What’s the drama behind MorningStar Farms Original Sausage Patties?
First launched in 1975, this delicious breakfast item became a staple in households across America.
Then something changed.
I uncovered way more than expected when first evaluating these sausage patties. It was genuinely shocking to see what changed and how loyal customers reacted.
So, what happened to these veggie sausages and how did customers react?
Hi. I’m Matt Vance, the Director of Data & Analytics at REVIEWS.ai. In this case study, I will show you how people like you can quickly discover and reliably identify product dissatisfaction by analyzing product reviews.
This approach works. It protects sales and product reputation.
Shorter than your lunch break, today’s case study is a game changer you don’t want to miss.
I’ll show you what not to do for your own product. You’ll see
⭐️ The impact of making product changes not aligned with customer preferences
⭐️ The costly, long term consequences of ignoring review data
⭐️ The surprising reaction made by the brand
Watch to the end and learn what to do. The steps for you to follow are easy. I’ve been doing this for years. In fact, I have managed over 2,000 product listings in the past decade and have used this same approach to capture millions in new sales, prevent millions of lost sales and make lots of customers smile.
I’m going to show you how valuable insights can be found in product reviews for any product, just like we will do with these sausage patties.
Let’s dive in. This is going to be fun!
DISCOVERING THE PROBLEM
REVIEWS.ai tracks and analyzes product review data across dozens of the top ecommerce platforms, from Amazon to Walmart.com and BestBuy.com.
When looking at the Graphs & Charts view for the MorningStar Farms Original Sausage Patties within the REVIEWS.ai dashboard, we see the product’s review trend data. This report includes all aggregated review data across all marketplace sites where the sausage patties are sold (in this case, Amazon.com and Target.com). The blue bars indicate the average star rating of reviews received that month. The orange line indicates the raw average star rating of all reviews.
If I were a MorningStar analyst viewing this report in September 2021, I’d be saying two things:
- Oh crap! Our average rating dropped from 4 ½-stars to 2.28-stars!
- Why is our star rating dropping like hot cakes?!
With the fresh pulse of adrenaline still pumping through my veins, I’d first evaluate if this is an isolated listing problem or if it is a product issue.
Simply filtering the report by retailer, we can see if the negative review trend is specific to one website.
The below report shows Amazon.com reviews dropped.
Filtering for Target, we also see that Target.com reviews dropped.
Confirmed. With both sites experiencing a negative rating trend, this is likely a product-related issue.
I’d scroll down the report to find the Rating Distribution graph:
WOW! This shows our monthly review volume skyrocketed for the same timeframe ratings dropped. Doing some quick math, I’d see that beginning in June, our review volume increased 1,364%, with new reviews averaging 1.5-stars. (That’s 2.74-stars lower than the previous 9 months.)
In a matter of minutes, we’ve confirmed:
⚠️ Ratings dropped 2 stars in 4 months
⚠️ This is a product issue, not retail-specific
⚠️ Review volume increased 1,364%
⚠️ New reviews averaged 1.5-stars
As a product developer, you know reviews are a strong indicator of customer satisfaction. Reviews also directly impact sales, for better or worse.
After a clear discovery of a product issue, next, you’d want to know why customers are now dissatisfied with the veggie sausages. That would take us to the Word Analytics report.
📢 Discover what your review data is saying. Schedule a free REVIEWS.ai analysis of one of your products today.
IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
REVIEWS.ai automatically tracks keywords found in reviews and Q&A’s for every product you track.
Within the REVIEWS.ai Word Analytics report, tagged keywords in positive reviews (green) and negative reviews (red) are displayed.
Right away, we see “recipe” is the most mentioned negative keyword.
Clicking on “recipe” opens up the Word Tree report.
I know what some of you are thinking. Ahh. Another lame word cloud report with no actionable direction!
Nope. This is different than a word cloud. I’ve managed over 2,000 product listings for dozens of brands and have seen many lame word cloud reports. What sets the REVIEWS.ai word tree apart is its roots and branches. See what I did there?
That’s not just a lame dad joke either. The Word Tree displays preceding phrases before and phases that follow after each keyword, such as “recipe”. This directional connection makes it easier to uncover context and themes about each keyword.
Now let’s check out the Word Tree for “recipe”
Instantly we see 65% of all negative reviews relate to “recipe”. Clicking on the keyword “original” before “recipe” brings up this view, making it clear customers are asking to go back to the original recipe.
Following the same process clicking the keyword “is” after “recipe” gives us this view, confirming customers feel the sausage recipe is now horrible, terrible, disgusting, and awful.
Going on to evaluate the keyword “taste”, found in 49% of all negative reviews, we see many phrases describing the dissatisfaction of the taste.
Additional investigation through the Word Tree report also reveals unique phrases and descriptions including “cardboard”, “staple”, “years” and “taste” used in negative reviews. Here are a couple reviews of the veggie sausages mentioning cardboard:
We’ve identified customers noticed a recipe change and now don’t like the taste, but can we identify what changed specifically? This question took me to the keyword “vegan” where I found this:
Based on these mentions in reviews, it appears they changed the “original veggie sausage patties” to…
A vegan recipe!!!
😨 😱 😲 😮 🤯
After this breakthrough, there was one more keyword to evaluate: “years”. From this final keyword search, we see many customers have been eating, purchasing and recommending these veggie sausages for over 30 years.
At this point, I’m feeling concerned for both the brand and the customers. Loyal customers are not likely to purchase these sausage patties if they no longer like the recipe as seen by the next screenshot.
With a few simple keyword searches we confirmed:
⚠️ Customers noticed a recipe change
⚠️ Customers do not like the new recipe
⚠️ Vegetarian recipe appears to now be vegan
⚠️ Long-term customers now aren’t buying
If I were the MorningStar analyst, I would now quickly email the discovered product issue and that the identified cause is the recipe change. 📨
I personally know what it’s like to be in product development and sometimes feel like you’re in the dark with no customer feedback. Sometimes you may wonder how consumers use the product your team developed and what they are saying about it. You hope your efforts contribute to good experiences and increases in sales.
Using REVIEWS.ai, you can know what consumers think and measure impact.
You simply add product listings to the tool and generate your own reports just like these. You can be the first to share valuable customer insights instead of waiting for a market research report when it’s too late.
Are you curious how things played out in the case of the MorningStar Farms Original Sausage Patties?
Read on to see how consumers and the brand reacted.
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THE IMPACT OF DISSATISFACTION WITH THE NEW RECIPE
As we just read, consumers clearly noticed a difference in the recipe of these veggie sausages.
But did the recipe actually change?
😱 Yes, MorningStar did indeed changed the “original” veggie sausage recipe.
I did some digging and put together this timeline of events, confirming what happened.
⏱ 3/8/19: Forbes covered MorningStar’s recipe transition from vegetarian to vegan for all of their 49 retail items.
The article specifically states the following:
“…many of its products weren’t vegan because they’re made with eggs. But that’s changing. The brand is phasing in new vegan versions of its products and, by 2021, all 49 of its retail products and the 26 items it sells into foodservice channels will be vegan, the company said this week.
⏱ 6/2021: The new “original” recipe (now vegan) hit the market. This is when review volumes skyrocketed 1,364%, with new reviews averaging 1.5-stars.
⏱ 7/18/2021: The very next month, consumers on Reddit voiced their concern of the veggie sausage recipe change to vegan. With 85% upvotes, a post to the subreddit r/vegetarian had 34 comments. One comment from “bbqlotus” stated: “The new patties are so gross. If you’re as upset as me about the change, go to morningstar’s breakfast sausage product page see the most recent reviews. They are all bad. There is something nice knowing the sadness is shared. I hope someone in Product Development is listening!!”
⏱ 1/2022: A change.org petition was started to request reverting back to the original vegetarian recipe. It garnered nearly 250 signatures as of this month.
⏱ Using the Wayback Machine: I viewed the archived Amazon listing from 3/10/2020 for the Morningstar Farms Original Sausage Patties (this is a date before the recipe change was promised to happen). I was curious if the product listing had simply been updated from the true “original” vegetarian version.
I then compared it with the current Amazon listing from 9/27/2022 (this date is for sure after the recipe change). Note that they replaced “vegetarian” with the word “vegan”. They also deleted the following sentence from the old description: “Add savory to the most important meal of the day with these veggie sausage patties.”
Many ecommerce sites have strict regulations on product description accuracy. For example, on Amazon, sellers may not use an existing product listing for a new version of a product. See this excerpt from Amazon’s seller central rules:
A recipe change is likely considered a “new version”. This is likely why the Amazon listing was switched to “currently unavailable”.
With some research, we confirmed the recipe change triggered:
⚠️ Hundred of negative reviews
⚠️ Negative content on social media
⚠️ Decreased brand loyalty
⚠️ Lost sales
In the Forbes article, the head of global marketing for Kellogg Co.’s plant-based protein division was quoted regarding these changes as follows:
“The changes [from a vegetarian sausage to a vegan sausage] are being phased in to ensure that each product can either be replicated exactly or remade into something that’s slightly different but just as good.”
“We’re making sure we’re delivering on what consumers want and what we believe is right,” Cash said. “It’s less about having a competitive advantage and more about being able to satisfy as many people as possible who want to eat plant-based.”
What “consumers want” and “what [MorningStar Farms] believe to be right” were not the same.
With REVIEWS.ai, you can know what consumers want and abandon what you believe they might like. You can give consumers what they actually want based on data
People value getting what they expect MORE than having expectations surpassed.
One of my favorite Harvard Business Review studies examined authenticity contrasted with customers’ willingness to pay and review positively. The study evaluated two forms of authenticity – social category representation (accurately reflecting an expressed label like authentic New York pizza), and value based authenticity (a true expression of a core belief) as it applied to 24 restaurants.
- If diners felt a restaurant “fit” a certain category of food such as Italian or Barbecue, they were willing to rate it higher.
- If diners felt a restaurant was true to its values such as farm-to-table sustainability or a family-friendly environment, they were willing to pay more.
Delivering what customers expect is the path to increased profitability and satisfaction.
So did MorningStar revert back to the old recipe? What happened next?
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THE BRAND’S RESPONSE
Back on the REVIEWS.ai Graphs & Charts dashboard, we easily expand the review timeline history from 9/2020 to 9/2022 for the MorningStar veggies sausages and see this:
You can see the originally discovered drop in ratings. Yet it seems from January 2022 through May 2022 ratings returned back to their expected level, hovering around the 4-star mark. After that ratings drop again.
Just like we did when first discovering this issue, we scroll down the report to view the Rating Distribution graph for this timeframe. It shows us this:
This one graph tells us almost everything.
⭐️Review pace ⭐️Star rating
- Before the recipe change: ⭐️8 reviews/mo. ⭐️ 4.24-star ave.
Ratings were mostly positive. Few people posted reviews because this is a commodity product. Customers were buying and enjoying the veggie sausages and not saying much. All was good, nothing to complain about.
- Then the recipe changed: ⭐️116 reviews/mo. ⭐️ 1.5-star ave.
A surge of customers now had a reason to write a review – something changed and they didn’t like it. Since so few reviews were written of this product before, the new wave of negative reviews tanked ratings.
- A huge spike in positive reviews: ⭐️213 reviews/mo. ⭐️ 4.44-star ave.
The huge spike in positive reviews does not seem natural or expected in any way. Before the recipe change, the veggie sausages were averaging 8 new reviews per month. Under natural circumstances, sales would have to increase over 2600% to reach this review pace. This is not likely, and there is a reason which I’ll explain in a minute.
- After the spike in positive reviews: ⭐️ 16 reviews/mo. ⭐️ 2.98-star ave.
Ratings for the veggie sausages never returned to 4 ½-stars as before. Even after the huge spike in positive reviews, ratings now hover around 3-stars. According to my research, sales cut in half (on average) for each half star decrease from 4 ½-stars. That means these online sales of these veggie sausages likely dropped as much as 87.5%. (100% sales at 4 ½-stars -> 50% sales at 4.0-stars -> 25% sales at 3 ½-stars – 12.5% sales at 3.0-stars) Even with this dramatic drop in sales, the veggie sausages continue receiving an average of 16 reviews per month, averaging 2.98-stars.
(Reference section 2.2 in my book, The Review Cycle about the principle of Review Elasticity of Demand.)
We still have one more thing to figure out here. This graph doesn’t tell us why there was a huge spike in positive reviews. Since the last four months were still mostly negative, we can guess the positives are not from the recipe changing back.
Following the same pattern of investigation, we next look at the Word Tree report, this time filtered for correlating timeline when positive reviews spiked (1/2022 – 5/2022). We find our answer. 95% of positive reviews for this timeframe were collected as part of a promotion.
As we already discovered, the Amazon.com listing was made “currently unavailable”. We also know that incentivized reviews of any type are not allowed on Amazon.com. However, other retailers still allow them.
I then checked the reviews directly on the Target.com listing. I found 919 reviews on Target.com collected via a sampling service called ripple street. These reviews averaged 4.44-stars.
Also noteworthy, many of these positive reviews collected as part of a promotion specifically talked about some of the exact negative claims from prior reviews. For example, these three positive reviews below, all collected as part of this promotion, specifically call out how the veggie sausages do not taste like cardboard. “Cardboard” was a specific descriptive term used in some of the previous negative reviews.
There were other examples of this same pattern in the positive promotional reviews, counteracting phrases using the words “staple”, “years” and “taste”, among others.
As a side note, I’d like to point out that promotional reviews (or incentivized reviews) are legally compliant with FTC regulation WHEN material connections are disclosed. That means a promotional review (on sites that permit them) are allowable IF a statement is included that clearly discloses the item was received for free, at a discount, as part of a promotion, etc.
In my experience, I always follow The Rule of 20 for promotional reviews (where allowed):
- New launches should get no more than 20 reviews.
- Existing listings should get no more than 20% of the existing number of reviews.
- Reviews should be scheduled at a pace no more than 20% of the organic review rate.
(Reference section 3.4 in my book, The Review Cycle about the Rule of 20.)
Going above The Rule of 20 can create a skewed perception of a product that can raise undesirable responses from consumers. In this case, consumers noticed the high volume of promotional reviews and did not appreciate it.
An update to the Change.org petition to revert back to the original recipe called attention to the promotional reviews.
There were also many examples of negative reviews calling attention to the large number of promotional reviews. Here is one example.
Based on the consumer response, we can see the large volume of promotional reviews were unwelcomed.
In the end, these customers simply want to be heard and have the “original” recipe back for their MorningStar Farms Original Sausage Patties. Here are several reviews with customers asking the company to listen, and change the recipe back to the original.
After all these observations, I still have not found evidence to suggest Morningstar Farms reverted back to the original recipe.
There is still one question spinning in my mind…will they revert the recipe back?
📢 Don’t rely on promotional reviews to sell more. Let review data guide you. Schedule a demo of REVIEWS.ai today.
In this case study, we saw:
- How product developers can overcome the lack of consumer feedback using online reviews.
- The impact of product dissatisfaction, both on customer loyalty and sales.
- How fast ratings and sales can drop because of product dissatisfaction.
- How simple it was to quickly discover and reliably identify product dissatisfaction when it happened.
- A product story that could have ended differently, using online reviews.
- The ease of using REVIEWS.ai to unlock key insights found in online reviews.
What are your customers telling you in reviews?
What will you do about it?
You can be the hero, discovering and identifying valuable consumer feedback for your team.
Click the link below to schedule a 30-minute demo with REVIEWS.ai and we’ll look at one of your product’s reviews together.
SCHEDULE A REVIEWS.ai DEMO TODAY!
As a bonus, you’ll get free access to the REVIEWS.ai platform to track and analyze any 3 products of your choosing, even competitor products.
Thanks for reading! If you found this article helpful, check out my book, The Review Cycle, for sale on Amazon.
Director of Data & Analytics @ REVIEWS.ai
Author of The Review Cycle