Where did insect eating go? The need for cultural innovation

Jesse Parviainen

4.6.2020

A few years ago, insect eating was riding the hype wave. I hopped on board the wave, as did many companies, just to be disappointed, and silently backed away after insect eating became one addition to list of next big things that never took off. I studied the edible insect phenomena back in 2015, and noticed a few interesting points in the process. 

Where did edible insect companies go wrong?

Firstly, edible insect companies had quite a flawed assumption of the mindset of people and their products’ value proposal. Many companies tried to market the functional benefits, such as health and environmental benefits, while disguising the insects into unrecognisable forms such as protein bars or powder. Companies argued that insects are a substitute for meat, which is also a quite flawed argument – if you are willing to give up on your steak dinner for an insect based dish, why not just go fully vegetarian, which is even more environmentally friendly and usually has the same health benefits?

People wanted to have (or at least try) the product, but had no reason to commit to using it in the long term. There was enormous hype on the market, and edible insects had a very positive buzz due to the obvious ideological opportunity created by the growing awareness of the negative aspects of the meat industry to the environment. At the same time, companies seemed to overlook the cultural innovation path for marketing and branding.

Cultural innovation to the rescue

Cultural Innovation is a rather new term and maybe a bit understudied way for companies to grow their business. Companies have of course done cultural innovation for decades, but the research only started in the 2000’s, mainly by Douglas Holt, who can be credited by coining the term and laying the groundwork in academic research. 

The best way to frame the field of cultural innovation is to compare it to other types of innovation: technological innovation and business model innovation. Technological innovation can be described as the most “traditional” type of innovation, which includes all kinds of new disruptive and breakthrough technologies, be it new types of software, novel medicine or manufacturing technology. Business model innovations include the “new wave” innovations, such as AirBnb’s roomless hospitality service, Uber’s carless taxi service and such. Cultural innovation is rather unique, as it does not focus on changing the company’s product or service offering, but rather how it is perceived and presented to the public. 

This is how I got involved with cultural innovation, how it can be used, and how the lack of cultural innovation can be detrimental for industries.

What we can learn from Oatly

At the same time, as the insect eating industry was lacking in their cultural innovation strategies and implementation, there was another booming industry stirring the market: plant-based milk substitutes. The majority of plant-based milk substitutes were not too different in their marketing claims, mainly touting the same health benefits, smaller environmental impacts, and ethical points as insect eating companies. But one company stood out from the crowd.

Oatly and its oat-based drinks are an example on how companies can use cultural innovation to gain popularity in a rather similar situation as the edible insects were facing. Oatly products are designed to be used instead of milk, and provide a vegan, milk-free choice with similar usage and applications than “regular” dairy products. 

Oatly’s situation was rather similar to what the insect industry was facing, as it tried to substitute cow milk products with their own oat-based products, offering a more sustainable alternative. Dairy products, and especially milk, has been seen as an essential product of one’s well-being and healthy life (at least in Nordic countries). In most parts of the world, people don’t recognize milk as a necessity for adults, but rather something to offer to infants and children. Similarly, many people see meat as an important part of the human diet, whereas, in some cultures eating meat is not acceptable. 

Oatly bases its branding and marketing efforts to three main points, namely the fact that it is a small independent company, Oatly is the challenger for “big milk”, and the humorous, ironic tone of their marketing. Oatly is a great example of a company recognising the cultural orthodox (=the current “traditions” and codes used in the communication) in dairy product marketing, which had mainly focused on functional benefits in marketing. Oatly is a company with decades of history, but only recently the environment and social disruptions have provided opportunity for such cultural innovation: to promote a new kind of product, and disrupt the dairy industry without a single cow being involved.

Oatly took their approach to the market to heart, and they knew their customers: usually quite liberally thinking, “hipster”-kinda folk in urban centers, those people who like to side with the small “good guy”. Oatly also new what kind of cultural expressions should be used in communication with this group of people: unpolished, genuine and down-to-earth. Great example of this is their ad where Oatly’s CEO was standing in an oat field, playing a simple tune and singing (rather rudely) the Oatly tagline “Wow no cow”. This kind of cultural expression works wonders in a company like Oatly, as it can be seen genuine and real.

Repeating success

The Oatly example might sound mundane for many, and you might even think that there’s nothing special about it – these kind of jackpot marketing campaigns happen all the time. That is somewhat true, but the big question is can you make it happen constantly? The difference of a one hit wonder ad and long lasting, impactful success is having a well thought out cultural strategy and tools to implement it in a meaningful way, in order to repeat success. 

We created Marmori to help companies unleash their potential with cultural innovation. If you would like to know more, go to Marmori.co and hit us up!

Kirjoittaja on yksi marmori.co perustajista ja innokas uusien kulttuuri-ilmiöiden tutkiskelija.

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

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