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Vegan Food & Drink Brand Strategy

What happened to our appetite for fake meat? And what are brands doing about it?


By Audrey Kemp, LA Reporter

February 19, 2024 | 8 min read

Only a few years ago, everyone was biting into garden burgers and plant-based hot dogs. Now, the trend seems to have lost its sizzle. So, what happened? As part of The Drum’s Food & Drink Focus, we look at what’s cooking in the alternative protein sector.

plant-based burgers

Can marketing beef up fake meat’s viability and appeal? / Impossible Foods

Not long ago, plant-based meat alternatives were hailed as a revolutionary food force and a potential bulwark against the climate crisis.

Despite this garden burger buzz, however, the sector seems to be facing a notable slump. Beyond Meat, a leader in the sector, laid off 19% of its workforce last fall amid declining sales, while Impossible Foods – Beyond’s biggest rival – cut 20% of its staff at the beginning of 2023.

Many plant-based startups, once flush with billions of capital, are now either reducing their fake-meat offerings or closing down entirely. Meanwhile, some alternative protein startups, such as Choppy and Hoxton Farms, are incorporating real animal fat into their products, rendering them useless for vegans and vegetarians.

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Do these reports foreshadow the category’s demise or reflect the common challenges nascent technologies face before gaining widespread acceptance? According to an Impossible Foods spokesperson, the plant-based category is currently valued at $7.5 billion globally, even in its early stages of development.

In which case, how might marketing beef up its viability and appeal?

Novelty, taste & cost

Mel Gray, associate director of strategy at California ad agency Duncan Channon, says the primary challenge plant-based brands face is sustained consumer interest, adding that “there is high interest in trial, but it’s a different story to adapt new eating long term.”

Indeed, there are manifold factors diverting the attention of the plant-based curious. For one, the novelty of faux meats simply wears off, according to Derek Lipton, a registered dietitian and sports nutrition consultant for Bodybuilding Reviews. “The fake meat industry blew up in 2019 and 2020, largely in part due to a rise in veganism and plant-based diets following a documentary released on Netflix, Game Changers,” he says. “However, in recent years, there has been a trend shift to keto and animal-based diets, which lead to less demand for plant-based meat products.”

Lipton adds that health-conscious consumers are also starting to question the lengthy ingredient lists of these highly processed products and that “a lot of these fake meats are heavily processed and contain more saturated fat than animal meats, which defeated the purpose – and many consumers caught on to this.”

Consumers may also be returning to meat due to the high cost of plant-based products, according to Chris Kocek, chief executive of Gallant Branding. “A lot of people who were plant-based curious drove a lot of initial consumption and speculation around the category. But after that initial curiosity and experimentation phase, a significant number of people thought, ‘You know what? I’ll just go back to meat. It’s cheaper and I like the taste more.’”

Rob Canales, chief strategy officer of health and wellness agency The 3rd Eye, calls this phenomenon the “fake meat tax,” adding that this “often presents a challenge for a consumer already struggling to afford generic groceries due to inflation.”

A marketing recipe to make plant-based cool again

So, how can alternative proteins make a comeback in the future? Experts argue that by redefining the narrative around them to align with consumers’ aspirations, the future may hold a tasteful renaissance for plant-based options.

The key to resurgence, some argue, lies in reframing these substitutes not as mere meat replacements but as a distinct culinary experience. Anne Elisco-Lemme, executive creative director at Duncan Channon, echoes Impossible’s optimism for the category and emphasizes the importance of patience.

She says: “It’s way too soon to call it on the category. Like dairy replacements, these things take time to get right. The real progress starts when we – both the brands and the consumers – stop thinking of these as ‘meat replacements’ and focus on getting right what is most important: a healthier, more sustainable and delicious source of protein.”

Gallant’s Kocek advocates for a shift in marketing strategy, from focusing on products’ functional benefits to fostering emotional connections with the brand. “Plant-based meats need to tap into more irrational reasons to believe and stop focusing so much on functional reasons to believe,” he says.

“Health benefits are great, but that’s not what moves people. Look at iPhones. People buy iPhones not because they know or use everything the iPhone can actually do, but because of a feeling the iPhone gives them. The more these companies can connect plant-based meat to a particular feeling that connects to people’s aspirational selves, the better.”

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Others suggest that affordability could be the winning ticket at the cash register and democratize the plant-based movement. “Some alternative meat partnerships, such as Beyond Meat and Dunkin or Impossible and White Castle, are rightly intentioned to make plant-based meat more accessible, but they come at a premium compared with their tried-and-true counterparts on the menu,” says Duncan Channon’s Gray.

It is a sentiment The 3rd Eye’s Canales concurs with, emphasizing the need for a shift in brand perception. “The choice to have this alternative meat is a luxury, not a necessity, and will require brands to communicate in a way that inspires a significant shift in consumer behavior. Look what brands like Poppi, Olipop and Mighty Pop are attempting to do to the soda category. Learn from their failures and successes to identify a blueprint for change.”

From fast food to sloe gin, the food & drink space is massively appetizing to marketers. Join us as we dig into some of the sector’s biggest trends during The Drum’s Food & Drink Focus.

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