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The big brands going vegan: smart move or a big missed-steak?

Earlier this month, Unilever announced plans to plans to cash in on veganism trend

Once confined to startups and incubator labs, in recent years the burgeoning vegan market has piqued interest from big brands like PepsiCo, M&S and Unilever, with the latter recently announcing a colossal €1bn sales target for 2025. But how are brands ensuring their investments bear fruit?

It’s 2070, and the whole world lives as herbivores, filled with nothing but distaste for its chewy past. Gloucester’s cheese rolling has been called off indefinitely; Easter eggs have been renamed and pit roasts, butcher knives and meat tenderisers now reside as artefacts in the Design Museum, fossils of society’s bloodthirsty past.

Ok, admittedly that forecast goes a stretch too far, but when you consider how much things have changed since 1970, you see where I’m going. In the past decade, what was once a fringe movement has found its stride, particularly within metropolitan hubs where you’ll find city dwellers queuing around corners just so they can gorge on some sweet seitan shawarmas from their favourite vegan pop-up.

As the age of veganism unfolds, plant-based means big business, across FMCG, foods, and cosmetics. According to research conducted by Barclays last year, the value of the global plant-based food and drink market could soar by more than 1,000% over the next decade, reaching $140bn by 2029. And interestingly, it found 92% of plant-based meals in the UK are consumed by the UK’s estimated 22 million ‘flexitarians’ – not by orthodox vegans.

More recent data from Nielsen Scantrack data on the 12-week sales to the week ending 6 June, versus the same period the year prior, found a marked increase in meat alternatives, with ambient meat substitutes up 109.4%, fresh meat substitutes up 59.6% and frozen meat substitutes up 33.7%, as people adopted more sustainable lifestyles during the first lockdown.

“We have seen veganism grow exponentially over the past 12 months, with the Veganuary movement welcoming its one-millionth participant this year,“ explains Rob Nowell, marketing director at Edge by Ascential. “As a result, supermarkets are reporting surges in sales of plant-based products, with Tesco targeting a 300% increase in sales of meat alternatives by 2025.“

What Nowell points to here is that while the vegan industry has historically been confined to smaller, nimble startups like Honest Burger, Meatless Farms, the burgeoning market is now piquing interest from big brands like Marks & Spencer (M&S), Unilever, Sainsbury’s and PepsiCo, who each want a big plant-based stake in the industry. M&S now claim 75% of its customers are reducing meat and innovation in this area has really grown, while the well-publicised launch of Birds Eye’s ‘Green Cuisine’ range this year saw increased presence in the frozen category by 155%.

Joining the party, over the past few years Unilever has expanded its offerings. It acquired Dutch brand The Vegetarian Butcher in 2018, subsequently introducing it to 30 markets, which partnered with Burger King to launch a new range of meat-free menu alternatives. It has also been expanding its better-known brands like Hellman’s and Ben and Jerry’s to offer vegan alternatives.

To make its intentions clear, earlier this month, Unilever announced a $1.2bn (€900m) sales target for its plant-based foods, over the next five to seven years. “This is really significant because it shows that we’re taking responsibility as a large food manufacturer,” shares Robbert de Vreede, Unilever’s global executive vice-president of foods. “Veganism is a trend you see across the globe, and there is a clear consumer demand.“ But how will it ensure its investment results in sales?

Unperturbed by the huge sales target, de Vredde says €1bn would mean roughly selling roughly five times what it already shifts today. “We’re quite a sizeable business, so we feel do feel challenged by it. But we don’t feel it’s impossible. Putting a mark out shows we really want to do this and we need to now deliver on that year-by-year. It’s exciting as a commercial opportunity, but it’s also a great incentive.”

De Vreede explains that Unilever does not intend to take a similar approach to Oatly. Back in 2015, things turned sour for the oat milk brand when a promising ad campaign went wrong in Sweden after its slogan ‘It’s like milk but made for humans’ angered the local dairy industry.

Highlighting how Unilever sees great potential in the growth of those seeking meat replacement, de Vreede says: ”With the Vegetarian Butcher, we don‘t aspire to only speak to vegans and vegetarians, this is also a brand for meat lovers. This has a much bigger market potential, so it‘s smart from a business perspective. It‘s a way to not only drive plant-based transformation and encourage flexitarian diets.”

”Don’t demonise meat-eaters or even meat,” instructs Tom Bazeley, co-founder and managing director at Gaggle, the production company that produced the provocative ‘Now That's a M*** F*** Burger‘ Meatless Farm campaign. ”The common enemy is industrial-scale meat production, and the best way of defeating it is by a sensible and level-headed look at the facts, and then voting with your feet. If you find yourself shaming people, showing images of rainforest destruction, or heaven forbid, sounding like Bono, you’ve probably gone wrong somewhere.”

”Veganism can feel like a bit of a closed cult, which puts a lot of people off. It’s often presented to people as a binary decision – you’re either with vegans, or against them. It’s daft, and a great shame, because a plant-based diet has got so much going for it: the health, welfare and environmental benefits are evident,” Bazeley continues.

For M&S, it feels so confident in the burgeoning plant-based market, it is establishing an ’Innovation Hub’ a new specialist team that will focus on creating disruptive innovation in its food business. Introduced in 2019, its Plant Kitchen has exceeded all expectations and is now the number one private label vegan brand with 18.5% market share. It hopes it can continue to galvanise enthusiasm about vegan food through this hub.

”The Hub supports our food strategy to protect the magic while modernising the rest and ensures we’re relevant to our customers, today and tomorrow, by responding to their needs,” explains Stuart Machin, M&S Food’s managing director.

”The team will enable us to create industry-leading products that build on our market-leading innovation and long history of first to market products. It will also play a key role in helping us to address the biggest sector-wide sustainability challenges – from plastics to deforestation.”

So, veganism is here to stay, and it’s not an exclusive party – vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters alike are changing the market as we know it. Big brands have already taken notice of its potential; those that don’t will surely miss out on a serving.

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