-based animal handling guidelines. No one needs it, ag people told her. No one will follow these guidelines!

HFAC started from a small base in the U.S. and soon added Canada and Brazil. In 2013 just 86,823,780 animals were raised under Certified Humane guidelines. Just five years later, the organization was active in more than a dozen countries around the world and its standards were the basis for how almost 200 million animals are treated.

The prediction that cell-based meat is just a flash in the roasting pan sits right up there with the wisdom of Watson and Pogue. No one needs it? Hold Impossible Meat's beer. Better to say no one knew they needed it until they saw it or tasted it.

The best business quote is from Apple's Steve Jobs who said “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, a faster horse!' People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

And what was not yet on the page is cell-based meat. It provides an answer to a lot of nascent consumer wants. It's something vegetarians and vegans can eat. Flexitarians can toss it on the grill Labor Day weekend, instead of the real thing. People who, rightly or wrongly, think eating less meat might be good for the environment can feel nobler than thou when they chow down on a product made from almost two dozen ingredients, most of them unpronounceable and none of them from a real animal. Pea protein and soy becomes their new burger and “chik-in” patty.

Bottom line: Faux burgers are here to stay. It's a product that is doing very well at finding its niche in the market and it will prove to be significant. Dismiss it at your own peril. Instead, get busy reminding millions why the real thing is tastier and better for you. One more thing: Don't fight it with facts. Food is an emotional thing.

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