Vegan to plant-curious: A small shift that could make all the difference

Will the 2020s be the decade that meat becomes obsolete? And what should marketers do about it?

It’s been a big year for plant-based protein. Following White Castle last year, in August Burger King launched its meat-free Impossible Whopper. In April, Del Taco introduced Beyond Tacos, made with plant-based Beyond Meat protein. And in September, McDonald’s announced that its first North American plant-based sandwich, the PLT, would arrive in Canada, also featuring Beyond Meat.

In 2018, both plant-based meat companies made headlines for their landmark investment deals. Impossible Foods raised a $189 million venture capital round, and Beyond Meat posted the best first-day IPO performance in nearly two decades, with shares popping 163% on its first day of trading.

According to Nielsen, the plant-based food market grew 20% between June 2017 and June 2018, while total food sales only grew 2% over the same period. In the U.S., the industry is estimated to be worth nearly $4.5 billion, up 11% in value between 2018 and 2019.

So, will the 2020s be the decade that meat becomes obsolete? And what should marketers do about it?

Embrace the Plant-Curious Era

While veganism — an absolute rejection of animal-based products — is growing, it remains a niche community. But a new consumer cohort is emerging: the Plant-Curious. These consumers don’t follow a specific diet, but they are interested (for ethical, health or environmental reasons) in incorporating more meat-free meals in their routine. They are moved by a desire to gradually change their habits, not embrace a new identity. And that’s a big difference: For many people, it’s no longer about whether or not you eat meat, it’s about how much meat you eat. According to a study by Nielsen, while only 3% of U.S. consumers follow a vegan diet, 39% are actively trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets. The plant-curious consumer, not the vegan consumer, will be the one that makes "vegan" products go mainstream.

Help your audience reconcile "want" and "should"

While conducting an ethnographic study of millennials’ food habits a few years ago, I was reminded that food is a loaded subject. It is highly emotional, and intrinsically linked to identity and community.

Whatever label people choose or don’t choose for their diet, most of us experience a sharp tension between what we want to eat and what we know we should eat.

In my view, brand leaders have a responsibility to champion plant-based food because it’s healthier and more sustainable - it is truly what we should eat. Recent research suggests that Americans must consume 90% less beef and 60% less dairy in order to bring their carbon footprint to sustainable levels. And in 2015, The World Health Organization classified processed meats – including ham, salami, bacon and frankfurts – as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means that there is strong evidence that processed meats cause cancer.

But for most of us, meat is associated with reward, community, celebration, strength and in some cases, gender identity. Most cuisines place meat at the center of the meal. Meat is what we want to eat. What brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have understood is that the plant-curious crowd, who are really just U.S. consumers, wants ways to reconcile the want with the should. A burger that is plant-based, low in cholesterol and with a small carbon footprint, but that bleeds and tastes just like a real burger, is exactly that. 

Start thinking of meat marketing as luxury marketing

If the Plant-Curious wave does become a watershed moment, we might soon find ourselves in a new paradigm where meat-free is the norm, and meat the exception. 

In Meat: A Benign Extravaganza, Simon Fairlie explains that exceptional consumption of meat is actually the most environmentally effective use of resources by human societies, above and beyond pure veganism. That’s because some land will always be more suited to grazing than farming, and because of the agro-chemical benefits of creating food-production systems that leverage both animals and plants. For millennia, that’s also how meat was consumed by humans: not as a thrice-a-day staple, but as a special occasion treat that brought the community or the family together.

One day soon, we will come to consider the meat-heavy diets of the 20th and early 21st centuries an anomaly in a food history dominated by plants. If that becomes the case, and if public regulators decide to act on the advice of public health specialists, and make health warning compulsory, the marketing of meat might well end up looking like the marketing of an exclusive champagne: a luxury item, best saved for celebrations, and savored with moderation.

Agathe Guerrier is the head of strategy of BBH LA.

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