The horizon is vast, and the journey will be long, but I’m excited so many edible insect companies are coming along!
Wendy Lu McGill, CEO of Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, made a great point during her presentation at Eating Insects Detroit. She mentioned that most of the entomo-enthusiasts in the room had something in common: they were, or are, first to market *mic drop*.
What does it mean to be first to market? The edible insect market is relatively new in our modern industrial timeline. It’s beautiful / cool / exciting / invigorating to be at the precipice of a new industry – to be a part of a community where the rules are still being written! One could also say, however, it’s confusing / stressful / risky / an uphill battle to be at the precipice of a new industry where the rules are still being written. It depends how you look at it.
McGill noted that as the first micro cricket farm in Colorado, she was left to answer a lot of questions on her own. The early days of her company involved her calling government regulatory offices with questions like, “Hi – I’m starting the first company out here focused on producing insects for human consumption. What do I need to do to be in compliance?” She recalled that it took a while for these regulatory offices to even figure out who had enough knowledge to discuss the subject, let alone even get back to her.
While pioneering the regulatory landscape of edible insects in a new market is not without its challenges, it does present an exciting and unique opportunity to shape the field we choose to work in. I believe that it is essential that this herculean task be taken on collaboratively, using the wisdom and taking into account the needs of all the stakeholders in the industry. The importance, and lasting consequences, of setting precedent cannot be overstated.
Additionally, being first to market presents a different landscape to pursue paid and earned media attention. First, the bad news: in a new industry like edible insects, we have to create the market. It’s not just the regulators that have some catching up to do – consumers need to be educated and primed for market adoption. We lack the audiences that are already grouped in to channels that are available for mass marketing – far and few between are the Facebook fan pages for edible insects (currently a few exist with <1500 followers), the Twitter accounts for little livestock enthusiasts, or other email lists with suitable crowds. In addition, we have to catch the attention of the press – they’re certainly not looking for beats on a topic many don’t even know exists! On the positive side, however, once that initial media attention is sparked, the novelty of edible insects may make them more likely to get picked up by reporters. These stories might carry more potential virility in them. This is, however, a double edged sword. It’s up to us to ensure that these stories stay within our control and do not shape our industry in a creepy-crawler way. It’s essential that we do not sacrifice the integrity of our new marketplace for quick press. The collective group of emerging businesses in the edible insect space must stand together to deliver a message to consumers that is consistent. Insects are an ingredient. Insects are food. Insects are safe. Insects are sustainable. Insects are not a gimmick or stunt or fad food.
How long will the novelty and the earned media of this last? We don’t know. Soon this will become like the marketing of any other food…. we hope! I’ve reached out to a few pioneers for their views: Mark Nagy -CEO of Incredible Foods, Julia Plevin – Cofounder of Critter Bitters, and Wendy Lu McGil – CEO of Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch.
What does it mean to be first to market?
- “It’s pretty fun to have the first product in a category. In the long run, it will help having some brand identity associated with insect seasonings,” Mark Nagy
- “Being first to market means that your friends think you’re kind of wacky. But that’s okay,” Julia Plevin
- “I think of first to market for Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch (RMMR) means opening up a new geographic area for edible insects, literally the first business to raise insects for food in Colorado. There are benefits and challenges,” Wendy Lu McGil
What was your biggest challenge in being first to market?
- “Our product is pretty new so there isn’t much awareness around it. Its uses are also different than the other entomophagy products available,” Mark Nagy
- “The funny thing for us is that we weren’t even trying to be first to market. We just started Critter Bitters as a project in grad school and it has grown organically. Our vision for the product and company has also grown over time!” Julia Plevin
- “For RMMR, challenges included sorted out / educating government offices like the local and state health department, zoning office, landlords, etc,” Wendy LuMcGil
On the brighter side, what was the biggest advantage you had from being early to the insect game?
- “We are able to put ‘The Original Cricket Seasoning’ on the label!” Mark Nagy
- “It’s great. We are a close-knit community of insect entrepreneurs who are all navigating this world together. A huge benefit is that we (so far!) don’t have any direct competition. Cricket cookies, bars, pasta, etc all go great with a drink made from Critter Bitters!” Julia Plevin
- “Benefits include the “wow” factor that brings earned media with little effort, as well as word of mouth among local influencers that can bring new clients,” Wendy Lu McGil
How long do you think it will take for crickets and other insects to appear in major grocery store chains with frequency?
- “I’m guessing it will still be a couple years out. It could even be a new product like Popcorn Crickets (think Popcorn Shrimp in the freezer isle). Popcorn Crickets would need the frozen distribution channel that grocery stores already have in place and are also universally tasty,” Mark Nagy
“I think we’ll start seeing cricket products really soon. Other insects might take a while because there aren’t many at-scale resources for them yet. But it’s definitely all happening.” Julia Plevin
- “Literally the million dollar question! With the penetration of insect-base food products in select, mostly natural, food stores, particularly cricket powder protein bars, I think we have in-roads. Like many, I believe cricket powder food products will be available in retail stores sooner than whole insects, and I hope to see ground meat type products with insects soon as well. A wild guess would be one to two years for more products to be available,” Wendy Lu McGil
Do you have any concerns with how our industry is currently marketing edible insects?
- “None at all. I like that organizations are taking their own approach that suite their goals. There are many reasons for insect cuisine and many hurdles too. Finding the right marketing message (or messages) is key for the industry as a whole and for individual organizations,” Mark Nagy
- “I don’t think the world, especially here in the US needs more snack foods. Or anything with sugar. And I think we need to be really clear about the farming practices for insects. If we are trying to create a better alternative, let’s make sure we address the whole system,” Julia Plevin
- “Not big ones about current marketing, more concerns about how we are not engaging marketing experts yet on creating a term for edible insects ala “seafood.” And for the love of all things sustainable, a new term for mealworms. I’m brainstorming but this isn’t my strong suit. :-)” Wendy Lu McGil