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5 Plant-Based Brand Development Essentials, According to Experts

Theresa "Sam" Houghton
April 13, 2021

This post is based on a Clubhouse conversation on plant-based branding. Special thanks to these experts for their contributions:

Why do so many founders in the plant-based space struggle with brand development? The industry is young.
There's a lot of white space to claim. New and growing brands have the opportunity to stand out—if founders are willing to put in the strategic work.

I know what you're thinking. "I'm already wearing a million hats, and you're saying I need to become a brand strategist, too?" 🤯Yup. But it doesn't have to be just you. In fact, to succeed, it shouldn't be just you. Brand development has the best chances of success when you combine your unique self with insights from an outside perspective.

Here are five ways to make it happen, straight from the mouths of plant-based industry and branding experts.

1) Market Research is an Essential Investment

According to Rachel Cook, founder of The Kinder Way, a lot of plant-based start up founders share a common problem: They’re so in love with the products they’ve created that they fail to dig into how those products can connect with and serve consumers in the current marketplace.

Without research, testing and validation, it’s impossible to know whether an idea will float once it gets in front of an audience. It’s not enough to just think you know your customer. You have to know them as intimately as you know your family and closest friends. 👨👩👧👦But uncovering these insights doesn’t have to be complicated, boring or expensive. You just need to answer a few key questions:

  • What attracts your ideal customer?
  • What plant-based products are they already consuming? 🌱
  • What category leaders are their current go-to products?
  • What are their reasons for buying plant-based in the first place?
  • What kind of diet are they consuming right now, and what’s their rationale for doing so?

There are a few free ways to get started with this, one of the easiest of which is simply getting into conversations with consumers at the local supermarket. Note what plant-based products people are buying and what accompanies those products in their carts.
Ask what motivated them to pick up particular products, and don’t feel awkward about digging deeper to understand the roots of their dietary preferences.

And don’t discount the power of being strategic with your time on social media. Instead of just scrolling through your feed, dig around in threads on different platforms. Pay attention to the questions consumers are asking, how they’re talking about plant-based foods and what they’re saying about similar products in your category.

color wheel showing market research factors

But branding doesn’t happen in a vacuum...

Free research is a great way to jumpstart your brand-building efforts, but to get an unbiased view from an honest audience, you need to go outside your company for help.

Before you freak out about how much that’s going to cost, consider the long-term payoff.

💰 Investing in the kind of industry insights that only a third party can provide can save you years and millions of dollars spent on marketing targeted at the wrong people.

David Benzaquen, founder and managing director of Mission Plant, points to the importance of developing a rich view of your target audience by going beyond “yes or no” questions to uncover both demographics and psychographics. Getting these details could either confirm that your audience is who you think they are or show you a new and better direction for product development and launch strategies.

Solid market research that goes beyond what you can uncover yourself also highlights the available white space—and whether or not creating a product to fill that white space makes sense.“Nobody wants a chocolate couch,” Benzaquen points out.

In other words, if your product doesn’t fit the needs of an existing market, you’re not likely to get any traction. And your brand won’t have the leverage it needs to become a household name.

The takeaway: Do market research, and don’t go it alone. Partner with someone outside your company to gather deep insights on market trends and consumer behaviors before you launch and begin to promote.

2) You Need Well-Defined Values and Goals

Of course, what you think and believe is also important.

Can you articulate your key values, the things you want your brand to stand for and bring to mind when consumers encounter your products? 💭These are your non-negotiables, the things that shouldn’t change as your brand scales up.

The fundamental things about your brand's "way" that keep you rooted in your purpose as you grow and your relationship with consumers changes (i.e., when your product goes from being a fixture at the local grocery store to getting national—or even international—distribution).

Emma Osborne, founder of Citizen Kind, suggests naming and defining your values. Describe them using single words, and flesh these out into a "brand manifesto" that informs everything you do as a brand and company.

Literally everything. Brand guidelines, marketing, hiring, onboarding...the whole shebang.

How to build a brand on values

do good magnets on white marble with black speckles

To make this work, you need to get specific. Clarify your brand's mission and goals, and pick at least five (but no more than nine) things you want to be for or against.
This gives your brand authenticity without diluting your message and minimizes the challenges you'll face when positioning your products to compete in the plant-based marketplace.

Avoid being vague—really put some thought into your choices.

If you want to be "sustainable," what does that look like? How will you weave sustainability into the very fabric of your business? How should it affect your choice of ingredients, suppliers and packaging? 📦Repeat this exercise for each value or goal.

Take this seriously—these are the standards on which you'll be building your brand for years to come, and there's no room for compromise if you want to maintain integrity with consumers.

Translate the definitions of your values into a tangible mission statement that can serve as the foundation for your brand's authentic image. Make a copy available to everyone in the company so that all employees understand where you're coming from and can commit to living out these values in their own working lives.

Taking the time to define and solidify your values as you begin brand development allows you to create the authenticity that attracts customers and makes them want to stick around to see and support everything you do.

The takeaway: Know exactly what your brand stands for, and define those values as specifically as possible. Use the definitions to create a foundational document that will guide your brand now and in the future as you transition from a startup to a growing company.

3) Risk Tolerance Should Inform Brand Messaging

When you think of distinctive branding in the plant-based space, it’s almost inevitable that the irreverent messaging of Oatly will come to mind.

Not everyone can (or should be!) Oatly. But it's hard to ignore the Swedish oat milk company's example of what can happen when you're willing to take risks with your brand.

(And then you have Huera, the Spanish plant-based meat producer whose enormous billboard in Madrid got them sued.)

Granted, stepping out and trying something as bold as these brands have isn’t the right approach for all companies. But being afraid to take any kind of stand results in a bland, boring and watered-down brand with a weak message that attempts to target everyone instead of serving a specific audience.

Look at the brands you admire that are making the kind of impression you want to make in the plant-based space.

  • What are they doing that you can learn from?
  • How are they connecting with their audiences to create change?
  • What can you emulate to help you stand for your point of view in light of the needs and expectations of your audience?

By watching other brands, you can get a feel for your own level of risk tolerance and how much you’re willing to potentially sacrifice to hold onto the message you wish to spread through your brand and products.

Your brand is not for everyone

Specificity in brand development will, ultimately, mean alienating some people. In the words of Seth Godin, it’s not for them.
You need to ask yourself: Are you prepared to be bold and unapologetic about your brand’s values—and stick to them?

And if that means sacrificing the chance to connect with an audience beyond the core group of people who share your exact beliefs, are you okay with what that restriction could mean for your brand?

Risk is, of course, risky. You could wind up pushing the wrong kinds of buttons, creating dissonance and driving consumers—and potential investors—away.

You could miss the mark entirely and alienate too many people, causing your brand to fail right out of the gate. 🤦🏻‍♀️ Before stepping out and getting your weird on, you need to answer the question of risk tolerance in light of what will truly resonate with your target audience.

Jack Bobo, CEO of Futurity, notes that not every company wants to hit it big.

Some prefer to serve a small and specific audience that’s precisely aligned with their vision. But those who want their products to make it big in a wider market need to be willing to give a little to ensure the longevity of their brands.

The takeaway: Sticking with your company’s values always involves a measure of risk. Determine your level of risk tolerance—and what that looks like for your company as a whole—before adding any touches of crazy to your brand.

4) Startup Founder, You Are Your Brand

As an entrepreneur, founder, business owner and the general face of your startup, you're the one who's always out there interacting.
You talk with potential investors. You pitch your product concept left and right. And you're probably doing all the email correspondence, blogging and social media posts, too.
📱Who you are is who the brand is when you're a startup, and it's hard to put forward a brand persona that you're not comfortable with.

So don't try.

Instead, think about what motivates you as a founder. What's your core purpose? What's your "thing" that you can convey through your brand and stick with as you grow?

Everything that you put out as an extension of this is a piece of your brand image.

As the pieces come together, they'll attract the right kinds of people—both customers and employees—to build and support your brand as a whole.

Yes, what your target audience wants and believes matters. You can't just put that aside and do whatever in the hopes that it will make your brand amazing.

Success lies in finding the values you and your audience share and living out those values as a brand.

Irina Gerry, CMO of Change Foods, suggests doing a brand archetype exercise to help define who you are as a brand. Archetypes provide basic frameworks to define the personality of your brand, and you're free to play around within those frameworks until your true brand persona emerges.

Personifying your brand in this way makes it easier to determine what tone of voice to use when speaking to your audience, what topics to cover and how to be strategic in your brand messaging. Together with market research data, a brand persona acts as a guide on how to incorporate your values into your branding while still attracting the attention of the right audience.

And when you let your personality shine through right from the start, it's much easier to live out your values and keep the soul of your company intact as your brand gets bigger.

The takeaway: Understanding your audience is important, but you can't pretend to be something you're not. Don't be afraid to let your personality shine through in your brand image. ☀️

good vibes only framed words on wall

5) Transparency and Honesty Beat Finger-Pointing Every Time

As the plant-based industry grows and matures, there will be a necessity for competition among products in the same categories. This happens all the time among traditional brands; it's part of positioning products to stand out as superior and influence consumer choices.

Such competition is fine, but you have to do it the right way—by elevating your brand without trying to tear others down.

Unfortunately, some brands in the plant-based space have already had an epic fail on this point. They've used their platforms to highlight how other brands are Doing It Wrong in the attempt to portray their own products as superior.

👑This doesn't work in the long run. Sure, it might turn a few consumers away from The Other Brand—but it's also likely to turn them away from the entire category. Finger pointing among plant-based brands can actually prevent consumers from making healthier, more sustainable choices (and give the meat industry ammunition for their own marketing).

Why? Because people remember negative advertising. Bad press sticks in their heads and can have profound effects on purchasing decisions.

The Dirty Dozen produce list is a prime example of this.

"It undermines people's confidence in the food system," says Jack Bobo, and "makes people less interested in eating healthy food" to the point where it actually causes a decrease in vegetable consumption among low-income families.

🥦By extension, using negative press to tear down your competition could serve to discourage consumers not only from buying their products but also from buying any similar plant-based foods.

Not exactly what the movement is going for...

Let go of unrealistic expectations

Inevitably, someone is going to point the finger at your brand and say you're doing something wrong—but when this comes from consumers rather than other brands, you have the opportunity to turn it into a positive. How? By being completely transparent about your struggles to align all elements of your business with your brand values.

David Benzaquen encourages brands to engage in authentic conversations with their audiences. Instead of being reactive when a level 12 vegan blogger slams you because your products contain an ingredient that might cause mountain goats in some remote locale to develop a third horn, be ready to have an open dialog.

Don't worry about hitting the highest standards immediately.

Keep your focus on your values, and follow your brand manifesto until you get where you want to be. Show your audience they can trust you because there are real people with real values, struggles and goals behind your brand. Listen to their concerns, and document how you're working to hit the milestones you've set for the company.

Documenting has the added benefit of showing the uniqueness of your brand's journey and setting you apart from the competition—no finger-pointing required.

The takeaway: Tearing down the competition to build your brand up never works in the long run. Instead, be open and honest about where you struggle, and be willing to engage in genuine conversations when consumers express concerns.

Nailing Plant-Based Brand Development

Did you notice how all these brand development strategies require two key things? Time and patience. ⏰No matter how much you love your product, no matter how antsy you are a strap on your cape and go save the world, it doesn’t pay to rush into marketing before you’ve solidified your brand.

Every dollar you spend on market research and branding strategy now is going to pay off down the road.

Once you have all the details in place, then you’ll be able to develop what Rachel Cook calls a “plug-and-play“ marketing plan. Marketing becomes second nature when everything about your brand’s image, tone and vision is clearly defined—and you know how your personally fits into all of it. But it’s an ongoing process, especially if you want your brand to develop the agility that will allow you to stand the test of time as you grow.

Always be ready to iterate, take new risks and evaluate the data you gather as you interact with consumers and monitor the market.

The plant-based space is changing fast, and the brands that will succeed are those committed to understanding their audiences as developing engaging, evergreen personalities that resonate with consumers.

  1. Do the market research! Investing in getting to know your audience now will save big money in the long run by giving you well-defined insights to guide decision making.
  2. Get really clear and specific about your own mission, values and goals. Define them in single words, and then flesh them out into a "brand manifesto" that informs everything you do as a brand and company.
  3. Understand how much risk you're willing to take with your branding and how that might affect your ability to scale/grow in the future.
  4. Personalities of startup founders are intertwined with the brand. Know yourself and the persona you're comfortable embodying, and merge that with market insights to create a strong brand that resonates with your audience.
  5. Positive messaging beats negativity and finger-pointing every time. The plant-based movement will draw more consumers in by being transparent, honest and engaged than by wasting time pointing out that the other guy is Doing It Wrong.
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