HERE’S A WORLD-SAVING QUESTION: HOW DO YOU CONVINCE SOCIETY TO GIVE UP ITS FAVOURITE CRAVING?
Amsterdam | June 10th 2020
“Making fake chicken look more like the real thing is not a long-term strategy to stop humans craving chicken.”
Do we need to take a step back? Delve more in to psychology and human behavior, learn from culture. Question if the substitute-strategy is a lasting, sustainable solution. Let’s envision an alternative route. Moving towards a future of immense possibility and invention.
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1. THE FACTS ARE NOT WORKING.
You would think that the cold, hard facts about meat would be enough. They’re not.
If we understood its impacts on the environment – in terms of air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, deforestation, ecosystem disruption, natural disasters – this should stop us eating meat. But it doesn’t.
What about our awareness of the extreme cruelty that we humans show towards our fellow species? Surely the truth is so gut-wrenching that once people understood, they would never want to touch industrialized, processed meat and dairy again Apparently it isn’t.
What about the effects on our own health? It’s clear that cutting down on meat significantly reduces the risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and various forms of cancer. Eating meat also contributes to weight issues and obesity, already killing 2.8 million people around the world every year.
And the threat the meat industry poses to the single most important medicine of the last century? Livestock production is associated with developing antibiotic resistance in bacteria, and with the emergence of antimicrobial-resistant microbes: the superbugs.
Of course, the meat-replacement industry is buzzing. The scientific advances are impressive. We’ve seen the first billion- dollar unicorn — perhaps the first of many — and the pace is dialing up, from the world’s largest corporations to start-up ecosystems and incubators, heralding an array of alternatives, plant-based substitutes and biotechnological breakthroughs.
With all this innovation, surely the world should be saved by now. But the numbers tell a different story. Demand for meat replacements may be rising — but so is demand for meat. World meat consumption is growing as the global population rises, but also per capita as greater prosperity drives demand.
2. SO WHAT COULD BE THE BIGGEST PROBLEM?
Current approaches won’t get us across the chasm from meat to meatless.
The growth the meat-replacement industry has achieved so far is inspiring – but is it sustainable? By focusing on products that mimic meat, are we creating a viable market for the future? We believe that there are some fundamental problems with this approach.
Knowing more creates stronger cognitive dissonance. As humans, we search for meaning — and cognitive dissonance is the unfortunate by-product. When our behavior is out of step with what we know to be good, the resulting tension makes us feel stressed, irritated and unhappy. Our brain wants to relieve this tension, but rather than resolving the discrepancy by changing our beliefs, values or behavior, we often blame these feelings on something else instead, without realizing that we're doing it.
As people start to understand the extremely uncomfortable reality of meat consumption, the degree of dissonance is growing. Psychologists have found that meat eaters have developed as many as 15 different mental strategies to justify their behavior. To put this into comparison: rates of meat related dissonance are 13 times higher than for the guilt- laden topic of alcohol consumption, and four times higher than for migration.
Offering “meat replacements” might only increase our desire for meat. Neuropsychology shows us that when we use the same words for new inventions, we reinforce the mental construct that we're trying to escape. Think about how a Mac was not a PC — a great example of Apple’s strategic understanding of the importance of mental constructs, semantics and how to shape culture. Now think about lab- grown burgers, fake chicken, the quest for the authentic taste of bacon. What does that say?
Right now, the industry is collectively focused in a single direction: the replacement of the most iconic types of meat. But echoing the semantics of the meat industry only reinforces deep-rooted mental and cultural constructs. We’re advocating for the very product we're trying to replace. This approach doesn’t encourage us to rethink our food habits, it just asks the customer to swap for a fake alternative once in a while. And that might be the crux of the problem. Making fake chicken look more like the real thing is not a long-term strategy to stop humans craving chicken.
This has serious implications and it will backfire — probably in the near future. We are not replacing meat, just categories. Simply offering an alternative leaves the door open for the meat industry to call the bet, and up the ante. Given the mental gymnastics that many meat eaters are already engaged in, it may take little more than one meat-industry- financed-study to lure them back to “animal-friendly slaughterhouses” or “carbon compensating” farms.
Replacement has never been a very resilient approach. Especially not when the replacement you are offering is way more expensive than the original. Think about the urban millennials; by far the largest group of converts. We’re about to enter a new economic crisis and “their” gig-economy will be hit very hard. When finance is down, will they buy two meatless burgers for 5 euros — or, for the time being, go back to the real burgers for 80 cents? Back to cognitive dissonance. Back to square one.
It doesn’t address the underlying culture of eating meat. And that is a big problem. Take a look at food from a cultural perspective, and you will see how profoundly embedded these habits are. Food is at the heart of our culture: its preparation, its storage and the myriad ways that we cook it, eat it, share it and talk about it. From pica to umami, from cheese to caviar, from pizza to foie gras. Food is deeply woven into our values and rituals, creating powerful symbols and global heroes. And while you’re at it, have you ever tried to change the recipe of a pasta dish in Italy? Good luck.
Just because we can replace a few easy targets, that doesn’t mean the rest will follow.
A BURGER... OKAY. BUT HOW
ABOUT SALAMI? SUSHI?
MONDAY” DOESN’T MEAN
WE HAVE CHANGED THE
DRIVEN DESIRE FOR A
BARBECUE. YOU CAN TAKE
ALONG ALL THE MEAT-FREE
BURGERS AND FAKE
CHICKENS YOU WANT,
BUT YOU’RE JUST
REINFORCING THE RITUAL.
3. WE NEED A NEW WAY IN.
Our focus on short-term numbers might endanger lasting, seismic change, and the possibility to leverage this powerful cultural moment to move towards a next phase.
There is only one thing more powerful than food: culture itself. As the growing global consciousness movement shows, groups of people have already shifted their behavior in a more sustainable direction. Food exerts a strong symbolic power in this fast-growing subculture, mainly consisting of — the previously mentioned — creative, educated, progressive urban millennials. It’s important to understand that the desire for alternative meat isn't growing, a counterculture is growing, one that has adopted meat substitutes as one of its symbols.
This counterculture will remain a niche — perhaps a very profitable niche, but still a niche. One that most likely only empowers the cognitive dissonance strategies of the
mainstream — as all elusive countercultures do.
To cross the chasm, and bring this new category to the mass market, we need a cultural solution to societal disruption. We need to understand the underlying desire for a new approach to life and create a greater equilibrium to society’s collective mind.
In his book Cultural Strategy, Harvard marketing professor Douglas Holt describes how brands such as Patagonia, Starbucks and Nike delivered first and foremost a solution on a cultural level. Nike, for example, connected the American Dream to sports via the struggle to escape the ghetto in the 1980s. “Just Do It” became a mantra, sport became the perfect metaphor for American combative solo willpower and Nike became an international sensation. And because it’s connected to the very core of society and culture — and just as relevant today — it serves as a clear North Star for the many strategic endeavors they engage in.
So if we want people to really give up meat, we have to replace the dominant cultural narrative around food. The focus on carbon emissions might be one step too far if we want to address eating habits on a large scale. We need to conjure a fresh new narrative that bridges the collective desire for large- scale change and food.
We need to do for plant-based food what Starbucks did for coffee. Back in the day, coffee was instant, diluted and generic. So the introduction of well-roasted, great-tasting specialty coffee should have been enough to make it a hit. But Starbucks did something else. It tapped into a desire for societal change, and in turn it was able to shape culture. On a very large scale. Think about Frappuccinos, coffee to go, the role of coffeehouses in global gentrification, the gig economy, our daytime social interactions. Think how it has influenced interior design, driven consumer tastes, reinvigorated the chocolate and bread industry, and you start to understand the big picture. A new cultural narrative around plant-based change can spark a similar transformation.
We can shape a new cultural code. Once we’ve found a way in, we need to move quickly beyond the clichés, and sales pitches, that keep reinforcing existing culture. Once we play into the desire for new values, we can start to create new rituals, symbols, and novel forms of cultural expression.
New foods, new markets, a new world. But why stop there? If we have a solid foundation, we have a platform for innovating around anything that relates to that new food culture. Think how powerful this could be. New names, new pairings and toppings, new taste descriptors. New types of packaging that espouse new values.
We can build business models that support new belief systems and create better supply chains. We can introduce new rituals in cooking, in sharing food and in the ways we live alongside each other. We can champion new jobs, new family roles, new patterns of consumption. We can turn junk food into healthy food. We can create social interaction around something that’s not meat. And this, in turn, can hyper-accelerate lasting change.
MEAT BECAME AN ICON OF 20TH CENTURY SOCIETY
AND ITS RELENTLESS CONSUMPTION. PLANT-BASED FOODS COULD BE THE CATALYST FOR A NEW, PURPOSE-DRIVEN GLOBAL CULTURE OF CHANGE. BUT ONLY IF WE DARE TO REALLY INNOVATE.
4. IT’S TIME TO BE RIGOROUSLY CREATIVE
We should think beyond isolated branding strategies and incremental product innovations. We need a new approach to the design of business.
Creating this change is a challenge for leading businesses, innovators and investors. Sure, a cultural strategy is an interesting marketing approach, but only works if we innovate all the other aspects of the business in a creative way too. We need creative business design. McDonald’s serves around 68 million customers a day by squeezing every drop of humanity and sustainability out of their business model. This is what we’re up against. And yes, they might sell vegetarian alternatives now, but it's safe to assume they have absolutely no interest in going all the way — and they will do everything in their power to stop this.
We can only change things if we start to understand what humanity demands today, in six months’ time, and in a decade. Understanding what needs to be done is a tall order, and can get complicated fast. But there are smart ways. One way to deal with this is within the framework of the three horizons model: the first horizon is today, the second is the coming transition, the third is the future; your north star. When we plot potential approaches on a graph of strategic fit against time, we can see that business-as-usual is the best strategic fit in the current moment. It has, after all, developed over decades and it is optimized for today’s conditions. But it’s not going to last long.
Once we enter the transition phase, today’s approach will rapidly decline in relevance. To regain relevance, we can embed pockets of the future in the present, and these will become important as we reach the second horizon. But when the transition is over, only today’s truly visionary narratives will add relevance to the future. Taking these three horizons, connecting them and back-planning into a strategic framework gives us an opportunity to shape that future.
Creative business design recognizes that there is always an interplay: society informs customer, customer informs product, product informs business and business informs society. Achieving change is an ongoing cycle, creating and refining culture, narratives, propositions and innovation that truly matter to people.
Within 10 years, we could bring about a completely new culture. But if we don’t start working towards that culture right now, it won’t exist.
Ruben Smit is founder and CEO of Phenomenons Global. He studied cognitive neuroscience and economic psychology at Tilburg University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His long time fascination lies in the interaction between human behavior, complex mental- and social constructs, society and how this drives behavior, sparks creativity and shapes culture.
Ruben stopped eating animals half a decade ago and strongly feels it's about time the world follows.
Ruben stopped eating animals half a decade ago and strongly feels it's about time the world follows.