In this two-part series we’ll look at how insurgents threatened the dairy category, and how market leaders fought back.

Category insurgent (noun) – a person or brand fighting against established market leaders or beliefs by attacking the mass-market model with small-producer, authentic crafted brands or challenging the category on health or ethical grounds.

Milking It

Will plant-based dairy alternatives remain a category insurgent? Or will they make cow’s milk a thing of the past?

At first glance, the dairy category might seem safe from attack. Milk has been regarded as the epitome of healthy living for generations. Likewise, yoghurt has long been associated with health and goodness – from digestion (yoghurt was once sold in pharmacies to help with stomach aches), to calcium, necessary for healthy bones; more recently, yoghurt’s link to probiotics has helped a new surge in popularity.

Yet there is a growing trend towards plant-based alternatives to dairy: consumption of non-dairy alternatives is rising quickly while many people are reducing their intake of milk and yoghurts. Why? The answer is a challenge from category insurgents acting on a combination of health and environmental drivers.

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Any category can be challenged when society’s beliefs change
The anti-milk movement argues that people lose their ability to digest lactose by the time they reach adulthood. (Yoghurts have a very low lactose content so suffer less from this argument than milk.)

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In the West there is a growing population of vegans and ‘flexitarians’ – vegetarians who occasionally lapse for a Sunday roast – eager to reduce animal-sourced proteins because of growing concerns over personal health issues (saturated fat levels, hormone content, antibiotics in dairy cows) and ethical ones (animal treatment, the environment).

As with all ‘free-from’ products, flexitarians and so-called ‘dairy reductionists’ primarily just want to eat healthier foods that make them feel better – rather than having diagnosed medical conditions or allergies. These personal health issues are more often the reasons people make their choice in the supermarket aisle – even if the environmental and ethical drivers often make the stronger argument.

An explosion of choice
Plant-based alternatives have existed for years; what is changing now is a boom in the offer beyond soya, the original milk alternative. Cashew, almond, hazelnut and rice milks; pea and quinoa proteins – the list of choices for those avoiding dairy milk keeps on growing. Today’s fastest growing alternative is coconut milk, thanks to its variety of uses. These alternatives may not be mainstream yet, but they have begun attracting users from beyond outliers such as product experimenters and speciality shops. (Ask how many of your friends and family buy dairy alternatives regularly – you will be surprised how many they are!)

The diversity of ingredients and flavours is helping turn what began as an anti-dairy choice into a positive decision: non-dairy products are no longer just a rejection of milk, they’re an embrace of the wide range of alternatives. As if to confirm this lurch towards the mainstream, packaging and marketing are also evolving, with more attractive and varied brands, but still maintaining their alternative, health-militant look and feel.

In the UK, Sainsbury’s recently announced it had doubled its dairy-free references: products are no longer consigned to the ‘ambient’ shelf, as they have created chilled, high-rotation, dairy-free cabinets, making the switch from milk to plant-based alternatives even easier. Plant-based options are going far beyond milk replacement – from yoghurts, cream and cheeses to ice creams and potted desserts, the route to discovery is widening every day.

Non-dairy milk alternatives have grown sixfold in just a few years, and that growth is still rising. The big question is not whether or not this market will thrive, but how big it will become – and can it grow outside of the largest cities?

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In Part II, we will explore how dairy companies have reacted to category insurgents and share key tactics that apply beyond dairy. You can read Part II here.

A dairy-reduction journey
Richard, 35-year-old Londoner: I stopped drinking milk after a York Intolerance Test … Switching was easier than I expected: the products are tastier, creamier than before; there’s a lot of choice. Overall, it really changed my way of eating – I’m more into healthy food, fruits and veg. When I was a young bloke, I was mainly snacking things like cheese and toasts. I was motivated by sorting out my stomach aches, but films like Carnage and [things I’ve read on] the internet have made me more aware of the ethical issues around dairy. Now when I shop, or go into a coffee shop, cow’s milk is just a variant in this ‘Creamy White Liquid’ fridge I buy from. I still eat the occasional yoghurt or cheese – I don’t want to be the painful guest who is fussy about his food.

Trailer for ‘Carnage: Swallowing the past’ available to watch here