Happy Yogurt #2: Consumers' Sound Bites

Do Japanese consumers indulge with silky, healthy plant-based yogurt?

Hello, Market Shakers!

Today, we are going to introduce feedback from Japanese consumers. Are plant-based yogurts finding their public in Japan?

Summary of this edition:

  • Key takeaways in a nutshell

  • What are Japanese consumers saying about plant-based yogurts?

Key takeaways in a nutshell:

Japanese consumers know plant-based yogurt, but pricing is a barrier.

We conducted a small consumer survey that revealed Japanese consumers understood the plant-based yogurt category, but few had given dairy-free products a try. Overall, they are not particularly attracted to the category for ethical or environmental reasons, though they do believe dairy-free products are better for the environment. They perceive plant-based yogurt as better for health — a key driver in Japan, where consumers are highly health-conscious. Perceived as expensive, dairy-free yogurts are not yet convincing mainstream consumers to give them a try. When they do, flavor and texture often surprise them and do not convince them to stick to the category.

The main consumer of plant-based yogurt is women.

No surprise here — women in their 30s to late 50s are the biggest fan of plant-based yogurts. The various brands available in Japan fit their needs whether that's beauty or health — they're dieting or simply mindful of their fat intake, they want nutrients and care about their gut health. Gut health and low cholesterol are two key drivers for other consumer categories, particularly for consumers in their 40s to 60s. They have higher spending on food and care about staying away from cardiac diseases and high cholesterol.

Statistically, women are also the main buyer of dairy-free yogurt products at supermarkets (86% based on POS data). However, they may buy products for other family members as well. Today still, Japanese women deal with house chores and doing grocery shopping for the household.

Gut health is a key driver for the yogurt category in general.

Japanese people strongly believe that beauty comes from the inside out as in 'how you eat matters. For women, in particular, maintaining good gut health is a good way to ensure beautiful skin. In spring 2020, as the pandemic was taking over the world and people worried about their health, the word 腸活 (choukatsu) buzzed. The entry reached over 585 news articles on Google. Literally, ‘gut activity,’ 腸活 refers to all the small daily actions a person can do to maintain healthy microbiota: eating more fibers, drinking probiotics, eating pickles, etc. Among the options on the table, eating yogurt is by far one of the most popular choices with Japanese consumers. This unprecedented boom led to an increase in the consumption of yogurt —dairy and dairy-free ones — and probiotic drinks in general.

What are Japanese consumers saying about plant-based yogurt?

We read surveys, searched for social noise, and surveyed Japanese people to bring you consumer intelligence for this category. We had a lot of positive feedback from women consumers from all age groups. Men, on the other hand, were less familiar with the products and concepts. 

Japanese consumers in their 60s

Yukiko, 60s, married

Yukiko is a picky eater. She reads labels and tries to maintain a healthy diet because as she gets older, she worries about developing health issues. She has long thought dairies were good for her health, but recently saw plant-based alternatives at her store. She tried a soy-based yogurt. Overall, she felt the experience wasn’t too bad, but the product lacked flavor. The taste was less sour and stronger than her regular yogurt. On the positive side, she found the plant-based yogurt had a silkier, agreeable texture, and felt it was less heavy on her stomach. 

The taste isn't great, but I understand these products are healthier. Reading the labels and information about soy yogurt, they seem to bring a lot of nutrients. They also contain less fat, so I think I will include them in my diet because I care about my cholesterol level and my weight. 

Japanese consumers in their 50s

Hiromi, 50s, married

Suffering from health issues, Hiromi has to be careful with cholesterol and neutral fat. His doctor recommended he eat more soy products in order to reduce his LDL level [low-density] and to reduce his intake of animal products. His wife, in charge of grocery shopping and cooking, has reduced drastically their purchase of meat and oily food. Hiromi used to eat yogurt, butter, and cheese every morning, but his wife now prepares toast with tomatoes, low-GI bread, and plant-based cheese and soy yogurt.

My wife is the one who goes to the supermarket, so I don't really choose what I eat. She's very conscious about my health. She buys the Soy Bio brand because the package indicates it is made from soy milk. The package looks nice. The taste is refreshing and does not smell weird like cow milk.

Hiromi does not know other brands, but he thinks that the choice is probably limited. The couple does not care about food price, but wouldn't purchase such product for more than 500 yen. The average yogurt price is 159 yen per unit (April 2021; the highest price used to be 373 yen in June 2015).

Japanese consumers in their 40s

Katsuya, 40s, Married

Katsuya is aware of the existence of plant-based yogurt and cheese. He spotted soy yogurt at his local supermarket but never tried it because he loves dairy products and feels healthy good-for-you products are not tasty. He expects dairy-free options to be less salty and fat. 

I’d give yogurt a try. If I think about my gut health, plant-based yogurt appears a very healthy option. But cheese… I eat cheese for the pleasure of strong salty and aged flavor like a pizza topping. On the weekend or in the evening, I’ll have cheese such as gouda or matured cheddar as a snack to go with my beer. So, I don’t think soy cheese would taste right and be what I need. If I had lactose intolerance, maybe the matter would be different. 

Katsuya noted his son, a picky eater, tends to snack on cheese in the evening. He’s concerned about the impact on his son’s diet, but at the same time thinks dairy is good for growth. His wife is concerned about her weight. She goes to the gym and recently, she talked about soy yogurt as a dietary supplement to lose weight. She doesn’t entirely believe what she read, but she bought several soy milk-based recipe books. 

Japanese consumers in their 30s

Yuki, 32, living with his girlfriend

When asked about plant-based yogurt, Yuki wasn’t sure to understand the question. But after hearing more about dairy-free products, he realized he tried Pokka Sapporo’s new soy yogurt brand. 

I had never seen soy-based yogurt before and got excited to see a new product at my supermarket. I bought one as a trial. I eat dairy daily for my diet and soy-based yogurt sounds better for my health. The flavor was usual. If I did not know, I wouldn't have guessed it's soy-based.

However, Yuki will not buy the brand again, feeling the price was too high for the value. He's easily attracted by seasonal items, though when he realized it was a regular product, he got somehow disappointed.

I want to eat healthy, tasty products. I wouldn't complain if that was the only choice at my supermarket, but I feel this was too expensive and I have not tried another brand since then.

Hatsumi, female, 30s, single

Hatsumi tried Pokka Sapporo’s Soybio. She was looking for probiotics and is also on a diet. She looks for low-fat and carb products, with fewer calories. Soy-based yogurt appeared as a good alternative to her regular dairy products.

The flavor is definitely less sour than my regular brand and I was disappointed at first. But after a while, I came to think the soy-based one tastes good in its own way — I eat one every morning. On the contrary, my family liked the soy-based version right away. They say it’s lighter.

Health concerns pushed Hatsumi to pick dairy-free products and over time, the product eventually convinced her for its texture ("mellower than regular yogurt") and flavor ("it has a hint of fresh cream"). We asked her if she felt the product was expensive.

The price is higher than for the Meiji Bulgaria brand, but I don't feel it's overly expensive. I think it's around 250-300 JPY for 400gr at nearby supermarkets. Since I eat it every morning, I buy one twice a week.

Japanese consumers in their 20s

Ayami, 20s, single

Ayami is wary of plant-based products in general. She doesn’t buy soy-based yogurt, cheese, or meat because she worries about their composition. She also feels that dairy products are creamier, tastier, and healthy enough. 

I’m not confident when I see a product labeled plant-based. They’re often expensive and tasteless or worse. The Japanese expression 植物性 speaks more to me than the imported English plant-based (プラントベース) which feels very artificial. I think 植物性 is more natural and local. Maybe healthier? Anyway, I'm not vegan and I don't like being pushed to think about environmental issues when I do grocery shopping, as if I'm somewhat guilty. I figure plant-based products are for people with health concerns or the rich and wealthy educated people who are 意識高い系 ('overly conscious').

Ayami added that in general, imported foods feel unsafe, fitting well among the 36% of Japanese that associate lack of safety with imported foods according to an early 2021 survey conducted by the Japan Finance Corporation.

Ken, 20s, living with his girlfriend

Ken tried Marusan’s soy yogurt because his girlfriend eats that brand on a regular basis. He was surprised by the taste, very similar to dairy yogurt. He likes soy milk, so the slight soy flavor is pleasant. Ken added that adding honey to soy yogurt would be great for breakfast, especially in summer.

The pro of eating regular yogurt is that it contains healthy gut bacteria. I am concerned that soy yogurt lacks these bacteria which makes it a ‘fake’ yogurt*. What would be the purpose to eat soy yogurt if I don't get healthy bacteria? 

(*Ken considers fake a yogurt that doesn’t have bacteria and doesn’t care for the main ingredient — soy or dairy)

Ken admitted he didn't know much about the soy yogurt. He also doesn’t know what is the price difference between dairy yogurt and soy yogurt. When we explained a dairy yogurt is around 200 yen and soy yogurt more around 250, he felt it was too expensive. He isn’t a regular yogurt consumer and would make a decision based on price. However, if he imagines there is a buffet with soy and dairy yogurt for free, and there is some information about the benefits of soy yogurt, he would choose the soy one.

That’s all, folks! 

Stay tuned, next week we hit the store for our regular Shelf Sweep!

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