Feature

Dead meat: brands and the vegan dollar

Our relationship with food is changing. Across the globe consumers are increasingly opting for plant-based diets – for the good of their health and the planet’s. And as the value of the vegan dollar soars, big brands are determined to take a bite.

You’ll find every flavour of trader at the Open Market in Brighton, UK. There’s a greengrocer, a haberdasher, an apothecary. A barista, a florist, a chocolatier. There’s a key cutter, a bookseller, a pâtissier.

What there isn’t, however, is a butcher. Not any more anyway. There were two when the market opened, but the second of them folded in December due to an unsustainable lack of demand.

The large double unit they occupied didn’t remain empty for long though. Setting up shop there now is Smorl’s – a hummus maker that supplies local wholefood stores in Sussex and, until recently, sold homemade falafel at a weekly farmers’ market. It had proved so popular the brother and sister team behind it jumped at the chance of a permanent space open all week.

Christian Cotton, who runs the cafe with his sister Sarah, says he doesn’t preach veganism and the fact there is no meat, fish or dairy in his produce is irrelevant to the “discerning customer who wants a quality, tasty and affordable product”. But still he is vehemently proud to cater for the growing number of people looking for “healthy plant-based alternatives to the fast-food culture of mass-produced, unsustainable, poor quality meat and fish products”.

And there is a growing number of people looking for healthy alternatives. 30% of evening meals in the UK last year were meat- and fish-free according to data from Kantar Worldpanel, while 4.5% could be classified as vegan-friendly – that’s 1.1bn occasions where people chose to eat vegan over a year, which is up 56.2m from 2015.

Kantar Media TGI data, meanwhile, shows 9% of UK adults agree with the statement ‘I prefer to eat vegan food’ (that’s 4.7 million people) and a recent Nielsen global survey found 14% of consumers in the US (so 45.6 million people) agree there is no need to eat meat in today’s day and age. And while this doesn’t mean all are hardcore vegans, it does give a sense of how many people at least lean towards this way of life – and why one of Britain’s biggest names in meat-free food is investing £7m in a vegan research hub to capitalise on their growing appetites.

Quorn, with its fishless fingers, vegan hot dogs and vegetarian beef roasts, is building an innovation centre in the north-east of England where it will develop new products, which, according to chief exec Kevin Brennan, will bolster “its innovation leadership in the meat-free industry” – an industry he says is growing rapidly, “between 10% and 20% worldwide and around 15% in the UK”.

Following on from its strongest ever year of growth in 2017, like-for-like sales for the first half of 2018 are up again, totalling £112m – a 12% improvement on last year. It’s the kind of momentum that has Brennan saying the company is on track to become “a billion dollar business by 2027”.

Quorn isn’t the only big brand investing in its product on the back of a vegan boom. National chains such as Pret a Manger, Wagamama and Pizza Hut have added more vegan options, while even Guinness has removed fish bladders from its brewing process after 250 years. And with shelves at every major supermarket carrying an ever-growing number of vegan ranges, any claims that this is a trend purely for the middle classes are losing validity.

Rather than talk of ‘clean eating’ and expensive or obscure ingredients, Brennan is finding people all over the world are “more curious than ever and keen to explore meat-free options,” often in the shape of “the kind of meals they already enjoy most ... burgers or sausages”. Big brands are undoubtedly bringing veganism to the masses, despite the fact some on occasion reek of cynicism in their pursuit of the vegan dollar – like when Marks & Spencer’s individually wrapped slices of raw cauliflower, called them ‘steaks’ and charged £2 a pop.

Simple burger math

It would be difficult to level such criticism at Impossible Foods. Founded seven years ago in Redwood City, California by biochemist Pat Brown, its mission from the get-go was to find new ways to remove animals from the food system.

The approach taken by Brown and his team was to study the sensory experiences of eating meat, and what made humans love doing so. They found that it is ‘heme’, a protein molecule in blood, that makes meat so compelling and so set about recreating that exact experience using just plants.

It took about five years, after which point they brought in Jordan Schenck and a team of others to take the product to market. Now there are more than 3,000 restaurants throughout the US serving Impossible Burgers, such as fast food fixture White Castle, and 500,000lb of Impossible ‘meat’ coming out of its facilities each month.

In “simple burger math,” as Schenck calls it, where you get four quarter pounders out of every pound, “a couple million people a month are actually eating Impossible,” which she says is “pretty cool”.

It’s not difficult then to see why Google tried to buy the company in 2017.

Schenck describes Impossible as a “mission-driven company”. As such, and perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, vegans and vegetarians are not its target audience. “We’re not here to create products that are in service of consumers already eating plants,” she says.

“It’s about creating products that move the world forward, that ultimately remove animals from the food system because producing meats, cheeses, dairy, fish is unsustainable.

“For us, it’s about creating products that are in service of the meat eater, in service of the carnivore. Our target is to fully change eating behaviour.”

And so Schenck and her team decided to position the brand and the product as something that would be desirable to carnivores. “It’s why we put the product in burger form, and why we put it into restaurants before taking it to retail. We wanted consumers to have the best culinary experience they can have. We are focused on making sure carnivores absolutely love the product.”

What Impossible didn’t expect, however, was just how quickly the omnivorous and flexitarian market would take to its product. “It’s why we’ve been able to scale as quickly as we have and get into chains like White Castle.”

Chefs are the new rock stars

As well as ensuring initial experiences of the brand are the best culinary experiences possible, Impossible also made the decision that its first launch would be in New York with the chef David Chang. Why? Because with the popularity of Chang and other “really meat-centric chefs” as Schenck describes them, as well as shows like The Mind of a Chef on Netflix, “chefs in many ways have become the new rock stars”.

“They are inspiring and leading the foodies and everyone that shares on social media, so we knew that if we could get buy-in, specifically from chefs who have a strong point of view on meat and have integrated that into their menus and their shows, we would be able to gain a tremendous amount of credibility since chefs are setting the trends more than ever because they have the platforms and the space and amplification to do so.”

It isn’t just big-name chefs who are influencing what we eat, however. Sharing your dinner on Instagram is hardly new (there are more than 123m posts tagged #instafood) but with 65m posts now tagged #vegan, celebrities such as Alicia Silverstone and Pamela Anderson using their accounts to advocate for animal rights and bloggers such as Sean O’Callaghan (aka the Fat Gay Vegan) finding fame on the platform, veganism is becoming brighter, bolder and more photogenic.

Reflecting this, “the dialogue from vegan brands is also changing,” says Kantar Consulting’s Meagan Hempenstall. “Gone are the days of worthy purism and restraint – interesting vegan food has had a sexy makeover, from the colourful pastel hues of Palm Vaults in Hackney, London to the fast food aesthetic of Camden’s Temple of Seitan.”

Susie Hogarth, who is head of futures at Omnicom insight consultancy Flamingo, has similarly found the explosion of veganism fascinating to watch. “Few people would have predicted that a diet once considered the last word in strict joylessness would become a mass youth trend with considerable social cachet,” she says.

But rather than the new aesthetic afforded it by Instagram, Hogarth points to the growth of values-based communities online. While there’s nothing new about young people wanting something to passionately believe in, what is new is how this has become supercharged in the social media age.

“Whether it is alt-rights on 4Chan or social justice warriors on Tumblr, more and more of our social spaces and values are being shaped by the influence of special interest groups that offer a sense of belonging through shared beliefs.”

She says veganism does this in a “super-simple and effective way”.

“One rule to follow – no animal products – and you can say a lot about the generation and political belief system you belong to. It’s shorthand perfect for a global generation of digital identity builders. But it’s not all cynical – it’s also a sign of an engaged and conscious generation that is genuinely more interested in ethics at large than their parents were.”

Meat-and-two-veg

So where does all this point to? Hempenstall notes that, despite increases in the number of people identifying as vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian, and consumers becoming more health and environmentally-conscious, we are also buying more meat (although, she says, this is generally meat of a higher quality) with data from Kantar Worldpanel showing meat, fish and poultry sales up 2.1% year-on-year for the 12 weeks to 15 July.

And with the 7% of the UK that identifies as ‘flexitarians’ viewing their choice “less as cutting down on something and more about exploration and trying new things,” Hempenstall says “millennials and foodies in particular are simply trying to branch out from a meat-and-two-veg approach to dinner time”. As such, brands should consider “focusing on the ‘new, exciting, delicious’ labels rather than meat-free or vegan”.

She says people will make a choice in one direction or another. “Eventually we will see reduction in this middle category of flexitarianism and an increase in the number vegetarians or vegan, as former flexitarians cut out meat completely. At the same time, we predict a rise in meat-loving ‘meatatarians’ who rebel against the trend and see meat as a necessity, rather than an occasional indulgence.”

Quorn’s Brennan won’t be drawn on whether increased plant-based diets is a fad and instead thinks we should see it as “a growing movement and a shift in how we perceive food”.

He says: “We are discovering more about the value alternative protein diets bring, so this is a natural choice for a lot of people.”

For Hogarth, veganism is part of the wellbeing and popular ethical consumer movement at large and, just like ‘natural’ before it, will become “more and more of a hygiene factor for brands and FMCG producers” as consumers’ standards and expectations keep rising.

With Helsinki Fashion Week banning animal-based leather as of next year and L’Oréal growing its vegan portfolio with the purchase of Logocos, veganism is already extending beyond food into fashion and beauty, driven largely by “digital-first and early adopter young female consumers,” according to Hogarth, who anticipates we’ll see this movement extend to other demographics and categories.

But where? “Well, what about a vegan mobile phone,” she asks, “or even a vegan house?”

This article first appeared in the October issue of The Drum where we take a look at healthcare, examining brands such as Tencent-backed $5.5bn Chinese medical startup WeDoctor, General Electric’s $19bn healthcare business and at-home genetic testing companies 23andMe and Ancestry.