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Quorn CEO Kevin Brennan on the future of food: 'People are voting with their stomachs'

Quorn CEO Kevin Brennan on the future of food: 'People are voting with their stomachs'

Food consumers are more aware than before of the costs of their food – from the sustainability of supply lines to the cruelty of industrial livestock farming and the myriad health issues associated with eating meat. But every cloud has a silver lining, and meat replacement brand Quorn is positioning itself as the solution to concerned shoppers’ woes.

The brand is betting big on an increase in demand for alternative protein products. Late last year, it opened a £150m meat alternative production facility – the world’s largest – in Billingham, near Middlesbrough, while it also invested an additional £5m R&D spending. The move appears to be an astute one; in 2018, the company’s global sales grew 7% and sales in newer territories such as the US are expected to grow 45% in 2019.

Reflecting on Quorn’s origins in efforts to solve global food shortages in the 60s, chief executive officer Kevin Brennan says: “I think we’ve been ahead of our times. And now we’re one of the biggest grocery brands in the UK. We’re getting the just returns from doing the pioneering work in this space.”

Since Brennan took the helm in 2010, Quorn has focused on marketing itself as a healthy alternative to meat, capitalizing on increased consumer awareness of the harms associated with carnivore diets. Its success over the decade has been built on persuading shoppers to switch out beef, lamb and chicken for Quorn’s mycoprotein substitutes in their shepherd’s pies and chili bowls, by way of ad campaigns featuring Olympians Sir Mo Farah, Kate Richardson-Walsh and Adam Peaty.

“The world has started waking up to the health issues around excess meat, processed meat and red meat. And it’s rapidly waking up to the bigger issue – the sustainability of the planet, and the emissions created in the process of producing a vast amount of meat.”

Brennan says Quorn will eventually to tout the ecological benefits, as well as the health gains, of cutting out meat. But while Quorn’s R&D division may be ahead of the game, he says its marketing has to focus on messages that work in the present. “If you can only say one thing to consumers, today it would be about health. All the data would tell you that. But if you’re taking a long-term view the thing that will be transformational is sustainability.

“We see it as a long-term trend, a generational trend. I think consumers find sustainability a bit of an amorphous topic. What they latch on to is plastic stuck inside fish on Blue Planet. It’s a tangible thing they can do something about. There are plenty of sustainability issues with meat, but the one they latch on to is the greenhouse gases. So for me, it’s more about climate specifically than sustainability. That’s where there is an opportunity to lead the agenda.”

Similarly, Brennan says that while the company is looking into developing its mycoprotein as for sale as an ingredient in its own right, consumers primarily want direct meat substitutes. “We can see an opportunity emerging to just let people do what they want with the protein. But there’s huge numbers of people in the market that want foods that mimic the taste and texture of meat – it’s pretty obvious from how they’re voting with their feet and their stomachs.”

In the meantime, Quorn’s grand plan is to give consumers as many different opportunities to switch over as possible. That may see the brand engage in more partnerships like the team-up with Greggs that brought the nation the vegan sausage roll earlier in 2019, but will also see Quorn take the fight into the ambient food category, providing casual consumers with ready-to-eat convenience products. “There's lots of opportunities to keep expanding categories and locations for consumers to buy the product,” he says.

Although Brennan is pleased to see new meat alternative products opening up the market, he’s convinced that only the muscle and investment available to a firm of Quorn’s size will trigger major change. “Producing a burger or a sausage of reasonable taste isn't wildly difficult, but creating really fantastic dairy products is really hard. The creation of really high quality ambient products with the protein in it's really difficult. But this is our specialist area, and we spend millions on it.”

“We embrace there being more competition from startups in this area. The problem is a very big one and it's going to need lots of solutions.”

In The Drum's Future of Food issue, we learn how The Halal Guys has built a food cart empire on the streets of New York, why Sainsbury's is stocking edible crickets on supermarket shelves – and the story behind Deliveroo's international network of 'dark kitchens'. Order your copy here.

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