Chinese Consumers Perception Of Plant-Based Foods
China’s meat market is immense, currently valued at $65 billion, and is expected to continue growing by about 7% each year. Meanwhile, over 90% of Chinese consumers do not identify as vegan, ovo-lacto vegetarian or pescatarian. GoodGrowth.io, a research and design firm, carried out a study to kick-start our understanding of how plant-based products can be made to better appeal to different customer segments in China.
The study included survey, diary study, focus group, and “persona” analysis components. The 45 focus group and diary study participants were from 5 major cities in China. They included heavy meat eaters, vegetarians or vegans, average meat-eaters, churned users — people who had tried being vegetarian but gave up — and some who were trying to eat less meat, in roughly equal proportions. The 1,206 survey participants were from regions all over China, including both cities and rural areas.
The authors start by breaking down some of the common aspects of eating habits in China. These include communal eating, conventional wisdom, and meat consumption. For example, many food decisions are guided by beliefs stemming from traditional Chinese medicine, and people in China tend to believe that “white meat” is better than “red meat.” Although meat consumption is prevalent across the country and typically consumed in pieces or strips mixed with tofu and vegetables, each region has its own signature meals.
The results revealed seven key insights that should be useful for plant-based companies and initiatives in the region.
- Food safety is often cited as a major concern. Participants of all groups mentioned their concerns about additives being an unhealthy feature in plant-based products. Many were also concerned about “fake” meat. Typically, respondents expressed that plant-based products were not “natural”, too processed, or “pretended” to be meat. Ironically, the diary study revealed that many consumers regularly eat snacks and fast food filled with additives despite their concerns about plant-based products. Likewise, no participants mentioned concerns about the health consequences of animal products, even in the wake of animal-borne illnesses such as COVID-19.
- The second key category was the necessity of animal products. The participants believed that animal products are necessary for a balanced diet, and eggs were the most commonly consumed product — 90% of survey respondents reported eating them in the last month.
Beliefs about the “necessity” of animal products were especially true in the case of parents, who expressed firm beliefs that meat and milk were crucial for the healthy growth and development of children. Meat was the only animal product that did evoke some health concerns such as resultant high cholesterol, blood pressure, or issues related to hormonal additives ingested when consuming too much meat.
- Interestingly, many found big food brands, including fast-food providers such as KFC, to be higher-end, accountable to international safety and product quality standards, and thus trustworthy. Study participants also shared that such restaurants should have better hygiene and thus were preferred them when ordering food. The authors note that fast food chains are often located in shopping centers, making them a popular choice for family meals.
- “Mouth-feel” – the overall sensation arising from chewing and sensing food, was very important for the participants. This feature of food is affected by taste, texture, and temperature. In fact, not only was “mouth-feel” the driver behind many food choices, but it was also the most common criticism of plant-based products among the diary study and survey participants.
- Soy products were regarded as familiar but not exciting enough. The participants believed that all plant-based products are soy products. They expressed concern that soy products are not as nutritious as meat, have too many additives and do not have a good enough “mouth-feel” to them. Furthermore, there were concerns raised about GM soy, poor digestibility, and the necessity to use a lot of oil when cooking. Finally, several participants in their 40s mentioned that such products were commonly used during food scarcities in the 1970s and associated them with poverty.
- Children and grandparents were shown to have a significant influence over a household’s food choices. Parents often choose foods specifically marketed toward children, and families often choose restaurants that cater to their children’s preferences. Because Chinese families often live with parents and in-laws, the grandparents are also considered heavily in purchasing decisions. Families may choose nostalgic, “hometown” foods to appease older relatives, and grandparents may pressure families into choosing traditional and animal-based products.
- It would seem that Chinese consumers try new foods when eating with friends and colleagues, not at home. More than 50% of participants reported eating up to three meals per day at a school or company canteen. Meanwhile, restaurant choices are heavily influenced by various online recommendation platforms and internet celebrities (for participants in their 20s-30s).
The researchers introduced five consumer segments, so called “personas”, that represent different types of customers that, given targeted marketing and unique product positioning, might encourage the consumption of plant-based foods. They included:
- Nutrition optimizer (58% of respondents): This persona has the primary goal of losing weight or building muscle. They’re more likely to buy plant-based products that are tasty, healthy, animal-friendly, and safe. Marketing plant-based food to this persona means positioning them as healthier, partnering with fitness groups, and introducing meatless “fitness meals” packed with protein and nutritional ingredients.
- The concerned parent (55% of respondents): These people consider their children’s health as priority number one. More than half of the people in this persona are willing to try plant-based products if they haven’t already, and they’re more likely to buy plant-based products that are tasty, healthy, animal-friendly, and safe. Child-friendly features such as nutritional information on packaging, natural ingredients, and partnerships with popular parent influencers may help increase plant-based uptake in this subgroup.
- Social foodies (37% of respondents): This persona enjoys eating out and trying new foods with friends. They tend to consume plant-based products more frequently than the average Chinese population. They’re more likely to eat plant-based products that are healthy, and because of their experimental nature, marketing plant-based items should include partnerships with restaurants, promoting the novelty factor, and offering products that can be shared among friends.
- Convenience junkies (29% of respondents): Ease of access is most important to this persona, and they tend to eat things that are easy to buy and prepare. They are more likely to eat plant-based products that are tasty, affordable, “cool,” and safe. Convincing them to try plant-based products may involve creating more instant foods and snacks, partnering with online grocery platforms, and working with canteens that serve pre-cooked meals.
- Vegetarians and vegans (2.7% of respondents): These people are the least likely to order takeaway food or purchase groceries online. They tend to be Buddhist or Taoist and concerned about their health. Although marketing plant-based products to this category may seem easy, these consumers actually some of the least likely to eat alternative meats because of the additives and perceived health issues associated with them.
Across the personas, “social foodies” seem the most interested in consuming plant-based foods, followed by “nutrition optimizers.” Meanwhile, “vegetarians and vegans” are the least enthusiastic about these products.
Overall, there seems to be very limited motivation to eat plant-based in China as well as limited awareness of plant-based products, with 30% of survey respondents expressing that they were not familiar at all with plant-based foods. However, untapped opportunities may be present to create “pull factors” as many Chinese consumers are not yet aware of the potential benefits of plant-based diets. However, it’s important for plant-based entrepreneurs and advocates to avoid spending too many resources on increasing awareness. Awareness campaigns may encourage consumers to try plant-based products, but the tricky part is convincing them to repeatedly eat them. Instead, the key lies with aligning plant-based campaigns to the different “personas,” each revealing vastly different preferences and needs.