Soy food renaissance offers lessons for dairy protein
Thanks to the recent decision by the UN FAO to change the test methodology for proteins, dairy protein will be able to market itself as being of higher quality – more available to the body – than other proteins. But to make the most of their new advantage, producers of dairy protein will need to up their marketing game – and they can learn the most relevant lessons on protein marketing best-practice from their rivals, the soy protein industry. The soy industry got its marketing act together many years ago – and as a result it still presents formidable competition.
CONSUMER research by the major dairy companies shows that despite recent growth, consumer knowledge about protein – and particularly dairy protein – is still very limited. The only way to change that will be through educating the consumer – but their rival the soy protein industry is already well ahead and has been running a coherent communications effort and a market-building campaign since the mid-1990s.
The dairy industry is today faced with the same kind of one-off "launch-pad" opportunity for communications that the soy industry had in 1999, when the US FDA approved a heart health claim for soy protein. The effect of the claim – and the communications that the industry built on it – was to prompt sales growth of an average 15% per year in the early years of the millennium, according to Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Soy Foods Association of North America (SANA).
Part of that was "media attention for soy," she said, "plus all of a sudden health professionals, physicians and dietitians began suggesting that soy was an important element in the diet. There were huge numbers of new products, and it was a very exciting time."
But opportunities like that only typically happen once for an industry. Today, while the heart health platforms are still a part of the mix, the focus of consumer messaging from industry is on wider health benefits and easy ways to integrate soy into the everyday diet.
New product formats, new packaging and positioning in new places in the store have also been key to soy’s growth – more important than the heart health claim. In fact the rapid growth of the soy milk market in the West from 1998 onwards owes almost everything to the decision to position soy milk in the chiller cabinet, alongside cow’s milk, instead of the open shelf, thus "normalising" an ingredient that was formerly the preserve of hippies, health food stores and people with lactose intolerance.
Looked at from the outside, there appear to be five elements of strategy:
1. Major, long-term, co-ordinated industry communications as well as individual company communications
2. Willingness to "tell a strong story" and tackle media/consumer concerns head-on
3. Industry focus on improving taste, texture, creating new applications and providing NPD services to branded foods companies.
4. An increasing focus on taking soy into new growth markets.
The fact that the industry was able to capitalise on the heart health claim was a result of the fact that since 1994 soy has been at the forefront of marketing and education efforts, led by industry organisations such as the US United Soybean Board and companies like Dupont (Solae) and ADM.
Trade organizations like the Soy Foods Council and United Soybean Board lead advocacy efforts as well as promotion to consumers. Soy Connection, and other sites, provide videos, podcasts, press tips, newsletter, access to credible nutrition experts and dietitians.
The press – both trade and consumer press – is kept fed a steady stream of story ideas. And if a journalist needs a comment on any aspect of soy and health the industry’s communications team can find them an expert to comment on the subject.
The industry also makes sure that every possible piece of new science about soy – including studies that have no connection to any industry funders – get into the media, thus ensuring a drip-feed of "good news" about science-based benefits for soy.
With such a professional communication campaign, the fact that the soy industry can no longer overtly market soy protein as equivalent to other proteins, such as eggs and dairy, and better than other plant-based proteins, which is the positioning the industry has used for 20 years, is unlikely to make much difference in the short-term.
In fact the positioning of soy has evolved over recent years.
"With so much information and misinformation out there, soy ingredient suppliers and marketers are shying away from specific health-based platforms in favour of plant-based protein content and overall health and wellness," an industry executive told NNB, adding: "Soy itself is no longer the destination. In the 90s, there was a rush to put soy on everything, but smart companies are no long selling their products on the idea of soy alone."
Now the driver messages include:
- protein, especially "vegetarian protein"
- senior health
- healthy ageing
- low glycemic
- gluten free
Meanwhile companies marketing branded consumer foods that contain soy have in most cases started to emphasise nutrition and convenience, but steer away from emphasis on soy itself, said Sarah Day LaVesque, an analyst for Soyatech.
"Companies need to think of soy as a functional ingredient for products like energy bars. People know it is a source of protein, but they don’t realise they are consuming soy."
2. TELLING A STRONG STORY
While dairy producers often shy away from bold marketing statements, boldness has served the soy companies well.
For example, young adults and particularly younger women (20-35) are seen as a key market. They have grown up with the idea of healthy eating and for many young women in particular the idea of plant-based protein sources is appealing. This group is in particular motivated by messages about the environment and sustainability.
"Particularly younger consumers are interested in diversifying their protein intake, while eating something that uses resources efficiently and effectively. Soy is a wonderful sustainable protein and when you eat it you get 100% of the soy protein, versus if it is fed to another animal. So it represents eating further down on the food chain," according to Nancy Chapman.
The soy industry is forthright about establishing itself as having superior environmental credentials to other sources of soy, using easy-to-understand graphics and PR to drive the message home.
Another example of bold communication is an emphasis in the last one to two years on communicating the value of soy for children, with an emphasis on the benefits of consuming soy in childhood to promote growth and bone health as well as the key nutrients kids need.
The Soyfoods Council has used short web-based videos in which nutrition experts talk about the importance of soy consumption among girls, referencing research that suggests that: "The plant estrogens in soy can prevent breast cancer later in life if consumed by girls in childhood and adolescence".
In the US the industry has also lobbied with some success for more soy foods in school meals.
Every industry encounters negatives from time-to-time – in fact there seems to be a sizeable section of the media dedicated to finding things to criticise about the food supply. Soy is no exception – but the soy industry’s communicators tackle criticism head-on.
One example was a media controversy over the use of hexane in soy processing. The chemical has been used for 70 years to extract the vegetable oil from the plant seed. It is an affordable and efficient way of fat separation with no evidence of risk to human health at safe limits of consumption.
The use of hexane was reported in "shock-horror" terms by some media outlets. The soy industry’s response was to boldly lay out the facts and refute the errors.
This stands in sharp contrast to the dairy protein producers. In 2012, for example, the BBC ran in the UK and in its global news service several reports questioning the need for increased protein in the diet and the "safety" of consuming high levels of dairy proteins. The science to refute these stories existed, but the dairy industry remained mute and so the stories stand – leaving the door open to more negative media reports in the future.
IT’S PROTEIN – NOT SOY
The soy industry has moved beyond the tofu ghetto to focus on delivering familiar products that are reformulated to include soy but also meet consumer expectations.
“This is the biggest opportunity. The market has moved from being built around soy as a signature ingredient and heart health to wider health and wellness benefi ts driving the category.”
“Now we have these soy-based fresh juice products putting soy in a whole new area of the store.”
• Bolthouse Farms Vanilla Chai protein drink located in the fresh juice case in produce.
• Naked Juice (above) and Odwalla protein smoothies
Protein is being used to create totally new propositions.
Note that creating new categories has been a key driver of success in food and health.
“Companies are devising marketing messages that will stand the test of time and market shifts better. They are taking soy out of the product name and off the front of the package. Now you see a greater emphasis on protein.”
Source: Peter Golbitz, director of International Business Development, SunOpta Grains and Food Group.
3. TASTE, TEXTURE AND NEW APPLICATIONS
There is a growing list of protein sources from which manufacturers can choose – not only soy and dairy, but pea and many others from vegetable sources that companies like Bunge and others have in the pipeline. As a result soy suppliers are working hard to distinguish the value, quality and functionality of soy protein from the protein in meat, dairy and other plants and to demonstrate its versatility.
For instance, new soy-based products geared toward mainstream markets for weight management, sports nutrition and the burgeoning older population is driving a trend toward a higher value of protein ingredients, Jean Heggie, director of marketing for Solae, one of the biggest soy suppliers, told NNB in 2012.
"Consumers are looking for a higher value protein in their diet to help them lose weight, to meet the needs of an active lifestyle or because they are growing older and they want to hold onto muscle mass," she said.
"So in the past we might have delivered eight to 10 grams of protein, now the demand is for more like 12 to 15 grams of protein per serving. For sports nutrition, it has shifted from 20 grams in the past to more like 30 grams per serving now."
Soy also holds advantages for product manufacturers in that they can address cost and supply chain issues. The volatility of dairy protein prices – and their high level compared to vegetable proteins – has caused manufacturers to look to soy for better price stability in their value chain.
"Soy is more reliable and predictable in its pricing," said Heggie.
What’s more, she said, many manufacturers see the global demand for protein from a long-term perspective and predict shortages in the future. So diversifying and not being over reliant on one type of protein when supply is tight and prices are out of control can be advantageous for manufacturers, she added.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR INNOVATION
According to Peter Golbitz, director of International Business Development, SunOpta Grains and Food Group, delivering familiar products that are reformulated with soy but that also meet consumer expectations will continue to be a successful formula and one that presents the biggest opportunity.
The industry has seen this over and over in the category, he added – most notably, when White Wave put soy milk in a carton in the dairy cabinet. Now Campbell Soup-owned Bolthouse Farms is doing something similar with products like its Vanilla Chai protein drink located in the fresh juice case in produce. Pepsi-owned Naked Juice and Coke-owned Odwalla have similar SKUs.
"So now we have these soy-based fresh juice products putting soy in a whole new area of the store," he said.
Such out-of-the-box thinking is the future for soy ingredients and products, according to Golbitz. Suppliers and manufacturers need to work together to provide soy products in new formats.
Beverage formulators wanting to incorporate soy protein in products have traditionally been limited by not only taste and mouth feel, but also a cloudiness in the finished product. But a proprietary soy protein, Clarisoy, developed by technology company Burcon NutraScience and under license to ADM, provides a soy protein that is 100% soluble and completely transparent in an acidic solution.
"If you want to put soy protein in a product, many ingredients specifically carry a lot of off flavours," said Noel Rudie, PhD, director of research for Harvest Innovations. The company utilizes a mechanical, high heat process for a short time to deactivate the undesirable enzymes that cause the negative taste profiles while leaving the nutrition. "Our raw materials don’t taste like soy, so finished products aren’t limited by that."
"We are always looking for new technologies and innovation to drive flavour and taste characteristics," added Solae’s Heggie. In today’s market, soy protein comes in many formats. "Powder is used in beverages, but there is also extruded nuggets that are quite compatible in crisps and offer unique taste characteristics."
There is also a lot of work being done by ingredient suppliers to show how soy, blended with other protein sources, such as dairy, can deliver better taste flavour than either alone.
"A whole lot depends on texture and flavour, so we have a panel of experts that just taste products," Heggie said. "We have also done a lot on the technology end with textured vegetable proteins to mimic what consumers taste and feel when they eat a burger. The technology has come a long way in the last 10 years."
The positioning of soy products has become so complicated and diverse that many suppliers are taking an expanded role, beyond formulation and functionality, to help their customers.
"We want to be a brand extension of our customer," said Harvest Innovations’ Rudie. This is more typically necessary for smaller companies, who need help with ideas, formulation and marketing, whereas larger companies may only need some directional advice.
Heggie says Solae is establishing a greater awareness among food companies of the broader perspective a supplier brings to the value of the ingredient.
"We are doing a lot more to get consumer insights on where things are heading with regard to protein, diets and soy in general," she said. Clients expect Solae to have a strong sustainability message, she noted, but the company also helps customers develop a story about the ingredients they are working with, especially surrounding the value of plant proteins in the diet.
4. NEW GROWTH MARKETS
The soy industry is focusing on South America, China, India, South Africa and sub- Saharan Africa.
"The soy industry is having a huge impact in these countries, and we are seeing a lot of new entrepreneurs, new soyfoods associations and product development activity. One of the reasons is that soy is affordable, and it supports the growth and development of kids. So we are seeing this development in Asia, Guatamala, Mexico [which formed its first soyfoods association], Brazil," according to Nancy Chapman of SANA.
Soy’s affordability is said to be beginning to have a "huge impact" in sub-Saharan African in countries like Mozambique and fast-developing countries such as Nigeria.
GMO QUESTIONS ALMOST GO AWAY?
In some markets – but not all – the question of GMOs remains an Achilles heel for soy. Because the issue has potential to be a big one it is causing some manufacturers to trace the source of their raw materials to a new level. Non-GMO is a big hot button in soy because there is so much GMO soy—maybe 80% of what is produced.
However, it’s apparent that so far it hasn’t been the critical issue that it has threatened to be in the past. Because of soy’s versatility and functionality, because it lends itself well to a variety of applications and products, it has growing appeal for manufacturers.
And it is a cost-effective substitute for more expensive sources of protein such as dairy. The soy producing industry has shown itself to be highly innovative – and excellent at marketing communications.
Dairy may have a small window with its new opportunity to communicate the superior properties of dairy protein. But soy remains a formidable competitor – and soy executives remain upbeat. As one said: "This is a renaissance time in soyfoods."
This editorial from New Nutrition Business's magazine was first published in its April 2013 edition.
About New Nutrition Business
New Nutrition Business is a London-based research, publishing and consulting company which specialises in researching, analysing and forecasting developments in the business of food, nutrition and health around the world.
The strategies and success factors it has identified in the 1990s have become the benchmarks for strategy development and brand positioning in the worldwide nutrition business. It works with companies all around the world, from the United States to Australia and from Sweden to South Africa.
New Nutrition Business is headed by executive director Julian Mellentin (right), one of the world’s very few global specialists in the business of food, nutrition and health.
He is the editor-in-chief of New Nutrition Business and Kids Nutrition Report, the only industry journal in the world on the rapidly developing kids’ nutritional marketplace. See