Alt Protein Marketing Needs A Behavioural Science Overhaul

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To achieve long-term success, alternative protein companies need to better leverage consumer psychology and the behavioral science around instant and future rewards.

In the fast-growing alternative protein sector, companies are competing for a place in the competitive food market. However, these innovative products are not traditional food, even if they may provide a similar experience.

Marketing Challenge #1: Balancing Instant Gratification With Future Rewards 

While alternative protein products are consumed like traditional foods, their value lies in the promise of future benefits for health, environment, and animal welfare. Recognizing this is key to defining marketing strategies for these products. To appeal to a wide audience, alternative protein brands must provide both instant gratification and future rewards.   

Industries like dieting, insurance, health products, and fitness all successfully balance instant gratification and future rewards and alternative protein brands should learn from them. Companies like Weight Watchers, Peloton, and Progressive Insurance all come to mind.

Courtesy: Dickey Insurance

The alternative protein industry’s challenge lies in how to present the instant reward appeal of its products with the future reward value proposition and it’s important to note that this will depend on which consumer segment and which pain point they are addressing.  For example, one segment may value tasting something new and different (instant reward), believing they are helping the planet (future reward) while another may value the status of trying the latest food trend (instant reward), hoping to improve their health over time (future reward). 

A successful strategy considers how to address the motivations and risks of each consumer segment as well as all the pain points. For some consumers, switching from familiar animal proteins to alternatives presents uncertainty about taste, nutrition, or even cultural acceptance. Brands must mitigate these pain points while offering relevant rewards for the target segment.

Understanding consumer psychology and behavior change is key. One useful framework is the “stages of change” model (Prochaska and DiClemente, 1970), which identifies five main stages via which individuals progress when adopting new behaviors or habits. This model can be used to help alternative protein companies craft effective marketing strategies that resonate with consumers at different stages of the behavior change process.

In the model, consumers progress from a pre-contemplation stage to a maintenance stage. Pre-contemplation is the first stage in the process of behaviour change. At this first stage, individuals are not yet considering a change in their behavior. They may be unaware of the need for change or might not see the potential benefits.

In the context of alternative proteins, consumers in the pre-contemplation stage may not be aware of the environmental, health, or ethical reasons for considering plant-based protein or cultivated meat. As a result, they are not actively seeking alternatives to traditional animal proteins.

Successful marketing campaigns are able to target the right stage and help consumers move to the next stage. Campaigns with positive, relatable messages that focus on achievable progress rather, not than perfection, are often the most effective at facilitating behavioral change.

Source: Weight Watchers

Marketing Challenge #2: Effective Market Segmentation – Defining The Right Consumer Groups   

To effectively target consumers, alternative protein brands should rethink market segmentation dimensions. Many of today’s brands focus on meat lovers and environmentalists. Instead, brands should segment based on variables such as “what innovation means to each segment,” “what instant gratification means,” or “what change means.” This approach can help create unique and relevant positioning, leading to increased sales, and brand equity.    

Understanding how different consumer segments find social validation, acceptance or status from doing good or from being first is key. For example, dieting companies and gyms avoid shaming and focus on appealing to motivation. They frame diets and/or working out as exciting lifestyle changes, not punitive measures. Similarly, alternative proteins could be positioned as innovative, premium choices that make people feel good.

The three main consumer segments for alternative protein companies are as follows: ]

  • Innovators or Early Adopters: Thrilled to try new things, this group wants access to the latest food in tech and values being first. They are motivated by curiosity, status, and a strong belief in science and technological progress. 
  • Pragmatists or Early Mainstream: These folks are open to new options if the benefits are clear. They are motivated by health, cost, and convenience and they need evidence that alternative proteins compare favorably. They are concerned about taste, nutrition, and availability.
  • Traditionalists or Late Mainstream: These consumers prefer familiar options and adhere to cultural norms. They are motivated by habit, nostalgia, and convention. They will be the most challenging to convert, as they are change-averse and perceive alternative proteins as threatening the status quo. To appeal to them, brands should focus on engaging with future generations and promoting a gradual transition.”
Courtesy Eat Just

CHALLENGE 3: Marketing Challenge #3: Matching Marketing Campaigns With Consumer Adoption Patterns 

While targeting innovators and early adopters is key when you first launch, alternative protein brands should consider the broader market. Well-defined market segmentation can help brands create campaigns and messaging for consumers at different adoption stages. For example, a slogan like “Change tastes great” attracts those seeking the thrill of being first (the Innovators described above), unlike “Plants don’t get sick (Eat Just), which would fit speak to the Pragmatists.”

While innovators should receive tailored messaging emphasizing discovery, uniqueness, and being on the cutting edge, early mainstream audiences may need messaging focused on alignment with their existing values like health or sustainability. Late mainstream or laggard segments will require the most comprehensive education on the benefits and safety of the products 

Traditionalists pose the greatest challenge but can also be viewed as the biggest opportunity (remember, humans are wired not to like change, because“change is not safe”). It’s worth noting that age is a factor here too. Younger generations are often more open to new ideas and this is reflected in meat and dairy alternatives. Connecting alternative proteins to family, tradition or cultural identity may help address reservations among tradition-oriented consumers. Partnering with schools, healthcare organizations, and community groups to introduce alternative proteins to wider audiences in a trusted, accessible way would be another way to drive progress. 

By understanding and leveraging the balance of instant and future rewards, alternative protein brands can create effective marketing strategies that resonate with diverse consumer segments. In doing so, they will contribute to a better future and build a lasting legacy.  


  • Coral Puig Garrigo

    Coral Puig Garrigo combines her expertise in evolutionary anthropology, neuro-marketing and consumer psychology to help businesses navigate the ever-evolving landscape of market trends, with the only constant that we have : the human’s brain. In addition to her work in the private sector, Coral serves an Adjunct Marketing Professor at HKUST's Business School.

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