Most Americans don’t eat worms … yet!

Food fuels our bodies and has always been an important manifestation of identity, culture and values. Nowhere is this more evident than when looking at how diets evolve as products and trends move from new to normalized. American culture has not traditionally embraced insect proteins, but WMU students are working on a plan to change that.

This past fall, MBA students in the Marketing for Decision Makers course got a firsthand opportunity to consult with ZOFO, a small family-owned Mexico-based company, located in Cancun. Founded in 2017, the company initially farm-raised Zophobas morio worms as feed for fish farming. The Zophobas morio worm is called a “super worm” because it is an excellent source of protein and healthy fats compared to other edible insects. The worms can be farmed sustainably, in little physical space with minimal use of pesticides and water and no discernable environmental impact.

Insect protein and other insect-based food products have long been popular in many areas of the world, but have not yet been adopted by most Americans. 

“This project shows the importance of cultural norms and a true understanding of different markets,” says student Logan Hollow. “Fully examining different cultures and market entry models helped us find strong correlations to aid our marketing team. If we understand the norms of different demographics, then we will understand how to sell to those consumers.” 

Despite the challenge that a fear of novel foods presents, especially in a market used to consuming protein from other sources, ZOFO saw three key consumer groups that made entry into the U.S. market attractive.

  • Those seeking sustainable, healthy alternative protein sources.
  • Millennial and Gen Z consumers who are more open to trial and inclusion of ethnic products in their diets.
  • The growing Latinx population, whose members are culturally inclined to buy insect-based food products, aiding the adoption of these products in other customer segments.
From left to right: Alisha Warang, Zach Estep, Dr. Marcel Zondag, Nikol Wolpert, Logan Hollow and Jon Hoadley.

From left to right: Alisha Warang, Zach Estep, Dr. Marcel Zondag, Nikol Wolpert, Logan Hollow and Jon Hoadley.

ZOFO turned to WMU Haworth for help with its strategy because of its renowned food and consumer package goods marketing program. 

Dr. Marcel Zondag, associate professor of marketing and director of the college’s Food Industry Research and Education Center, was preparing opportunities for his MBA students to research unique issues in marketing strategy and saw the ZOFO market entry as an ideal project, which was a first-of-its-kind in its focus on both international markets and alternate protein sources. “Hands-on, experiential learning is the cornerstone of our MBA curriculum. This project encompasses all the theoretical topics you find in a traditional lecture class. However, instead of hearing about strategic marketing, the students are experiencing it in real time and with real data.”

Splitting into five teams, each student group had a focused area of research:

  • Segmentation, targeting, products and liabilities
  • Competition
  • Channels
  • Entry timing
  • Beverage opportunities

ZOFO has a partnership with Austral Group, an academic travel provider that specializes in cultural immersion and other online education services. After making the initial introduction between WMU and ZOFO, Austral Group arranged for guest speakers from different Mexican firms and NGOs to provide the MBA students with perspectives on business issues and experiences conducting international business. 

Those guest lectures, paired with intensive instruction in marketing strategy, prepared students to interact with Nikol Wolpert, ZOFO’s CEO, who answered their questions on the project and stayed connected to the work groups on Microsoft Teams all semester.

“My work history is in IT, making this my first introduction into the world of marketing,” says student Zach Estep. “It was a crash course, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. We were able to learn concepts from Dr. Zondag and then turn around and use them the very same day as we shaped, researched and developed our marketing strategy. Nikol, the CEO of ZOFO, would join us for our virtual class sessions and also made herself available between sessions to answer any questions we had. From concepts on paper to a marketing strategy that a company will adopt many elements from—all in a single semester—you can’t ask for a better experience!”

In the semester-long process, students first turned their attention to the competitive landscape.

SWOT analysis

  • Strength analysis highlighting nutritional value and sustainability.
  • Weakness analysis highlighting cultural disaffection and lack of visual appeal.
  • Opportunity analysis highlighting first-mover advantage and ties to education in science, sustainability and ecology.
  • Threat analysis highlighting competitive insect products available online.

After identifying the most likely consumer segments for worm salt and worm snack products, students looked at where these segments overlapped. They targeted recommendations for men, ages 25-44, with disposable income, who self-identify as edgy and seek new and interesting foods and flavors in ready-to-go packaging.

Students created the following recommendations for successful entry to the U.S. market:

1. Narrow the product line to worm snacks and worm salts only.

2. Label for the market.

  • Display FDA-approved seal.
  • Include ENTO seal for international safety and quality for insect foods.
  • Use value-based signifiers (100% natural, gluten-free, sustainable) in label design.
  • Educate consumers and normalize insects for human consumption akin to the normalization of vegan diets.

3. Create on-premise partnerships.

  • Use worm salt as a part of cocktails.
  • Pair worms with a drink or use as a garnish.
  • Make an entrée using worm salt or worms and pair with a drink.

4. Partner with existing influencers (chefs and others).

5. Participate in trade shows and launch press campaign to introduce ZOFO and products.

“I was very excited when I learned that our class would participate in a marketing project with a real-world application,” says student Alisha Warang. “The project helped me understand business issues from different perspectives to come up with creative solutions. I learned so much more through this project than I could with standard course materials. The window into how ZOFO company decision makers think and work was a highlight of this project and made us better problem solvers.”

Internet ad featuring three Zofo products.Students began a five-year omnichannel plan during fall semester, which included brand building and digital and e-commerce tactics, as well as physical market presence at tradeshows, health food retailers, wholesalers and hospitality venues.

The students have continued building upon the research during spring semester, in a special topics course that Dr. Zondag also oversaw, developing focus groups and collecting detailed consumer insights that will support ZOFO in establishing distribution in the United States. 

“It’s exciting to help solve real-world problems in a collaborative environment,” says student Jon Hoadley. “The experience of working with a real product, international experts and a family business with a potentially category-defining opportunity meant our efforts would impact jobs, families and communities outside the classroom. Hearing the positive feedback from Nikol Wolpert, ZOFO’s CEO, and watching her team immediately implement some of our recommendations made me feel like the work we did—and will do moving forward—has an impact.”