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How Plant-Based Brands Can Rethink Their Marketing to Sway Non-Believers

Advertising Agency
New York, USA
Plant-based brands have won over flexitarians. Now, there’s an opportunity to talk to the rest of us, says Giant Spoon's Tamar Taller

When McDonald's announced that it would launch vegan burgers worldwide, it seemed like yet another indicator that the plant-based movement is skyrocketing mainstream. And yet, there’s still a wide gap to close in order to make better-for-the-planet food choices truly the norm.

There are a lot of obstacles that the plant-based industry has to overcome (namely accessibility and price, which category leaders are working on), but when it comes to changing people’s perception, there’s still untapped potential. Plant-based brands have won over many, but most Americans still see beef as better tasting, healthier, and (shockingly!) better for the environment. And if the plant-based category is truly mainstream, why do most of us only hear about Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Oatly?

There are hundreds of genuinely excellent, planet-friendly products - many that would leave nonbelievers pleasantly surprised - that are unknown or dismissed by a huge part of the population. And that, my friends, is a branding problem.

If we’re going to fundamentally change the way we eat, plant-based underdogs will need to revolutionize their branding to get the skeptical public on board. Here are a few ways we can do it.

Use your brand to start a movement.

Oatly | “Are You Stupid?” campaign to push back against the European Dairy Association’s suggestion that plant-based products referencing dairy can ‘mislead’ consumers

The big thing that plant-based brands have going for them—their powerful role in fighting against climate change and a broken food system—is worth sharing. For most Americans, facts about how their purchase helps the planet won’t be enough to sustain their loyalty, but rethinking how you tell the story can change everything.

Take Oatly, the Swedish oat milk brand that wants to drive change in the food system. Instead of product-focused marketing, Oatly’s brand centers around initiating a bigger debate on the irritating politics and unsustainability of the dairy industry. Its campaigns are riddled with eyebrow-raising lines like 'Post-Milk Generation' and 'Like milk but for humans' that make buyers feel like having Oatly in their fridge is a statement of something bigger.

People are more passionate than ever to fight against systemic injustice—but we don't recognize that our food system is in dire need of a revolution. So much is broken: Food production’s alarming contribution to climate change. Lack of accessibility to healthy foods, particularly in underserved communities. The plant-based movement’s “white wealthy vegan” stereotype and tendency to exclude BIPOC voices. Can the right brand—one that’s dedicated to fighting an aspect of the broken food system as a core part of its business—create a loud, meaningful movement that gives consumers something to rally around?

Leave plant-based stereotypes behind and explore new ways to talk about sustainable foods.

Impossible Foods

In early days, plant-based brands carried the burden of introducing an unproven product to the world. But now, thanks to the category leaders that paved the way, we can go straight to the exciting stuff.

Instead of creating a brand around ingredients and the power of plants, build a brand around community, an emotion, celebration, or something totally unexpected. Leave behind the impulse to simply prop yourself up against the product you’re mimicking.

Don’t be confined to organic, natural-feeling graphic language (muted browns and greens, rustic earthy textures). Instead, refresh your marketing’s visual cues to signal that you’re playful, brave, heartfelt, or hilarious.

There’s also a challenge in redefining the way we talk about the entire plant-based category. The shift from 'vegan' to 'plant-based' has already created more accessibility, but is there another evolution that’s yet to be tapped? The word “craft” transformed the way we think about beer—what’s the parallel for plant-based food?

Get more inspired from fast food than from vegan food.

Carl’s Jr. | The Really Big Carl

To reach beyond the loyal fans and appeal to the masses, let’s learn from the food most beloved by the masses: fast food.

Fast food marketing paints a picture of flavor, indulgence, and familiarity, and it works because it taps into the primal motivations for choosing what to eat. As innovative as some products are, your brand becomes far more inviting by feeling familiar than by seeming groundbreaking.

Plant-based products might be able to claim a number of benefits—More protein! More fiber! Powered by plants! So healthy!—but putting these messages front and center shouts 'compromised taste' to those on the fence. Don’t put deliciousness to the wayside; make it your goal to make Guy Fieri drool. Bring all the senses to life in every aspect of marketing, and the health perks will become a powerful cherry on top. 

As the country’s collective eating habits keep evolving, it’s an exciting time to be in the plant-based industry. Tapping into every brand’s full potential to push that evolution forward has never seemed like a more timely challenge.

Tamar Taller is a strategist at Giant Spoon

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