Bridging Cultural Gaps: Expanding Veganism into New Markets

Last year, I traveled to Seattle a lot for work and couldn’t help but notice all of the “clean eating” and vegan options in this city. When you arrive at SeaTac airport, there’s a restaurant called Floret that makes a delicious vegan coconut cake and Vitamin C kombucha. And in Capitol Hill and Ballard, Frankie & Jo’s serves some of the best ice cream I’ve had and it’s all plant-based. Who would’ve thought? Full disclosure though, I am not vegan by any means, but am fascinated by how accessible and creative vegan meals have become.

Even in countries like China, veganism has been on the rise. According to Euromonitor, China was projected to be the fastest-growing market for vegan products between 2015 and 2020, with a growth rate of 17.2%1. This statistic is surprising because having grown up with home-cooked Chinese food, I’m accustomed to seeing meat on the dinner table. Even if a dish (like this popular eggplant dish) is primarily veggies, it’s often accompanied with minced meat.

Chinese Eggplants with Minced Pork by Elaine from the China Sichuan Food blog

A lot of this has to do with the culture of meat in China. Until the late 1980s, the government tackled food shortages by issuing rations and meat was a rare luxury. Now, with China being a global economic power, meat has become a sign of prosperity. The average Chinese consumer’s access to meat has improved significantly, resulting in China now representing ~28% of the world’s meat consumption2.

So yes, I’m curious about whether the vegan movement has truly taken hold in China. If so, how? And how can entrepreneurs who are passionate about plant-based foods capitalize on this?

KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER:

Only ~4% of the Chinese population (50 million people) are vegetarian, but the average Chinese consumer is becoming more health-conscious and receptive to plant-based diets3. This, along with concerns for the environment and animal welfare (primarily spurred by younger generations), have led to a greater momentum for China’s vegan movement.

  • A 2018 survey by the New Zealand Institute of Plant and Food Research indicated that 38% of respondents in China’s Tier 1 cities said they’d switch to meat substitutes that are “low in fat”, “additive-free”, and “high in protein”4
  • In addition, the main reasons for reducing meat consumption were perceived health benefits (64%) and managing personal weight (57%)3
  • 73% have also indicated they’d pay extra for food that is deemed healthier5

KNOW THE MARKET & COMPETITION:

Restaurant owners are also adjusting menus to reflect the meat-free trend. Happy Cow (an online service that lists sources of vegan, vegetarian and healthy food) shows 1,328 restaurants in China that are either completely vegan, completely vegetarian, or serve vegan/vegetarian options. While most of these are in the more populated Tier 1 cities, such as Shanghai (126) and Beijing (99), a handful of other cities (Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou) are catching up on the trend. The food served at these restaurants suit the Western palette, but the combination of flavors are still local and authentic – scallion pancakes, tofu-based soups, bokchoy and bean curd-based dumplings, mushroom wontons, vegetarian hotpot with greens and mock meat, and dishes made with pumpkin, eggplant, green beans? Yum!

KNOW YOUR BRAND AND HOW TO POSITION IT:

Messaging and the food itself, especially what’s in it and how you tailor it to meet “local” expectations, matters!

  • Acknowledge regional differences. Consumers in Tier 1 cities have not only higher disposable income, but they’re also quick to adopt healthy lifestyles and foreign brands. That being said, Tier 2 cities, such as Hangzhou (home to Alibaba) and Tianjin (major port city not too far from Beijing), are not as saturated and could also be good places for your next vegan venture.
  • Use e-commerce platforms and partnerships to generate brand awareness. Chinese consumers are avid users of social media platforms (i.e., WeChat, Weibo and QQ) and engaging with them on these channels can boost your brand.
  • Consider partnerships with established chains to solidify your footprint. As a first step, Beyond Meat struck a partnership with Starbucks, which has more than 4,300 stores across China6.
  • Adapt and localize your menu. Catering to customers in new markets is important and there are ways to do it while staying true to your values and branding. For instance, instead of burgers, Zhenmeat (a plant-based meat startup based in Beijing) makes local dishes, such as dumplings, meatball, and crayfish7,8. They also understand that many Chinese consumers prefer to eat meat off the bone and have even started using 3-D printers that create protein alternatives containing bones and other structural elements9. Now that’s taking cultural understanding to another level!

Sources: [1] Daxue Consulting, [2] World Economic Forum, [3] China Briefing, [4] Plant and Food, [5] China Briefing, [6] CNet, [7] East West Bank, [8] CNBC, [9] New York Times