7 Marketing Hacks to Convince Newbies to eat Insects for the First Time

Is it possible to market edible insects? And if yes, how? Here are 7 pro marketing tips that can help you get on the right track.

Erica Eller
Megaphone Illustration - Seven insect marketing hacks

If I told you edible insects are a marketer's dream come true, you might laugh. But look at this evidence:

  1. They have a super low environmental impact.
  2. They are packed with nutrients.  
  3. They are an extremely versatile cooking ingredient.
  4. They can easily be eaten as a snack.

From a business standpoint, setting up an insect farm involves relatively low overhead and production costs compared to conventional livestock.

On top of that, if you’re starting with a DIY insect farm, the supply is readily available.

The edible insect market is also poised for growth. It is expected to reach almost 1200 million USD by 2023, according to Meticulous Research.  

So what’s not to like about edible insects?

Lizzard meme- lizzard says "I love 'em"

There’s just one minor hold up. Many consumers’ perceptions of edible insects need to undergo a 180 degree shift. Marketers want to get people who think bugs are “yucky” to surprise themselves by discovering the new “yummy” possibilities.   

You may be thinking:

How do we rewire our brains to think of creatures that wiggle, swarm and crawl as food?

There’s no one cut and dry solution. One vendor found that selling toasted grasshoppers at a Mariners game went over astonishingly well.

Indeed, this may be one of the most interesting marketing challenges faced by the food world, yet. But advocates of the bug biz have risen to the challenge.

That’s why I am going to share the top 7 marketing tips for bug eating promotion. These tips will help you understand why eating bugs means business.      

But first consider this:

Infographic: At least two billion people eat bugs
According to the FAO, there are two billion bug eaters worldwide.

Yet, entomophagy (aka eating creepy crawlies) remains a feat for the West where insect eating has historically been considered uncivilized. Even though we're latecomers to the feast, there's no reason we can't face our fears of insects.

If you think about it, these fears are largely unfounded.

Think about it:

Most small six- or eight-legged critters are harmless.

Sure, some of them bite, but so do the animals we eat. If you've ever been pecked by a chicken, you know what I mean.

And while a variety of bugs are poisonous, the same can be said for many plants. Poisonous mushrooms can be lethal, but that doesn't stop us from eating other harmless varietals.

It's true that insects look alien to us, and the way they move looks like a stop motion animation. But plant-based foods are even less human-like and we eat them all the time.

Why do we opt for protein-sources that look like friendly pets, anyway?

Cute calf

I can’t speak for everyone, but we're probably less likely to become emotionally attached to insects than to a cow or a pig.

The cultural stigmatization of insects runs deep in the West, but it may not be quite as difficult to uproot as it seems. In fact, consumers have undergone some pretty extreme shifts in preference for other food trends that have become mainstream.

Sushi

Remember how:

Many people had to overcome their fear of raw meat to eat sushi. Now they love it. And when I first saw kale on the shelves, I didn't know how to cook it. Then as new recipes came forward, I adapted to adding kale to my diet.

Just like kale, insect edibles have myriad advantages—enough to outweigh their unpleasant qualities.  

Advocates of edible insects are driven by the desire to tap into an important opportunity in terms of market growth and sustainability to get customers to shift their perceptions. So let’s get ready to eat bugs, world!

Here are 7 pro-tips for making this innovative food source appetizing for people who just need a little push.

1. Target the people who are on the fence

Man looking over the fence

As with political issues, insect eaters fall into three camps:

  • For bugs
  • Against bugs
  • On the fence

Attracting the customers who are already pro-insect won't be that difficult. If you want your customer base to grow, you'll have to get the “insect-curious” eaters to dip their toes in the water.

In the Netherlands, 50% of the population would give insects a try

According to Muriel Verain, a researcher in the Netherlands who conducted a study on perceptions towards edible insects, fifteen percent of respondents in her research group had tried insects once, while as much as thirty-five percent would consider it.

That means 50% of the population welcomes insects enough to try them, which is huge!

Another approach to finding bug-amenable customers is to seek consumer groups that have more than one reason to be interested.

Pro-sustainability

Obviously, conscientious consumers who care about the sustainability benefits are worth targeting. But it also helps to think of other consumers that intersect with this group.

Links to culture

For instance, Mexican culture doesn't stigmatize insects. Latinos in the U.S. who are interested in sustainability could be an excellent insect-curious group. For instance, the restaurant Guelaguetza promotes their Oaxacan chapulines (grasshopper) dishes as an ancient traditional meal.

Wilderness exposure

Health fanatics will also love the nutritional benefits of edible insects. Consider people who spend a lot of time outdoors and have more exposure to insects, like hikers or campers. They may not be as scared of insects as urban dwellers.

Protein power

Athletes who specifically need lots of protein, like weight lifters, might wish to add insects to their protein-rich diet.

Bottom line:

We should think outside of the box to identify who will be most willing to help this trend go mainstream.  

2. Invite Influencers for a Taste-test: Peer-pressure works!

Influencer illustration

It helps to understand the psychology of what makes new things attractive. Along these lines, it’s important to remember that we are more likely to try something the first time if we see others doing it.

If you can find successful advocates among diverse groups of interested people, they can build momentum to influence others over time.  

In an interview with Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, explained that "word of mouth is over 10 times as effective as traditional advertising." When we see trusted friends share positive experiences with new products, we become more willing to try something for the first time. This is why social media influencers are so in demand.

Word of mouth is over 10 times as effective as traditional advertising. - Jonah Berger

For bug biz advocates, it’s important to make eating bugs a more visible, common part of everyday life.  

When celebrities endorse new products, it’s a lot like a word of mouth recommendation. That’s how Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the astronomy show Cosmos: A Space Odyssey cast a wide net for the edible insects movement.

As guest of honor for the Explorers Club annual dinner in 2015, he showed the world he was willing to try everything on a full menu crafted out of insect dishes. His presence helped send a positive message in the spirit of food sustainability.      

Hopefully more celebrities will start lining up at the door to try insects. In the meantime, don’t forget to share photos on social media when you taste-test new edible insects.

3. Promote these adorable edibles with emotional cues

Hearth illustration

As emotional beings, we link the things we like to the pleasure centers in our brains. That’s why marketing strategies for bugs highlight the fun, goofy and playful aspect of eating bugs. They also back it up with clever messages about the considerable advantages for the planet.

Cute as a button

"Intelligent cutesiness is a good way to describe this entire sector," says NPR's Luke Runyon.

That's a perfect way to describe the charming videos of Emmamadeinjapan trying edible bug products over a 5-day sprint.      

Tap into the life force

Another way to ignite positive emotions is to offer a sense of spirited energy that we normally associate with healthy products. After all, these punchy superfood-like products are filled with enough nutrients to dazzle any wellness aficionado.

Intelligent by design

A third approach involves appealing to our sensibility. Many consumers feel good about using their purchasing power conscientiously.

We don't need a savior complex to know that our population is growing and food security will become a huge issue in the future. The global population is expected to increase to as high as 9.7 billion by 2050. The level-headed approach to diet involves finding ways to reduce the ecological footprint of our foodstuffs.

Infographic: The food challenge- One out of seven people is hungry although we produce enough food for everyone.

Courage conquers fear

Finally, it helps to invoke bravery for the faint of heart. It is no small task to overcome one's fears, no matter how small and edible they may be.  

4. Compare the taste and texture of bugs to other familiar foods

Comparing Crickets and Shrimps

Imagine a lobster shrunken down to the size of a beetle. Would they really look that different? Not especially. That's because shrimp, crab, crayfish and lobsters are all arthropods, as are insects, spiders and scorpions.

Miniature crab legs, anyone?

What all of these critters have in common is an exoskeleton, a hard outer shell. It gives them their shielded, plated appearance.

Insect marketers often highlight such similarities to make sure you check your insect-bias. If you already eat crab, lobster or shrimp, there is no reason you should be opposed to eating insects.

It tastes like…

To guide expectations, promoters also liken the flavor of edible insects to more common foods.

Here’s where marketers get really creative:

Stacie Goldin of Elephant Journal says, "When the insects are dry roasted, they have such a nice, mild, nutty flavor, almost like sunflower seeds." And I love Joe Ricchio's description of black ants as "Citrusy, with a slight tingle reminiscent of Szechuan peppercorn."

Insect advocates know that people need a frame of reference before trying something new. If we can predict the flavor when we bite into a new food, it will help to eliminate any unpleasant surprises.      

5. Make the appearance of Edible Insects less "Buggy"

Humus with buffalo worm flour
Hummus with Buffalo worms. See recipe here

It's usually not the taste or the texture of a bug that repels consumers: it's how they look. The sight of a fully-intact joint-legged creature looks as if it could suddenly walk off your plate. This can make for an uncanny eating experience.

By changing the form of insects to mimic other familiar food products, producers have diminished the cognitive dissonance associated with eating bugs. In flour, powder or flake-form they appear perfectly innocuous.

6. Amplify the #eatbugs food trend through social media

Remember that eating bugs is a great conversation starter.

When I recently posted about edible insects on facebook, it piqued the interest of several friends who I hadn't spoken to in years. They shared their anecdotes about eating insects, and the tone generally felt light and humorous.

Social media is a great place generate conversations about edible insects. Mentioning other insect advocates and building a community around insect edibles will help push this growing industry to its full potential.

To spread awareness about entomophagy, the advocate group Little Herds recommends using hashtags like #entomophagy, #edibleinsects, #eatbugs and #cricketprotein to create a buzz.

Don’t forget to:

  • Follow and mention insect farms, brands, restaurants and gurus in your posts
  • Retweet or link to interesting articles on edible insects   
  • Share photos of the insect foods you try
  • Use entomophagy hashtags

7. Highlight the Culinary Delights of Critter Cuisine

Mealworm Caresse Salad
Capresse salad topped with mealworms. See recipe here

The inconspicuous flavor of bugs makes them extremely versatile for cooking. You can enhance the nutritional content of your snacks by coating them in cricket protein powder. After all, crickets are one of the most popular and least daunting bugs for beginners.

Or, if you want to experiment with more creative culinary dishes, the insect opportunities are endless.

Spicy, salty, sugar-coated, chocolate-covered, or battered up and deep fried: insects are the perfect substrate to experiment on. This is especially true when you purchase them in their freeze-dried form.

The spirit of experimentation has fueled the many restaurants, conferences and festivals that feature edible insects.

For Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs, insects are an ingredient that can enhance dishes and add complexity to flavors.

He is working to classify different insect flavors for connoisseurs in a book.

Such a resource will be indispensable for restaurateurs and spirited chefs who want to tap into this food trend.

Flex your Creativity with the Edible Insects Marketing Challenge

Help your community take the plunge by easing the challenge along the way.

The point is not only to find one-time taste-testers. To go mainstream, it'll take repeat customers who are loyal to the prospect of keeping our food sources sustainable.

With a little encouragement, these tasty treats will earn their rightful place in people's everyday diets.  

Do you have your own tips and tricks that you’d like to share?

Leave a comment below, other marketers will be happy to hear from you :)

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