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Published April 18th, 2024

The future of alternative protein for business leaders - with expert Maiko van der Meer

BGP expert talk

In an engaging and insightful conversation, Maiko van der Meer and Floor Buitelaar explore the transformative potential of alternative proteins in reshaping the global food landscape.

Maiko, a strategic and commercial expert in plant-based industries, draws from over 15 years of senior leadership experience in traditional meat and fish sectors. As the founder of a plant-based fish startup and a board advisor, he offers a comprehensive roadmap for transitioning toward sustainable food practices.

Alongside him, Floor Buitelaar, Managing Partner at Bright Green Partners, probes Maiko with questions about the business landscape of alternative proteins. Together, they provide crucial insights for decision-makers in the alternative protein sector.

Consumer preferences and regulatory shifts

Maiko underscores the inevitable disruption awaiting traditional meat and fish industries due to the confluence of enhanced animal welfare concerns, CSR, and ESG regulations. These factors, he predicts, will drive up costs for traditional animal products, making alternative proteins more economically viable and environmentally preferable. Central to this shift is the consumer demand for products that align with their ethical values and health preferences, especially among younger generations inclined toward flexitarian diets.

Taste, texture, and price

For alternative proteins to truly compete, Maiko highlights the paramount importance of achieving parity with traditional products in taste, texture, and price. The industry's evolution has expanded beyond mere meat substitutes to a variety of high-quality, plant-based options. Alternative proteins have an opportunity to gain an advantage over conventional animal-based foods, as the costs of the latter increase due to regulatory and societal pressures.

Tips for gaining stakeholder approval

As a pioneer in this new direction, Maiko offers three insights for creating enthusiasm within conventional businesses.

Firstly, prioritizing consumer insights is essential. Companies must actively listen and respond to the evolving preferences of their customers, especially the future generations, who naturally lean towards a flexitarian diet and demand alternative protein options. Catering to this significant customer segment by understanding and meeting their needs is fundamental to staying relevant in the shifting food landscape.

Secondly, the identification and engagement of key internal stakeholders are crucial. This includes not only shareholders and board members but also entities like employee councils and youth-oriented programs within the organization. Each group holds unique perspectives and priorities; thus, bridging the alternative protein initiative with their specific agendas is vital for widespread support and ensuring a cohesive transition strategy.

Finally, Maiko points out a neglected group of influencers: children or other young relatives of company leaders, who have the special power to question and influence their parents' views on alternative proteins. Additionally, he observes a positive trend among QSR chains that have introduced plant-based options to their menus, noting their enhanced appeal to the millennial workforce. This shift not only aligns with current market trends but also positions the company as an attractive and progressive employer in today's competitive job market.

Launching alternative protein initiatives

Success in alternative proteins starts with a clear vision and a well-defined strategy. Knowing the company's current position and its desired future is essential. This strategic planning includes choices around private labeling versus branding, targeting specific geographies, selecting appropriate distribution channels, and determining the range of product assortments.

Traditional companies in the sectors of meat, fish, and poultry usually possess around two-thirds of the necessary capabilities for such a shift. However, the remaining third requires development, as it represents a departure from their conventional operations.

Having the right people on board

To address the challenge of integrating alternative proteins, identifying a dedicated project team is crucial. This team should operate with a degree of autonomy from the main business to focus on developing a unique agenda for alternative proteins. This approach allows for the cultivation of innovation within a defined framework, separate from the constraints of the company's core operations. Historical evidence suggests that companies adopting this model have encountered more success compared to those that attempted full integration from the onset.

"The journey towards integrating alternative proteins," Maiko explains, "isn't just about crafting a solid strategy; it's equally about having the right team to bring that strategy to life. This is why I advocate for a blend of board advisory with executive search approaches. It is a recognition that many strategies stumble not at the planning stage, but at execution. And successful execution is fundamentally a matter of having the right people in place."

Maiko further emphasizes the importance of creating a dedicated environment for these teams to thrive, separate from the core operations of the company. Maintaining a distinct operational space for the team working on alternative proteins allows them to develop their own benchmarks and goals, independent of the traditional metrics that govern the daily business activities.

He elaborates on the necessity of adapting key performance indicators (KPIs) for these teams, acknowledging that traditional measures of success, like immediate profitability and margins, may not apply. "If we assess these pioneering projects by the same criteria we use for our established lines of business, we risk abandoning them prematurely. These ventures into alternative proteins should be viewed as investments in our future, demanding a different set of expectations and measures of success."

Alternative protein trends and developments

Maiko highlights the current state and the future trajectory of alternative proteins, focusing on key trends and developments critical to the industry’s evolution.

Moving beyond the basics like burgers, nuggets, and balls, the alternative protein sector is diversifying with an array of high-quality products. Maiko identifies three crucial areas needing innovation: bacon, mozzarella, and processed meats. Achieving a plant-based bacon that matches the taste and texture of traditional bacon could significantly impact quick-service restaurant offerings globally. Similarly, creating a viable alternative for mozzarella, responsible for a significant portion of the carbon footprint in large pizza chains, could lead to substantial environmental benefits. The challenge extends to processed meats, which require innovative technologies and product development strategies for a comprehensive range of alternative products.

Companies can wait with investing in alternative proteins. True or false?

On investment timing in alternative proteins, Maiko dismisses the notion of delay as counterproductive. Despite a recent slowdown in market growth, partly due to inflation, the demand for alternative proteins is expected to rebound. Preparing for this resurgence is crucial and involves developing capabilities in technology, product development, and marketing strategies, a process that could take up to five years.

He applauds the proactive efforts of major companies like Ikea, Compass Catering, Albert Heijn, and Burger King, which are promoting a balanced diet with a 50-50 split between plant-based and animal-based foods. This trend, according to Maiko, signifies a significant shift towards alternative proteins, driven by both consumer demand and environmental considerations.

Maiko emphasizes the strategic aspect of adopting alternative proteins. Building the necessary internal capabilities is a long-term endeavor, but companies can also consider fast-tracking their entry into the market through strategic acquisitions or partnerships. The choice of strategy should reflect the company’s ambitions and desired pace of market entry, ensuring readiness to meet future demands.

For those eager to dive deeper into the conversation and explore the comprehensive insights shared by Maiko, watch the full conversation here to gain a richer understanding of the alternative protein landscape and how it can impact your business.

Are you interested in how our experts can guide your business through the evolving landscape of alternative proteins? Get in touch with our MP Floor and discover how we can help tailor a strategy that aligns with your objectives in this dynamic field.

Ready to discover what alt protein strategies could mean for your business? Discuss it in a 30 minute call with our Managing Partner, Floor.
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