There's a lot of talk in the plant-based space about messaging. What's working? What isn't? Why or why not? And, perhaps most importantly—how can we get more consumers on board with plant-based products and the plant-based lifestyle as a whole? 🌿If you ask consumers, they would say: Bring on the health! Healthier products make for healthier lifestyles, which is the number one reason why people choose plant-based products.
But there's a disconnect. As much as people say they want to eat healthier, what they really want is something that's tasty and convenient. 🤤 Something familiar that doesn't require a complete overhaul of their knowledge of food and cooking.
Or something that doesn't require them to cook at all.
Because one of the biggest barriers to adopting a plant-based lifestyle is lack of knowledge.
The challenge for plant-based brands, then, lies in providing information and support without adding to the confusion and overwhelm consumers are already feeling. 🤷🏻♀️In this post, I'll unpack five plant-based messaging insights (and problems)—and explore the best ways to fix them.
Thanks to Irina Gerry, Seba Cossia Castiglioni, David Benzaquen, Jack Bobo, Zoë Lloyd Geller, Emma Osborne, Susanne Wedin-Schildt, Peggy Chan, and Rachel Cook for their insights on this subject!
Clearly, people want to eat healthier. But they have no idea what that means—or how to do it.
Different age groups perceive health in different ways, not all of which are based in fact. Gaps in knowledge, which are sometimes substantial, get filled with sensationalized headlines trumpeting the latest advances in nutrition science, lifestyle gurus attempting to sell their latest programs with equally sensational language, and "expert" bloggers alternately celebrating and decrying the latest health trends. It's quite the mire to wade through, and few people have the time or desire to do so.
And, even if consumers did manage to find a single, concrete definition of "healthy," most of them wouldn't know how to apply it to their lives. They're either too busy, or they lack the kitchen savvy necessary to efficiently prepare tasty plant-based dishes. 🥗
Of course, no amount of education will get people to eat more plants if all they associate vegetables with the limp, overcooked piles of brownish something that sat on their plates next to the meat when they were kids. 🤮(Or the infamous little school lunch tray section full of mushy peas.)Vegetables have been unfairly branded by pop culture as a bland, boring thing you have to suffer through to be healthy while you miss out on cake, steak, and butter. Very few people outside of the plant-based or professional culinary spaces would label vegetables as exciting. It's time for that to change.
"Why isn't everybody using vegetables to their fullest extent?" asks Irina Gerry, CMO of Change Foods.
🥦 "People don't use as many veggies in their diet because making vegetables delicious requires cooking skills and time, not because they don't know that veggies are good for them. Most people's idea of veggies is a side salad or steamed broccoli, and they struggle to imagine what a delicious and satisfying plant-based meal looks like. We need chefs to provide inspiration, grocery stores to drive solution-based shopping (e.g. shop by recipe), and restaurants to offer healthy and delicious plant-based meals (e.g. Chipotle's vegan bowls)."
Although meat analogs are getting the most press right now, there's a very real opportunity—and need—for plant-based companies to make vegetables part of the picture. How?
Companies like Actual Veggies are already doing this well. By positioning their "plant-only" burgers as fun, colorful, and full of personality, they're elevating veggies from a boring side dish to a lifestyle necessity.
Okay, so that's the health aspect. But what about sustainability and animal welfare? 🐮 Shouldn't plant-based brands be showing consumers how purchasing analogs instead of animal meat is a vote against factory farming and environmental degradation?
🏭The answer, at least right now, is no. While it's great that founders and formulators in the space are focused on innovating with new ingredients and processes to create analogs that more closely mimic the flavors and textures consumers are used to, the "saving the planet" aspect just isn't that important from a messaging standpoint." I don't think most people want to be making ethical or moral decisions when they're taking a bite of food," says Jack Bobo, CEO of Futurity and author of the upcoming book, Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices.
Mission-driven founders may find it frustrating, but what's going to motivate consumers to choose plant-based at the point of sale often isn't the same as the motivation behind the product itself.
Irina Gerry points out that "people eat with their eyes and stomachs, not their brains." So, the best way to support the growth of the plant-based movement may be to leave the climate and the animals out of messaging.
🚫As counterintuitive as it may seem, the end result may be better.
Communicating the information that has the greatest potential to influence consumers in favor of plant-based products automatically reduces the number of animal-based foods they buy.
That puts more plants on plates and reduces the demand for factory-farmed meat. 🐷Exactly what many in the plant-based movement are working toward.
But, at the same time, the movement may be shooting itself in the food by arguing over things that, right now, don't matter much.
Infighting is an unfortunate part of just about every movement, particularly those that bring together a lot of people with strong opinions and personalities.
Any consumer who even dips a toe into the vegan or plant-based space on social media is bound to encounter finger-pointing. 👉🏻👈🏻David Benzaquen, founder and managing director of Mission: Plant, sees how such behavior has the very real potential to sabotage the goals of the movement.
"We're still missing the boat when we communicate with people defensively," he says.
When companies use their platforms—and even their advertising dollars—to harp on each other's ingredients, criticize differing approaches and otherwise declare that Someone Is Doing It Wrong, it not only confuses consumers but also turns them off. 🙅🏻♂️Who wants to be part of a movement that's full of a bunch of negative people and messages?
People already get too much negativity from the news—and enough confusion from conflicting messages put out by the meat and dairy industries. 🥩🥛The plant-based space can, and should, do better.
There are plenty of platforms where founders, CPG brands, ingredient producers, marketers, investors, chefs, authors and more can band together and support each other in meeting the collective goals of better health for people and the planet. 🌍When the messaging within the community is positive, consumer-facing messaging will follow suit.
Speaking of consumer messaging, the way plant-based companies talk about what they produce makes a huge difference in consumer perception.
What do people think when they see...
All these terms convey deprivation, a sense of missing out or abstaining. And, in a lot of cases, consumers also equate these labels with subpar taste. 👎🏻Yet many in the plant-based space are pushing for more labeling, not less.
There's a call to add climate impact labels (which may or may not be accurate) to packages already overflowing with health claims, nutrition information, ingredient lists and brand messaging.
According to Jack Bobo, all this information creates a clash between brand and consumer beliefs and invites a reactionary response. "Either people agree," he says, "or they actively work against you. Do you only want people to buy your product if they believe what you believe?"
What if the plant-based movement removed the restrictive, guilt-inducing messaging and reversed the FOMO? Would consumers buy more plant-based if they thought they were missing out on an amazing taste experience? 🤔Taking cues from brands that already leverage this approach—even "big food" brands—can provide insight into how plant-based entrepreneurs can start to re-imagine what plant-based food is and start steering it toward what it can be.
🌱Branding, according to Citizen Kind founder Emma Osborne, influences 50% of consumer buying decisions. The more a brand resonates with a person's lifestyle, values and emotions, the more likely they are to make purchases.
Rachel Cook, founder of The Kinder Way, adds that brands should "call [consumers] to a certain lifestyle," not focus on product features. Helping consumers accomplish their own goals is key in reaching the goals of the plant-based movement as a whole. 🥅
Success for the plant-based movement appears to come down to experience and accessibility.
Positioning plant-based food as tasty, fun and compatible with a range of tastes and lifestyles creates a positive message that draws consumers in—instead of setting up barriers that create more confusion.
🌿It's an approach that can give the innovators in the plant-based space the foundation they need to advance the movement and help consumers make better and better choices over time.