The Rise of the Plant-Based Category
The health and wellness trend isn’t new, but it continues to pick up speed and evolve in new ways. There has been a noteworthy upswing in vegetarian and veganism: plant-based options abound and new brands are constantly emerging in this once-niche playing field. In fact, 'Going Vegan' is predicted to be the biggest food trend of 2018, with online searches for ‘plant-based’ tripling from 2016 to 2017, and consumers buying close to 3 times more plant-based products online than they did in January 2016. In the US, 6% of the population now identify as vegan, representing a 500% increase since 2014. While healthy eating is fairly mainstream especially in certain geographies, the growth in veganism is a recent phenomenon.
It comes as no surprise that brands and businesses are making moves to enter this space. A senior executive at Alphabet, the parent company of Google, named the consumption of plant-based proteins instead of meat as the number one “game-changing” trend of the future. Similarly Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, predicts that plant-based foods will continue to grow. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken is said to be experimenting with faux-chicken that would be vegetarian or vegan compatible.
So what does this all mean for food brands? How can they craft their plant-based strategy to win?
Get to Know Your Audience
In order to capitalize on the plant-based trend, a brand needs to understand the perceptions, needs, and expectations of their target audience towards these types of products by conducting customer research. Some of the questions that may be of interest include:
- How do customers define vegan and plant-based?
- Why does it matter to them? (What are the drivers?)
- What benefits are they looking for from the product? (Health, energy, detox?)
- What are their expectations of these products? (How should they look, taste, perform?)
- What are their barriers or concerns for plant-based products, and where do the opportunities lie for brands to address them?
Unlocking these questions will inform brand and product strategies, marketing and communications, through to activations and innovation.
Crafting Your Brand and Product Strategy
Once the brand is well informed of customer perceptions around vegan and plant-based topics, they need to leverage those insights to craft their strategy. One of the key considerations is brand positioning – What unique space should the brand or product occupy in the category? What codes and claims should brands use on packaging and in communication?
While it is niche and trending, pushing the vegan messaging too strongly may risk leaving out mainstream healthy-eating customers or those who are new to the category and still have their reservations. So the brand must decide how heavily they want to emphasize plant-based or vegan messaging.
To further explore how brands are grappling with positioning and messaging in this emerging category, we analysed numerous plant-based and vegan food brands. Though new vegan “codes” continue to surface every day, our analysis revealed a dynamic range of claims and expressions among vegan food brands spanning two main approaches to positioning: one with overt and direct messaging and codes, and another that is more subtle.
Positioning 1: Overtly Vegan: Anti-Meat
The first positioning that stands out in the plant-based category leverages direct vegan messaging: Plants are framed as the opposite of meat, and these products are clearly positioned as NOT-meat. This positioning will have strong appeal to the hard-core vegan niche, but risks excluding the mainstream crowd who may not be as passionate, but instead are aiming for a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Among brand communications for the Overtly Vegan positioning, noteworthy themes include:
1. Sarcasm: Shows traditional butcher imagery but substitutes plants instead. Green and Red as important colours.
2. Plant Meat: Plant-based “Meat” presented in juxtaposition to animal meat. Animals are represented by illustrations and their plant-based counterparts as animal silhouettes filled with green veggies. Again, red and green are featured prominently.
3. Activism: Codes borrowed from political posters giving a sense of activism or revolution. Again brand expressions feature red, white and green.
Positioning 2: Vegan Friendly: Plant-Based for Health
The second positioning communicates strongly on a plant-based message, with less prominent vegan rhetoric. For example, “vegan” may appear as a secondary claim or label on the packaging, along with non-GMO, organic, gluten free, or others. This positioning still captures the niche vegan audience, but is also mass market compatible, appealing to customers who are looking for a product to deliver naturalness, freshness, and energy, while the product happens to be vegan.
Among brand communications for the vegan-friendly positioning, noteworthy themes include:
1. Dynamic Ingredients: Raw product ingredients shown around packaging in a dynamic way signaling freshness and movement. Colourful and bright tonality.
2. Grounded Performance: Plant based foods presented in a strong and fortified way, giving assurance and power to their claims. Expressions include pictures of humans exhibiting strength or high performance, with less emphasis on the ingredients themselves. The colour palette differs from the previous themes- use of darker colours gives a more solid and grounded feel.
As you can see, the Overtly Vegan positioning emphasises the composition and process of the not-meat product. It educates the customer with diagrams and facts, as there may be a learning curve for many customers who are new to vegan eating. With the Vegan Friendly positioning, while the ingredients are important, the messaging highlights the efficacy or benefit of the product- for example, “If you eat this, you will feel energized and healthy”.
Take-Aways for Vegan Food Brands
Other than Overtly Vegan and Vegan Friendly, there are certainly countless other positioning opportunities for brands in the vegan food space. Ideally a brand can appeal to both niche and mainstream consumers with targeted approaches. For example, Vegan Protein may be available for everyone at a trendy gym, but the brand may also choose to sponsor vegan-specific causes or events for animal rights or sustainable agriculture. This calls to mind the special way customers relate to the vegan food category: for many, veganism is both a lifestyle and a conviction, as it connects with important causes. All in all, brands can aim to strike a balance of lifestyle and conviction for broader appeal.
Consumer research and category mapping structure and narrow down positioning directions to identify a precise and cohesive brand positioning. That positioning then informs all brand experience touchpoints from the product itself, to marketing communications, channel selection, digital experience, and beyond. With the vegan category undergoing continuous flux and evolution, it is ever more important for new brands to first identify a solid positioning. Doing so will ensure enough consistency to build brand awareness and a loyal following, while also iterating regularly to keep up with evolving trends and needs.
The plant-based category is becoming established, launching into a phase of growth with no signs of slowing down, and may even ultimately become the mainstream way of eating in a not-so-distant future. The demographic below age 35 is leading the way in the worldwide shift away from consuming animal products: 42 percent of all vegans are ages 15-34 compared to just 14 percent who are over 65. Besides individuals and generations, we see large companies like Google and even countries such as China leading the movement to eat more plant-based foods for the sake of sustainability.
Being as healthy as possible is essential to make the most of the human experience, and consumers and society at large are becoming increasingly passionate about it. It is an exciting space where brands can provide both functional and emotional benefits that make a real difference in the lives of their customers. But, as the food industry has proven, it will be competitive. To remain responsive to the evolving trends, brands must understand their consumers, craft their strategies, and maintain their plant-based brand equity. And of course, we hope they still remain finger lickin’ good while doing it.