As a vegetarian—born into a vegetarian family—I find it is too late to develop new tastes after 4 decades in this planet. I have considered ‘trying’ non-vegetarian food a few times, but these kinds of wiring goes beyond the mouth and tongue – it is imprinted in the brain. So, not able to appreciate or understand the broader food choices our species has is one of the minor regrets in my life.
To make amends, I actively encourage our kids to try whatever they want without worrying about family-related rules. At least they should be able to develop a broader world-view when it comes to food choices and then settle on one that they believe in, taste-wise and belief-wife.
Given that context, I cannot even begin to understand the nuances of plant-based meat industry. The closest (laughably closest) equivalent I can perhaps imagine is my distaste for tofu, the soya-based paneer equivalent. I have tried a few tofu brands and some come really close to the paneer taste (which, by itself is a running joke for several non-vegetarian folks, I fully realize that). When compared with paneer, I find tofu to taste like cardboard. My tastebuds do not identify a taste at all no matter what dish is made with tofu, and that tastelessness is enormously annoying.
Is that what meat eaters trying plant-based meat substitutes go through too? I don’t know, but I can only guess vaguely.
But the plant-based meat substitute industry is growing fast in the US, at about 18%, and has been doing even better during the pandemic-induced lockdown around the world.
There’s a fantastic context setting video by Quartz on this broad topic, referring to how one of the brands, Impossible Foods, came to make the meatless meat!
The segment is probably at its nascent stage in India, with brands like Good Dot, Vegeta Gold, Veggie Champ and Veglay, among others.
What interests me in this category is the marketing narrative. I imagine it as, “How could I convince paneer-lovers to switch to tofu?” (though I do understand that is a very distant approximation, sentiment-wise). This seems like an exciting challenge in marketing communications, because it goes against established notions of taste in users’ minds and pushes something extraordinary, against convention, because of larger, ecological reasons.
At the very basic, what could plant-based meat substitute brands talk about, to get people to try and stay with their brands?
- Taste: This is the most important consideration, emotionally. The brands need to convince users that this tastes as good as their favorite meat-based products. This is a non-negotiable deal-breaker because it is so primal that it trumps all other reasons.
- Environmental responsibility: The very reason why this new industry exists. They did not start with the idea to create a new, equally-tasty substitute, but they started on their path because of the monumental damage done by the meat industry. That responsibility should weigh on us, but unfortunately the taste takes precedence – that’s human frailty anyway.
And the leading brands in this space in the US have been using messages that build primarily on taste and wok towards the most important need right now for this relatively new segment – convert people from meat/beef to plant-based substitutes. That is a very large task in itself and there’s a lot to gain by just sticking to this basic, category-building requirement.
Here’s Impossible Whopper ad by Burger King that has partnered with Impossible Foods to roll out these plant-based meat substitutes.
The crux: 100% Whopper. 0% beef.
Meaning: The taste is exactly what you’d expect in Burger King’s famous Whoppers.
This message is selling to the already-converted with regard to the messaging around environmental consciousness.
Another brand, Beyond Meat, speaks about the environmental angle in their new commercials.
Kellogg’s MorningStar Farms recently launched their brand of plant-based meat, called Incogmeato. The catchline: “Afraid you might like it?”, with the implication being that you may mistake the taste to be as good as meat and may actually feel guilty of shifting your preferences.
Lightlife, from the Canadian company Maple Leaf Foods Inc., a packaged meats company, is another brand in this segment.
The focus, again – taste! “Surprise yourself”.
One of Lightlife’s funnier campaigns was around ‘honesty’ – that, as parents, you can honestly tell your kids that the burger they are about to eat contains plant-based meat!
But, it looks like Lightlife has had enough about ‘taste’ as the central message.
On August 25th, the brand unleashed a new campaign via print ads on several newspapers (including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, Financial Times, Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle). The campaign is framed an open letter and directly names 2 big rivals – Beyond Meat and Impossible.
The focus of the attack/challenge was the ingredients used in the 3 brands’ burger patties. Given Impossible’s ‘made in a lab’ credentials, Lightlife offers a perspective to readers that food shouldn’t be made in a lab, but in a kitchen. And that it has the most natural ingredients with no chemicals or complex sounding ingredients that you may not understand.
The use of publicly-visible ingredients as a perception-building tactic for readers is akin to Amul’s salvo against Britannia in 2019, for the launch of their cookies range.
Amul had earlier targeted HUL’s ice cream range too, using the same tactic – real milk ice cream vs. vegetable fats based frozen dessert.
As expected, the rivals have not taken this frontal attack lightly, even if Lightlife claims that this is a ‘challenge’ and not an attack.
- The number of ingredients is a pointless basis to decide
- Lightlife’s parent company’s credentials make this attack particularly disingenuous (almost like an exclusively electric-vehicle company telling off another electric-vehicle brand that belongs to a petrol/fossil fuel larger parent company)
This retaliation is understandable. But Lightlife’s salvo was in print, while the retaliation is purely digital. The print ads would, no doubt, seed a doubt in people looking at the ingredients of what they buy a bit closer.
Lightlife is moving the conversation away from the 2 focal points used so far, to a new one. The segment seems to have saturated the narratives around taste and environment already and is looking at the quality angle now. After all, how long can you keep saying the taste is as good as beef, if everyone is saying the same thing? As for the environment angle, that seems to have been taken for granted already.
Even if Lightlife’s salvo seems abrasive and disingenuous, it also does seem new. It’s a fresh narrative that doesn’t merely ask people to opt for plant-based meat substitutes, but offers a context on why they should select one brand of product over the others. That is perhaps a sign of the segment maturing beyond category building.
I like Lightlife’s approach, though I fully understand why Impossible and Beyond Meat are stupendously upset. Lightlife’s approach shakes the status quo and the silently-agreed stand on everyone in this space building the category calmly so everyone gains together. There’s still a much larger user base to convert, from meat to plant-based variants, that trying to fight with each other seems premature.
But much of the criticism for Lightlife’s attack is also on the lines of a meat-industry player (indirectly) attacking vegan/plant-based players. That the segment’s players shouldn’t be fighting amongst themselves since the category building period if far from being over. The segment is relatively very small in front of actual meat/beef that to start this in-fighting signals something more sinister particularly because it comes from a company with a parent deeply into the enemy camp – the age-old divide-and-rule strategy by a larger industry with much to lose if this category gains significant traction. This is also a fair point to consider.
As a communications professional, this is all very exciting to observe from the outside. There’s a lot to gain and lose for a fairly new category, and much is at stake for a lot of brands.
As a consumer, as I consider trying out plant-based meat available in India, just for the experience, I feel like a youngster listening to the remix version of a 1950s Hindi song, not having listened to the original and judging the song only through the remix 🙂