The rise of plant based dairy alternatives in the last few years has been phenomenal and from my point of view truly surprising. Having spent a large amount of time researching all types of dairy products I know the importance that dairy delivers on creaminess of taste and mouthfeel whilst bringing natural sweetness. To get to a point where there are alternatives that deliver on the same attributes or close to it is impressive.
This was bought home to me the other day when my 95 year old father asked me why I had bought an oat drink for him. I’ve been doing his weekly shop throughout COVID and inadvertently left him a carton in the fridge. Thinking that I would be reprimanded for not buying the right thing, I was surprised to be told to put it on the list for the following week. I asked him why? – he said, “I Liked the creamy taste – it tastes just like milk!”.
He is now a convert, particularly now that his milkman won’t deliver to him as he has not got an online account – that’s a story for another day.
It’s interesting to reflect on where the trend started. Going back a few years, it did start with those seeking alternatives because they were lactose intolerant or allergic to cow’s milk. Since then the category has benefitted from those who follow a vegan or plant based diet, those who have concerns and ethical beliefs for animal welfare or sustainable reasons. In turn, these behaviour changes have influenced others, as they are looking for something different or simply curious.
I find this all quite intriguing as we all think of them as natural and yet are they really? They have all been made and processed by either the means of blending, grinding, filtering, straining or a combination of all of these and then combined with other ingredients to make a drink. It’s not like milking a cow.
I took this one step further by attempting to make my own almond milk. With much grinding and straining I did end up with a product that in a blind taste test would be matching the leading brand. Least it did so for a day or so until it all became separated into water and pulp – I obviously didn’t have that all important binding ingredient. It also cost me more to buy the almonds than it would have done to buy a carton off the shelf.
It is interesting to look at the benefits and claims of the different types of plant drinks. Some are high in vitamin E, others rich in calcium, while some have the benefit of high fibre levels. Equally though there are some downsides, thin consistency is an issue for some, many have to be sweetened to increase the taste whilst others can be high in carbohydrates. The health claims are perhaps not as clear cut and obvious for the consumer as they could be. Above all this of course is there a clear price difference vs dairy milk.
To make things more complex for the consumer, we have now a plethora of brands and associated packaging into the market. Characteristic of this market, these tend to be start ups but clearly the big players will gradually take over. Only recently we have seen Britvic’s acquisition of Plenish.
All of these nuances of complexity make it not only difficult for consumers to navigate but also to understand where the market is going, what plant drink types will flourish, which will go and for what reasons, which are sustainable, and which aren’t?
It is something that I and the rest of the team at Touchstone Shoppercentric keep a close eye on:
How is consumer behaviour changing and what are the opportunities in the category?
What are consumers motivations for drinking, what do they see as the main benefits?
What do they think of the taste and will they continue to drink – are they triallists or repeat purchasers?
What do they think of the brands, are they differentiating on fixture?
How do they shop the fixture, what is the path to purchase?
What other dairy alternative products are there opportunities in?
And as a final point, let’s not think dairy is going to disappear – it is still a huge category in comparison. Yes, it does have sustainable issues, but dairy milk products are fundamentally tasty and in the main locally produced.
At Touchstone Shoppercentric we have all the expertise and research techniques to come to these answers and more.
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