How design thinking can increase plant-based food sales

How design thinking can increase plant-based food sales

The state of the industry


In July 2018, the Plant Based Foods Association reported category sales grew 20% over the previous year with a total of over $3.3 billion. And according to projections, the industry shows no sign of slowing. However, the entire category still only accounts for 2% of retail sales. That leaves a lot of room for expansion. So how can we accelerate this growth?


About design thinking


There are over 6,500 articles in the Harvard Business Review detailing success after success from applying design thinking methods. These case studies are in a myriad of industries, from technology, to healthcare, to nonprofits. There’s even a case study about using design thinking at the San Francisco Opera. Yet it’s rarely discussed in the food industry. Perhaps it’s time to change that, and perhaps the best place to start is in plant-based foods.


Design thinking is a framework and iterative process that helps solve problems that seem intractable (like changing how the entire human population eats). It helps us break through barriers to find solutions that would be otherwise unknowable. The foundation of design thinking is empathy. It starts with deeply understanding the attitudes, mental models, and emotional journey of fellow human beings as it relates to a specific subject.


Experts in any industry lose their ability to be objective and see things from the standpoint of an everyday person or novice who is their ideal customer. This phenomenon is called “expert blindness.” In design thinking we start with a “kindergartener’s mindset.” We set aside our own expertise and biases, and we exchange that for a deep sense of curiosity to see the world as other’s do. 


Beyond empathy, design thinking uses a simultaneously creative and scientific set of methods that allow us to:


  • Define the problem we are solving so our solutions are laser focused on the most important area(s)
  • Ideate potential solutions to our clearly defined problem – then narrow a set of ideas to test
  • Prototype the solutions we believe are most promising – with only enough fidelity to test our assumptions
  • Test and measure the impact of our solutions in a real-world environment with our target customers


A recent example of boosting plant-based food sales


Let’s start with a simple, recent case study. The Better Buying Lab partnered with Panera Bread to test rebranding options for their “Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean Soup.” Their research indicated that “vegetarian” and “vegan” labels can have a negative impact on food sales with omnivores. They ran a series of tests with different names, they found that renaming the soup to “Cuban Black Bean Soup” resulted in an increase of 13% in sales. There was no change to the soup itself – only what they called it.


Based on the results with Panera Bread, you can start to see how small differences can make a big impact. We could leverage design thinking to test a myriad of options at restaurants: menu offerings, menu layout of plant-based options, food descriptions, and pricing.  


Boosting category sales through design thinking


Now let’s take a hypothetical example of how we could shift consumer behavior on a broader scale. Let’s imagine the State of California decides it wants to promote eating more plant-based foods on all of its public university campuses. 


First, we’d start with empathy interviews with the main customer segments: students and faculty/employees. In these interviews, we’d ask questions about their existing diet and preferences, their attitudes towards food and nutrition, and how eating on campus fits into their overall eating patterns. We’d ask how they make decisions about what they eat on campus. And we’d ask about their current level of adoption of plant-based foods and their perceptions about plant-based eating. We might also follow them to the cafeteria as they select their meals and dig into their underlying motivations and decision-making criteria. And we’d continue these interviews with people in both customer segments until clear patterns start to emerge. Usually with empathy interviews this takes between 5-12 people in each customer segment. But starting with a handful can even be incredibly worthwhile because hypotheses will start to emerge that can be tested.


Next, we’d start to clearly define the problem from the point of view of the customer. It’s important to articulate what the customer, or the person you’re trying to influence, views as the problem. This is separate from what the organization or industry sees as the problem. The California University system may see the problem as chronic disease related illnesses are causing increased employee absenteeism and lowering class attendance and they want to encourage healthier eating habits. But the problem from the student’s point of view might be they want to find the best value for their money and the plant-based options are higher priced. And the employees might see the problem as they want to eat healthier but the current healthy cafeteria options are bland and lacking in creativity.


Now that we’ve defined the problem, we are ready to move on to ideation of potential solutions. In this stage, we first want to remove as many constraints as possible and capture every potential idea we can think of without filtering. This will allow us to uncover ideas that are not immediately obvious and also find new trails of thinking that we hadn’t considered. After we’ve captured all the possibilities, we can then layer in practical constraints to help us narrow to the most promising ideas. For example, we might prioritize ideas that are both cost-effective and can be rolled out quickly. 


Next, we’ll prototype and test the most promising ideas. Let’s say we first decide to make the plant-based options the cheapest in the cafeteria to see how that influences sales. We might lower the price of the plant-based menu options by 10% each week. At a certain point, the price will matter less than the offering itself, so we want to find the threshold for diminishing returns. We want to find the highest price that still boosts sales in a meaningful way.


In addition, we’ll roll out a variety of more flavorful plant-based options, with a new menu each week to see which items are selling the best. The point of prototyping is to test our assumptions as cheaply and quickly as possible, so we wouldn’t yet make any permanent changes such as menus or signage. Instead we’d focus on learning in this stage. We’d start with one university campus, then roll out the winners from that campus to a few more, and continue to test and measure on a slightly broader scale until we have a high degree of confidence in what works. 


Once we’ve honed in on the right price point and the most popular menu items, we can run tests on messaging and signage to see how we position these menu items can boost sales even further. The messaging tests would be based on the benefits we learned our customers care about in the interviews. 


And all along the way, we will be watching for new insights to surface. For example, let’s say we find out that sales of plant-based foods are always highest on Mondays. We could encourage that behavior even more by running “Meatless Monday” promotions and do an advertising campaign for Meatless Monday in the cafeteria and around campus.




Through these two examples – Panera Bread and the university – you can see how design thinking can be used at any scale, from minute to broad-sweeping. The possibilities for design thinking are innumerable – from increasing sales of a particular product in retail or food services, to increasing category sales in a particular setting such as retail or institutional, to shifting the entire landscape of how humans eat. Using these techniques could increase sales of the entire category – by emphasizing what people actually care about and solving their problems. Design thinking is a set of innovative yet practical methods that have changed the landscape of many industries. We hope the plant-based foods industry will be next.


Dawn Ressel
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