How the plant-based trend found its roots in fast food

Credit: Deryn Macey
Credit: Deryn Macey

As fast food brands capitalize on the growth of plant-based diets, they have the scale to take a growing movement mainstream

What came first: the chicken or the egg? 

This classic quandary is debated endlessly by both kindergartners and marketers alike. 

For children, the question is a gateway to thinking about time and causality. For marketers, it’s about an existential crisis: are my communications driving changes in consumer behavior, or are changes in consumer behavior driving my communications? 

Whatever came first, it’s clear what will come third for fast food companies: the chicken and the egg’s plant-based variants. 

The plant-based meat market in the U.S. is booming, expected to hit $30 billion by 2026. Grocery sales of plant-based foods that directly replace animal products have grown 29% in the past two years to $5 billion, per retail sales data company SPINS.

Unsurprisingly, fast food brands are rushing to get a slice of the plant-based pie. McDonald’s is the most recent fast food chain to add a meat-free ‘McPlant’ burger to its menu, following in the footsteps of Burger King, Carl's Jr. and White Castle. 

Sustainability is here to stay

The reasons behind this surge in plant-based burger offerings are clear: sustainability is in the spotlight like never before. In a recent UNiDAYS survey, 93% of Gen Z respondents said they believe brands have an obligation to take a stand on environmental issues not just through their communications, but their products. 

Fast food brands are navigating this trend in the midst of COVID-19, when demand is on the rise. Unlike small restaurants, fast food chains have remained largely open through the crisis. McDonald’s even grew revenues 10% year over year in Q3. 

So in this context, fast food brands find themselves at an impasse: consumers want responsible, sustainable products, but not at the expense of what the brand traditionally offers. Fast food companies want to experiment with plant-based menu offerings to capitalize on this demand, but they need to make sure it’s done authentically — not as a gimmick. 

Many fast food chains are partnering with the two leading plant-based meat businesses — Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods — to offer these products without over-investing. McDonald’s is rolling out plant best menu items based on local demand, chief executive Chris Kempczinski said at a recent investor event.

“It’s not a matter of if McDonald’s gets into plant-based, it’s when,” he said. 

The role of the brand

Fast food giants aren’t going to get very far by simply trying to convince consumers that plant-based is their future. But they do have the power to use their reach to offer plant-based options at scale. 

McDonald’s alone can take the McPlant options across every state in the U.S. If the option is widely available, perhaps consumers will make the choice to eat it.

Fast foods brands can also serve as a gateway for consumers who are interested in a more sustainable diet but don’t feel like they associate with veganism. Through fast food brands, plant-based options can scale and appeal to a broader range of customers. 

When it comes to chickens and eggs, the question of what came first isn’t as important as the question of what comes next. 

The plant-based market is set to radically revolutionize our diets over the coming decades, with consumer demand matching the explosive rate of scientific progress. Fast food brands must adapt — and facilitate the change at scale.

Jennifer Volmer is head of strategy at Superunion.

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