The reluctance their team faced was particularly unsettling, as it challenged the very way they work. Being user-centered is at the core of design thinking. In the step by step of the process, design thinkers empathize with users, find out their needs, create solutions for them and and test with them. So what happens if the user does not seem to want a change?
The will was not there, but the need definitely was. Between 2004 and 2014, more than 4000 butcher shops were forced to shut down in Germany, according to their local association. The process started in the 1990s, as supermarkets became the favoured spot for meat-shopping. As if a dramatic loss of market share was not enough, the industry as a whole started suffering from a serious image crisis.
First came the mad cow disease, then all scandals associated with the way animals are treated in large scale farming and the growing concern about the climate impact of eating meat. With nearly 10 percent of its population going meatless, Germany has the highest rate of vegetarianism amongst its European neighbours.
These events didn’t exactly reduce meat consumption – which has been relatively stable in the last decade. However, they have made it much harder to find young people interested in becoming butchers. Public scrutiny has also increased regulatory demands. The complexity of requirements is now so overwhelming that butchers are left with little time to explore new business opportunities.
It was in this scenario that the Adalbert Raps Stiftung, a foundation dedicated to the development of the food sector, approached the HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam, with a task: “Create the meat shop 2.0, an up-to-date version of the classic butcher business”. In charge of the challenge was a group of people with absolutely no experience in the meat industry: two designers (one of which was actually a vegetarian), an engineering student, a PhD candidate doing research in education and a journalist.
Into the Field
The team tried to get as close as possible to butchers and their environment. They interviewed many of them, as well as meat-lovers and vegetarians. They visited butcher schools, farms and worked in a meat shop for a day. One of the main insights of the research phase was that consumers seemed to be demanding more convenience from butchers. As the students found out, a relevant share of the revenue at bigger shops come from a modest selection of warm dishes offered at lunchtime. In these family-owned enterprises, the butcher’s wife is normally the one in charge of the buffet, which consists of sausages and other old-school German recipes of processed meat. Demand for ready-meals was clearly there, but only consumers over the age of 50 would come up with the idea of stopping at the butcher shop for a bite.
The team’s first idea was to update the ready-to-eat offer, making it appealing to younger consumers. A few brainstorming sessions led them to a takeaway lunch bag with a twist. In comparison to a McDonald’s meal, the butcher’s bag would have the motherly touch of the butcher’s wife and would offer the kind of homemade cooking that even Germans in their 20’s are nostalgic about.
To test the idea with real consumers, the team called a few shops in Berlin. Their instructions were clear: they needed a takeaway, meat-based snack. A drink and a small desert should also be included. The butchers had a couple of days to prepare our order with the freedom of choosing the recipe themselves.
As the students picked up their orders, an overwhelming sense of frustration took over the team. Even though they had reached out to different shops, the products they received were very much alike: open schnitzel sandwiches and raw sausages wrapped up in plastic, accompanied by sweet drinks and half-melted chocolate bars. The meals were accommodated in cheap plastic bags and then in cardboard boxes. There were no napkins or cutlery included and the recently fried schnitzel smelled so strongly that it disturbed other travelers on the team’s train ride.
Who is our user, really?
The team did test those lunch bags with consumers and found out, unsurprisingly, that the meals were unappealing, unpractical and overly expensive. But the most interesting feedback came from the butchers themselves: they were simply not willing to work on a different version of the takeaway meals – or any other new product, for that matter. Here’s why: they were already sure that nothing the team suggested would work.
Up until that point, the students were so busy digging into the needs and wishes of consumers that they forgot to focus on another relevant user: the butchers themselves. Mostly middle aged men, based in small-sized German cities, butchers inherited shops from their parents and grandparents with the mission of keeping the craftsmanship alive in a world that is changing faster than ever before. They were skeptical towards any idea coming from outsiders and felt very strongly about traditions, refusing to try out new products, services or business models.
The brutal reality-check led the students to question the project as a whole. “Should we be doing this at all? If we really want be user-centered, shouldn’t we just listen to our user?” And, in this case, the user was saying the team’s ideas were not welcome…
A Fresh Perspective
Despite the setback, the team decided to keep on going. This time, however, the students focused on building empathy towards the butchers, which took them back to the research phase. As it turned out, the struggle to preserve traditions was exactly the need the team should be concentrating on. They reframed the challenge from “how to update a business” to “how to keep a craftsmanship relevant”. It may sound like a subtle change of words, but behind it lies a major insight: instead of forcing butchers to change, the team would try supporting them at what they already do.
Ideating from a new perspective led the team to unexpected solutions. One of them was a crowdfunding platform, which would allow butchers to easily access capital to develop their own ideas. Another one was a label to communicate the traditional values of butchers to consumers. The students also thought of an inspiration event, which would introduce butchers to the most innovative entrepreneurs in their field.
Butchers access an online crowdfunding platform to get the necessary funds for new projects. Possible campaigns could include, for example, acquiring food trucks, switching to an eco-friendly supplier or renovating the butcher shop. Through the platform, butchers would not only bypass traditional banks but also establish a deeper connection with their customer base.
Every party involved in the meat production chain (farmers, slaughterers, butchers, restaurants) bands together under one regional brand and subscribes to its values: sustainable farming, ethical treatment of animals and high quality of products. Consumers would be able to trust little known producers and processors and regional business would unite against larger competitors.
A higher education institution focusing on the fine art of selling meat. Topics such as spicing, interior decoration and cooking would be taught there. Students would be encouraged to experiment with new recipes, preferably in groups, creating better connections among themselves.
Butchers would be guided by a mentor for a period of time. The mentor is a well-connected all-rounder with experience in the meat industry. The goal is to empower butchers to develop shop-specific concepts.
An inspirational journey for butchers. Participants would go on a trip to visit butcher shops, innovative retail branches and other companies involved in the meat production chain. This would be an opportunity for entrepreneurs to reflect on their own businesses.
Developing the “Trüffeljagd”
The new ideas were tested and one of them, the inspiration event, was particularly well accepted. Several butchers showed interest in getting to know innovative initiatives – proving that butchers were not as skeptical as the team once assumed. All they needed was to be actively engaged in the search for solutions for their own businesses.
In the following months, the event was further developed and rolled out. The Trüffeljagd (truffle hunt, in German), as it became known, is now in its third edition. The event regularly takes place in Berlin and connects butchers to the most avant-garde makers in the meat business. Participants learn from startups such as Potsdamer Sauenhein, a team of young farmers selling the meat of free-ranging pigs online, and Paleo Jerky, a company that turns meat into healthy snacks.
They also visit pioneering ventures such as Kumpel & Keule, a butcher shop that has transparency at its core. Recently established in a 19th Century-market building, the shop is surrounded by glass panels. There, consumers can literally follow every step of the butcher’s work and track meat back to its source.
The event also offers workshops guided by design thinking coaches, so that participants have the chance to reflect on their own challenges. Many butchers that took part in the Trüffeljagd already made concrete improvements to their businesses, such as better explaining to consumers the story behind their products or taking advantage of online tools.
More importantly, participants frequently report “feeling proud of being a butcher again”. By reflecting on their role in society, many started to rescue the values that shaped the craftsmanship for centuries. More than showcasing innovators, the Trüffeljagd now actively argues for a more transparent and sustainable meat production chain and places the butcher at the center of it – an idea that none of the butchers objected to so far.
In German: Frank Kühne, head of the Adalbert Raps Stiftung, talks about the Trüffeljagd at a TEDx event in Frankfurt.
The Trueffeljagd is a project from the Adalbert Raps Stiftung and was initially conceptualized at the School of Design Thinking from the Hasso Plattner Institute. It was further developed and implemented by Melina Costa and Anika Kaiser, co-founders of the innovation consulting firm Coaeva, in partnership with Olga Graf, innovation consultant at J2C – Journey 2 Creation.
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