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How traditional tofu brand Somenoya is evolving for the plant-based era


By Preethi Ravi, Journalist

February 16, 2023 | 8 min read

Can Soybeans save the world? How a century-old Tofu brand has overhauled its marketing for the plant-based era.

Plant-based market

The global plant based market is set to pass $160bn by 2030 / Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Somenoya has been a pioneer in tofu manufacturing in Japan since 1862. The family-run company has built its brand around a dedication to creating food – they don’t like to use the word products – using traditional Japanese techniques.

With the growth of the plant-based food movement and a growing appetite for meat alternatives, Somenoya has launched Someat, a soy meat range which includes tofu nuggets, grilled soybean meat and soy mince meat.

The new food range, along with the brand’s unwavering focus on sustainability, 100% local produce and traditional techniques, is helping to give the 161-year-old business a new lease on life.

The impact of the pandemic and a renewed focus on personal health coupled with a growing awareness of the environmental impact of the meat industry has helped the brand to connect with a new audience of Japanese consumers.

“Before COVID 19, the sales were not very good,” admits Masaya Kobayashi, plant-based food, sales manager at Somenoya. “But during the pandemic, sales have increased as more people are leaning towards plant-based food.

"Now, our customers include flexitarians who trying to eat more plant based. 60% to 70% of our customers are over 40 years who are conscious of their health and environment. Women especially are motivated to try meat alternative food.”

Somenoya sales surged 384% between 2019 to 2020 for its Someat range while tofu sales saw a 122% increase in 2021 compared to 2020. Kobayashi says the biggest driver of growth for the brand has come from new customers as more people seek out alternatives to meat.

Prior to the pandemic, the brand’s main customers were vegans and vegetarians, however, since 2020 the company has seen a sharp increase in non-vegan customers.

To leverage this opportunity Somenoya has invested in education and awareness campaigns to promote the health and environmental benefits of tofu, soy and plant-based eating.

Somenoya’s brand philosophy ‘Soybeans Save the World’ is rooted in its dedication to the traditional manufacturing processes it uses, such as 100% local products and no chemicals or additives. This hand-made approach is central to its positioning as a company contributing to a more sustainable society and a better place for future generations.

This positioning is embedded in the company, led by CEO Atsuto Ono, the eighth generation of his family to run the business. Ono was responsible for the shift to create more plant-based foods after learning of the relationship between meat and the worsening environmental issues.

Ramping up the brand’s sustainable positioning, Somenoya now operates a mobile van delivery service with more than 100 vehicles carrying frozen soybean and tofu products through cities across Japan.

The mobile van delivery service has been so successful for Somenoya that it closed its mom-and-pop retail stores and now operates its sales out of factories across six regions in Japan.

“Japanese people love to purchase things from a physical store, but they have begun to experience the convenience that mobile vans offer, right at their doorstep. Customers are more likely to try new products and become loyal customers as they see the benefit of the products we sell and the convenience it comes with,” says Kobayashi.

Somenoya has also signed on as an official sponsor of Meat Free Monday, Japan as well as sponsoring school and university events to ensure the younger generations are aware of the alternatives to meat.

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On top of traditional advertising and marketing campaigns, Somenoya is focused on local engagement and sampling strategies through experiential marketing and sampling at events such as food expos, school and university events, flea markets etc.

“Customers are reluctant to try plant-based if they must compromise on the taste. So, we ensure that our products taste as good as traditional dishes. We’ve worked hard on providing diverse and locally inspired dishes for consumers. For example, Chinese dumplings, Bulgogi, Keema curry, Ramen, Meatballs and Hamburgers. The most popular item is the “Someat broiled” which is a convenient, comfort food and tastes like chicken.

"All our products are ready-to-eat, no additives or preservatives which makes it easy for consumers to try for the first time and end up becoming our loyal customers,” says Kobayashi.

After 161 years, Somenoya's timing is perfect. Meat alternatives in Japan have gone mainstream in recent years, partly due to a widespread shift in consciousness since the pandemic. It is not surprising though, considering Japanese culture's longstanding value on health and its position as a nation with one of the highest life expectancies.

The Japan plant protein market is projected to reach a CAGR of 1.65% to reach $308.17 million in 2026. Although soy-based foods such as soy sauce and miso are deeply ingrained in traditional Japanese culture, soy protein is set to see the largest growth due to its high protein content while being low in calories and fat.

Somenoya plans to continue to ride this wave in Japan and internationally. Globally the plant-based foods market is predicted to account for 7.7% of the global protein market by 2030 and could be valued at over $162bn and there is room for many brands to succeed here.

Somenoya has already established a presence in Barcelona, where it sells its products in giant supermarkets and retail stores. It plans to explore other international markets in the future.

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