Sustainablity On The Agenda, From Asia To… Iceland

By the year 2035, the population of Asia is projected to hit 5 billion people. How to feed them is a hot topic for governments and businesses across the APAC region, and explains why we’ve been seeing a big uptick in brands interested in food sustainability issues. This poses an interesting question to us: How can behavioural science help brands market food innovation and feed the world?

Xinyu Tok, from our Singapore office, sums up some of the recent market moves. “Billion-dollar US start-up Just Inc is set to open its first manufacturing site in Asia. It just made its debut in Singapore for its “egg-free scrambled egg” made from mung beans! Similarly, Beyond Meat made its debut in Singapore only 3 months back with its plant-based meat patty. And Impossible Foods also made its international debut in Hong Kong this March, and is set to arrive in Singapore next year.


But it’s not just Western brands getting into the clean meat and meat-free meat sector. Tok details some of the ways governments and Asian-owned companies are investing in these products. “Earlier this year, Singapore officially launched a $110 million research facility to develop healthier food such as plant-based meat, and more sustainable, natural food chemical compounds. And Quorn (a mycoprotein meat substitute which started life as a British brand) was acquired by Philippines’s Monde Nissin for £550 million in 2015. It’s now in mass-market grocery stores in Singapore.”


APAC markets are at the frontline of sustainability because their GDP and standards of living are rising as their population is growing. While trends towards plant-based meat and sustainable food are on the rise worldwide, convincing the emergent middle class in Asian markets to change their attitudes towards alternative-meat products would be a big win for such food innovators. (Of course, there are major regional differences too – India has the highest rate of vegetarianism in the world, whereas meat consumption in China is soaring.)




At least some of the reasons for the growth in meat alternatives  are advances in food technology. At the forefront here is US food tech start-up Impossible Foods, whose “Impossible Burger” appears to ‘bleed’ like meat as well as taste and feel like it. We didn’t pluck the 2035 date out of thin air – it’s also when Impossible Foods’ CEO Patrick Brown has pledged to “completely replace animals as a food production technology”. The company recently released a big-budget “brand video” poignantly celebrating the world through the eyes of an astronaut.

Ending the current industrial livestock model of meat production by 2035 is the kind of huge dream that Silicon Valley investors love. But if Impossible Foods can move the needle at all, it’ll be because the Impossible Burger and other products exploit the principles of Fluent Innovation. For mass-market take-up, a new product needs to be mostly familiar but with a novel twist – “80% Familiar, 20% New”.

In the past, meat alternatives have been limited in appeal because they had the ratio all wrong. They had some familiarity – a Linda McCartney sausage is indeed sausage-shaped – but the colour, texture, taste, and other sensory cues were way off. If the Impossible Burger continues its growth and success, it’ll be because of its ability to break this barrier and minimise, not maximise, its novelty.


In developed markets with stable populations, at the consumer end of the agribusiness supply chain, sustainability is breaking through in another way – as a branding issue, not just a product one. UK supermarket chain Iceland – known in general for cheap frozen food – became the single biggest story of this year’s Christmas ads when its film was ‘banned’ by Clearcast, which vets TV ads for broadcasters.

The public were outraged, with the ad netting an estimated 50 million views, and a million people signing a petition asking Clearcast to reconsider. What does this have to do with sustainability? The film – originally made by NGO Greenpeace – highlighted the plight of Borneo’s orang-utans, whose habitat is under threat by companies producing the palm oil which goes into so many packaged foods. Iceland has pledged to remove all palm oil from its products, and borrowed the ad to promote this.

We tested the ad, which came out as one of the saddest we’ve ever tested – almost 50% of our panel felt sadness (with plenty more feeling Anger and Disgust). That’s not necessarily great news for Iceland – it suggests they won’t get much of a long-term uplift from their powerful statement of principles.

But it probably is good news for the struggle to reduce palm oil usage. When we looked at it on our “PSA model” – for content designed to spark immediate behaviour change, like our texting-and-driving PSA – it scored a much stronger 4-Stars, suggesting it has potential to shift behaviour.

Be it emotional impact or increased Fluency, behavioural science has a major role to play in changing global behaviour around food. It’s an urgent problem. As the release of WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018 suggests, as a species, we risk ‘eating ourselves to death’.

As Xinyu Tok puts it, “The need to relook at the way we are consuming has never been more imperative and urgent. Imagine how these ideas would disrupt and enhance the whole food eco-system!”

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