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3 Ways Plant-Based Brands Can Connect with Consumers in 2021

Theresa "Sam" Houghton
January 4, 2021

Good Monday, fellow nerds, and happy 2021! 🎉 It’s a new year, and it’s pretty clear the majority of us are ready for a fresh start.

That includes The Modern Health Nerd. Today marks the launch of new content — including experimental content formats. It’s great to have you along on the journey. As we move forward together, I’d love to hear your feedback on what you like, what drives you nuts and anything I’m missing that you’d like me to cover.

And now, on to our first set of insights for the new year!

Nobody can deny that plant-based diets have inserted themselves into the mainstream. It’s more than a fad, and it has the potential to make sweeping changes in the food system and how we approach human health.

But there’s a huge problem lurking, the proverbial elephant in the room: People don’t really get what healthy is, and with even the fast-food chains now touting plant-based options, the confusion is only likely to get worse. 😵

How can plant-based brands use the coming year to fix this? Is there a way to correct consumers’ perceptions without compromising the goals of plant-based food?

Sure. And it largely involves the plant-based movement getting out of its own way. Here’s why—and how to take the first steps toward change.

People Still Don’t Understand Plant-Based Diets

Forecasts for 2021 show that people associate plant-based diets mostly with ethics, sustainability and health. 🥗 The millennial generation has taken up the banner and is marching into the new year with the highest projected adoption rate for this way of eating.

But the same analysis from the British Nutrition Foundation also shows that a whopping 41% of people still think plant-based and vegan diets are the same thing. Only 10% are able to wrap their minds around the idea that flexitarianism can also be plant-based.

And then there was that 8% of people who have no idea what plant-based diets are whatsoever. 🤦🏻‍♀️

What does this mean for the industry? Clearly, young people are getting on board, but general confusion about the movement still reigns. Although people seem to agree that eating a plant-based diet is better for health in the environment, statistics can only reflect direct responses to poll questions. The numbers don’t reveal whether or not the average consumer actually understands the meaning or implication of these factors.

Image by RitaE from Pixabay

Are New Proteins Actually Relevant?

This relative lack of understanding is oddly juxtaposed over the emergence of several novel protein categories. 🍖🥩🥓

Startups across the plant-based industry are experimenting with new ingredients derived from mushrooms, algae and even air. Legumes are also a popular choice, particularly those that have been underutilized (or not utilized at all) in the past. And, of course, there is the tech-heavy, somewhat controversial area of cellular agriculture—the so-called “cultivated meat” category. 🧪

The plant-based industry is giddy at the prospect of unleashing these proteins on the world in a wave of new alternative meat and dairy products. The news outlets are buzzing with headlines about the groundbreaking sale of the first consumer cultivated meat product. 🐔 But, amid the excitement, the movement is missing an important fact.

For the average consumer—and even the savvy young demographic—something like cultivated meat isn’t a big deal. In fact, it can be sort of off-putting.

The people who eat plant-based food 🌿 right now lean toward actual food: nuts, beans, lentils and chickpeas. Young people do consume quite a lot of plant-based milk and are bigger on alt protein products than those in the older demographic, but the general population of consumers isn’t rushing off to try the latest bacon made from mycelium. 🍄

The plant-based movement needs to realize that the excitement is largely internal. Visibility may be expanding and curiosity may be growing, but the bubble, to quote Chuck Carroll, is still very small.

3 Ways to Fix Plant-Based Perception

If you really want to shake things up with your plant-based brand in 2021, try these tactics to align your marketing with how consumers are think—and help them understand what the movement is really about.

  1. Ditch the jargon and explain what you actually mean. Consumers are real people with real lives—and real problems. They’re not thinking about the big issues of the day when they’re hungry or shopping for groceries. 🛒You’re more likely to connect with them if you can show your brand is easy to incorporate into their existing routines.
  2. Don’t assume consumers want the same thing you do. It’s tempting to think that data, trends and surveys 📊 have the final say on what consumers want, but data isn’t the whole picture. Instead of assuming everyone fits a persona, get out there and have actual conversations with your audience. Listen, learn and respond with appropriate changes in messaging and product features.
  3. Stop trying to convince consumers of what they need. Give them what they actually need. The plant-based movement is sadly notorious for pushing its own vision on consumers. And it’s understandable—this is an exciting time for plant-based food! But people aren’t going to get on board with a vision they don’t understand. Start by getting extremely familiar with your customers’ needs and meeting them where they are. Once you’ve built a platform of trust, use it to make change happen through education.

Adjusting plant-based messaging 🍔 to consumers’ current level of understanding doesn’t mean abandoning goals for a safer, healthier, more sustainable food system. But it is up to brands in the space to make adjustments in pursuit of those goals.

For plant-based brands in 2021, the ultimate goal should be to learn about the average consumer, get familiar with their real needs and use transparent, educational content—not industry babble—to encourage adoption.

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