As the UK’s fastest-growing meat-alternatives brand, The Meatless Farm continues to push the $3.6 billion category forward through innovation and enterprise.
The four-year-old brand, which has a presence in 17 markets worldwide, has experienced exponential growth thanks to its groundbreaking products including meat-free burger patties, meatless ground and sausage products.
Its most recent milestone — swapping soya for pea protein — delivers even more closely on the sensory experience of meat, according to the company. And feeds into its purpose of helping people to eat a little less meat in order to create a more sustainable food system.
By continuing to improve its recipes and narrow the barriers to entry for consumers, the brand is cementing itself as a pioneer within the meat-alternatives category, and driving business growth — its sales are expected to hit £20m by the end of 2020.
At a pivotal time for the business, in which not only is there a growing consumer appetite for plant-based meat alternatives but competition in the category is also intensifying, we spoke to the brand’s Head of R&D Dr Peter Hynes.
Here, he explains what’s driving innovation, new products and formats, and how the brand is fulfilling its potential to become one of the global leaders in this fast-developing food sector.
As Head of R&D at The Meatless Farm what have you been charged with delivering?
I’m currently in charge of delivering the next generation of products which are set to come through the Meatless Farm portfolio.
My role consists of delivering a greater focus on NPD and, as the plant-based market continues to evolve, this involves looking at new proteins, new manufacturing opportunities, new ingredients and new formats – meaning I’m not just focused on extending the flavour lines but I also look at new product format opportunities that are in-line with consumer trends.
And what are some of the key steps you’re taking to achieve that?
The key to achieving my role is two-fold and it means constantly up-skilling, firstly it’s about what we can be doing internally, and the key is hiring people that have got the skillset and nutritional expertise to help drive innovation. We have a unique team of food development chefs and scientists that work closely together.
A great example is our next generation sausages and burger patties, which we’ve just launched. We changed our recipe focusing on using pea protein as it creates an even meatier taste and texture and we know these are the two biggest barriers to consumers eating more meat alternatives.
My role also involves looking at how we can speak to and collaborate with third parties such as new research agencies, suppliers and institutions that are out there and have a lot of expertise so that we can work collaboratively with them and tap into their knowledge. I’ve always worked this way in previous roles but it can definitely be said that because of the fast-paced nature of the plant-based industry, we need to get as many brains on it as we can, whether it’s a university or a new research agency, to make sure that our products are evolving and in-line with trends.
As the plant-based market continues to become more competitive, how important is innovation and NPD in terms of brand differentiation?
No matter the market, whether its plant-based, medical or beauty, NPD is always going to be crucial in terms of brand differentiation. If a brand is not innovating or releasing new products, then it’s going to be difficult to achieve differentiation as it will just stay at one level. If companies can truly deliver NPD that is unique and demonstrates innovation, then they will be able to achieve successful brand differentiation.
We have a number of teams including an R&D team, an innovation team and an NPD team, meaning that brand differentiation and innovation is really taken seriously and we have the capabilities to keep the business moving and changing all of the time. The fact my role even exists is testament to this and demonstrates that Meatless is committed to innovating and is taking steps to make sure that the brand stands out from the crowd in a growing market.
With so many areas in which the company could innovate, how do you choose where to focus your attention?
At the moment, we’re focusing a lot on consumer trends and research into what consumers want and are looking for. The majority of our guidance for innovation comes from working with consumers, getting insights from them and finding out what they’re really searching for in the sector.
We also look at the new markets that we’re trying to move into and the key products that are going to land well in those markets so that we can start doing some innovation in that space. It’s a really exciting time to be working in this industry – the pace, the opportunity for innovation and the passion of our team is incredible.
Innovation in the meat alternative space is accelerating at lightning speed, is there pressure to constantly pioneer new products?
Yes, there is massive pressure to be constantly pioneering products, but this comes with any category that you might work in.
In terms of navigating that pressure, to me, it’s all about striking a balance between products that are going to add value and that are actually worth pioneering. Making sure your attention is focused is crucial, there needs to be clarity on which products should be pioneered, for example, if you focus too widely and on too many products it gets difficult to achieve that true excellence.
It’s about really narrowing down and focusing on products that you have proof will be successful.
This is our approach at Meatless Farm – we have a core range of everyday products (mince, burgers and sausages) that we deliver on really well, rather than going far and wide and into all areas of plant-based alternatives.
Within my team at Meatless Farm we really focus on prioritisation and making sure that we’re assessing the opportunities for new products so that we can establish which have space to succeed in the current market and we can then dedicate our resources in the right areas.
How much of the brand’s innovation and NPD is driven by consumer trends and behaviour?
We’ve seen a shift in consumer attitudes towards plant-based food, it’s not a vegan niche but becoming a mainstream movement. Consumer trends are something we really put a lot of attention into and a lot of our innovation and NPD is driven by this, it’s critically important because thoughts, behaviours and current trends are constantly changing, especially in the plant-based category, and these elements are crucial to the development of products. For example, a shift we have seen over the past few years has been the flexitarian sector, this demographic is always evolving because each day there are more products available on the market, these consumers are becoming more receptive to plant-based products and therefore are, rightly so, also becoming savvier in terms in what they want from their plant-based products.
They want meat-free products that deliver on texture, taste and have the health credentials and nutritional profile to sit alongside that and although this isn’t an issue for the Meatless Farm, it’s something that we’re aware of and will, as a pioneering plant-based company, always look to improve – we don’t rest on our laurels!
With such a huge global shift taking place right now due to COVID-19, what sort of impact has that had on innovation and development?
Innovation and development are at the heart of what we do and it’s been crucial that we keep our development line moving whilst keeping our employees safe. One key part of this has been establishing virtual, online tasting sessions for the R&D team working from home.
Our team receives the samples to try out and cook with, then they do the virtual tastings through an interactive video call where they discuss the organoleptic attributes, aromas, flavour, texture and colour. There have been some challenges when it comes to deliveries but nothing we can’t manoeuvre. This ensures our innovation isn’t on hold and the team can continue to work together. Now isn’t the time for cutting back on providing consumers with more choice for alternative proteins.
Some of the impact we have seen in terms of R&D has been that our customers or the providers that we’re innovating for are not open and have put certain projects on hold, in these cases, there’s only a certain amount we can do. We’re lucky in the sense that it has only had a small impact on us and that we’re still able to do some development work.
And how has the brand had to pivot more generally?
In terms of R&D, currently with the people that are in the office and lab, their wellbeing and health is our number one priority and we have made sure that there are systems in place that work for everyone, such as the social distancing measures and rota applications that we have enforced within the office and lab spaces.
We’ve just launched our direct to consumer function on our website too – we’d had this planned for a while but expedited it so we could make sure we were answering the rise in demand and navigating delivery difficulties for many people.
In terms of long-term direction, we are continuing to proceed with our long-term innovation strategy plan, and this hasn’t changed.
What are some of the main challenges/opportunities you see as impacting the future growth of The Meatless Farm?
In the short term and outside of R&D I think that there are opportunities for growth and development through marketing and social media. We’re still able to produce our products, with minimal to no supply issues being faced at the moment, and given that we can still produce, there are still opportunities for growth and development at the company.
In the longer term, I think we’ll look back on this as a turning point for the food industry in particular. We’re more conscious of how we’re being fed and we’ve adapted how we shop; planning and paying more attention to what we’re buying. Consumers are also experimenting and open to learning. Our vision is we can help and educate them about just how healthy, sustainable, easy and delicious plant-based food really can be.