Plant-based meat brands find ways to stand out in a growing field

Impossible Foods drew big buzz last month when it made its long-awaited debut on grocery shelves, after building a fan base at independent restaurants and chains including Burger King and White Castle. McDonald’s choice of Beyond Meat to supply its 28-unit plant-based burger test in Canada also spurred a slew of coverage.

Beef-like plant-based burgers and other vegan meat alternatives fill a small but fast-growing niche, and announcements of launches at national restaurant and grocery chains continue to make news. New plant-based burgers from established players including Lightlife, MorningStar Farms, Nestle and Tyson have also made headlines in mainstream outlets and trade publications.

With a plethora of media coverage and social media mentions, it might seem that there would be little need for companies to invest in marketing. But the same buzz that has made Beyond and Impossible household names has also spurred a growing group of competitors.

And as the field grows more crowded, players from startups to big food companies are looking to marketing and ad campaigns to ensure their plant-based products stand out from the crowd. Some of the latest campaigns feature celebrities who use humor to drive brand awareness.

Earlier this fall, MorningStar Farms recruited former football player and “The Bachelor” star Colton Underwood for a tongue-in-cheek campaign dubbed “Lose Your Veginity.”

And this week, Lightlife launched a new campaign with a video featuring humorous husband-and-wife team Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell and the theme “A Taste of Honesty.”

The pair show off their practice of honest parenting to a comical degree, using realistic situations around questions kids ask all the time. The spot ends with the flexitarian family enjoying Lightlife’s burgers and the tagline “The plant-based burger that tastes so good you don’t have to lie about it being plant-based.”

“For Lightlife, humor does play a role because we are lighthearted and do not take ourselves too seriously,” Vice President of Marketing Michael Lenahan said. “When and where humor makes sense, we’ll lean into it, but we’re mindful not to force it. We love partnering with Kristen and Dax because it is a natural and authentic fit that is refreshingly honest in a very humorous way.”

While technically rivals, the burgeoning group of plant-based food makers have often banded together on events and projects designed to raise all profiles. Plant-based food makers formed the Plant Based Foods Association to advocate for the industry as a group and raise its collective profile.

Another group, the Good Food Institute, works to support both plant-based and cultured meat research and development, and promote those products. And GFI joined an international lineup of companies that banded together to create the first Plant Based World Conference and Expo in New York City in June.

“Competition is growing the category,” Miyoko Schinner, founder of plant-based cheese brand Miyoko’s, said during a panel at the conference. “We can’t grow this category as single brands, we need competition. There’s room for all of us and we need to cooperate and take market share from animal agriculture.”

But competition also means brands have to vie for consumers’ attention, not to mention shelf space.

Plant-based brands are often merchandised together in the grocery store. Most recently, GFI has teamed with Kroger to test a plant-based meat set in the traditional meat department. The idea is to showcase various brands to gauge demand and test how well the products sell to consumers who normally shop in the meat department and may be looking for plant-based alternatives.

The test will mean the products will compete head-on with animal-based meats as well as rival plant-based brands. Vegans and vegetarians, until recently the target audience for plant-based brands, comprise only about 7% of the US population, Lightlife’s Lenahan said.

“For them, brand familiarity is helpful. However, as awareness for the category has skyrocketed, consumption has shifted to flexitarian consumers who are new to the category and are actively choosing to eat less traditional meat – many of whom are not familiar with legacy brands. While being a pioneer in the plant-based industry is helpful, it is crucial for Lightlife to continue building brand loyalty with those consumers who have recently shifted to more of a flexitarian lifestyle.”

Lightlife’s campaign might be most likely to resonate with 30-somethings, the young millennials who face their kids’ tough questions on a daily basis. Other efforts are aimed squarely at influencing Gen Z, a group that makes up about one-quarter of the global population, accounts for $143 billion in direct spending and influences spending of another $600 billion.

Among these youngest consumers, values and action play key roles in brand loyalty and the decision to opt for more meat-free options, said Jeff Fromm, a partner in the Barkley creative agency and the author of “Marketing to Gen Z” and “The Purpose Advantage.”

Environmental concerns are playing a growing role in Gen Z’s food choices, he said.

“People love meat, but they’re also more and more aware of its impact on the environment,” he said. “Gen Z is a very discerning consumer and they’ll trade up and pay a small premium for a brand they love.”

To win over this group, plant-based food brands and the restaurants that serve them must hit on the right mix of flavor and price point in addition to demonstrating the values that resonate with Gen Z.

“And there’s one more secret ingredient – you have to use ‘purpose’ as a verb,” Fromm said. “You have to take action. When you get all of that put together, then you have the magic that the highest performing brands have.”

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