Meet the CMO who quit Coca-Cola for a 'more meaningful' plant-based startup

Thomsen has been a strategic advisor to Meatless Farm sice 2017

Lone Thomsen departed her role as Coca-Cola's media chief to lead marketing at a plant-based protein startup earlier this month. She speaks to The Drum about the debatable bravery of her decision, the company's future growth strategy and her plans to crack America.

When Lone Thomsen updated her LinkedIn from head of media and connections strategy at the Coca-Cola Company to chief marketing officer at the Meatless Farm Company, one word kept cropping up in the comments beneath.

“A lot of people in my network said to me, ‘Oh wow, that’s really brave’,” she says. “I don't know if it's brave – I only know it's what I wanted to do.”

The Drum speaks to Thomsen at an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side of New York, where Meatless Farm has partnered with the chef to cook its plant-based meat substitute into lasagnas, meatballs and burgers. Everyone eating here knows Coca-Cola; hardly any have heard of Thomsen’s new employer.

Leaving the comfort and chutzpah of the most well-known brand in the world for a plant-based meat startup based out of England’s Leeds may be considered “brave” or “bold” by some, but for Thomsen the decision was necessary.

A career juggling giant budgets in media – first in agencies, then client-side – had led her to “want to do something more meaningful”.

“I think that's a trend right now – people wanting to do something that's more purposeful,” she said. “I think that's probably why I think a lot of people can resonate with what I've done.”

She found a kindred spirit in Morten Toft Bech, Meatless Farm’s founder, who persuaded her to invest as a partner and work as a strategic adviser, all while she was still working from Coke’s London office.

Thomsen’s job was to help Toft Bech to develop the company’s marketing strategy, brand development and communications plan, as well as product design and packaging.

“It was a lot of weekend and nighttime work,” she recalls. “But it was an investment.”

The marketer was already at ease with formulating entire strategies at speed. At Coke, she led a small, agile team tasked with portfolio expansion; it managed to launch “five or six brands” – including Fuze and Honest – in just a couple of years.

Now Meatless Farm has her undivided attention, she has carte blanche to build out a marketing team underneath her, both globally and in local markets.

The US will be one of the most critical to Meatless Farm’s growth, but it will also be one of the hardest to crack. The country’s plant-based protein industry is already worth $14bn, and competition is already rife with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat leading the pack.

The latter’s IPO has been heralded as the best performing of the year, sending the price of the company’s stock spiraling 500%. The Wall Street hullabaloo died down eventually, but company still boasts a current market cap of $7.1bn.

Meatless Farm may be a little further behind with investment; in June it was hankering after £25m ($32m) in funding. But September saw the company make headway on that front when it signed a unique “seven-figure” deal with Channel 4, which will see the British broadcaster exchange regional airtime and digital inventory for a stake in the company.

Across the Atlantic, a partnership with Whole Foods has meant its products are now available in more than 450 locations across 43 states. The deal will drive both organic cashflow and brand recognition in a market where plant-based protein brands are more commonly spotted in the likes of White Castle, Subway and TGI Fridays.

Meatless Farm “hasn’t decided yet” if it will look for an American equivalent of the Channel 4 deal, however Thomsen is currently on the hunt for more strategic partnerships to grow the business stateside. The recent hiring of Mark Cook as vice-president of sales for North America will elevate this search.

Meanwhile Thomsen is conscious the brand’s messaging will have to be tweaked for a US audience in order to keep pace with the likes of Impossible and Beyond.

“We've done research to understand how consumers act [towards eating less meat] in different markets, and health is really important [in the US],” she says. “In European consumers are probably more environmentally focused and more sustainably oriented.

“So, there will be differences in the way that we put the messages out there and I think that is the beauty of the challenge that is in front of me. I think it's the dream job for any marketer.”

One brand principle will remain unchanged wherever Meatless Farm operates: the company doesn’t want the planet to turn vegan, at least not right away. Its marketing strategy is to target flexitarians – those limiting their meat intake but not cutting it out altogether – because of their potential to fuel category growth.

A recent study found one third of Americans now consider themselves to be flexitarians.

“We're tapping flexitarians because they are probably the lowest-hanging fruit – they're already thinking about reducing their meat intake,” Thomsen explains.

“Our mission is to reduce meat consumption by giving people an opportunity to swap it once or twice a week [for a meatless substitute]. That speaks to people who are thinking about swapping already – not necessarily people who have already given it up.”

Thomsen isn’t the first CMO to leave the safety of the corporate world and, as marketers continue to cushion their workload with the notion of purpose more and more, she surely won’t be the last.

But with some analysts anticipating the plant-based meat sector to be worth $140bn by 2029, it’s hard to describe Thomsen’s decision to jump into the startup game as “brave”. In fact, as Coca-Cola’s combo of sugared drinks in plastic bottles grows less and less attractive to the conscious consumer, you could say it is nothing less than a safe bet.

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