It’s a crazy world out there on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus. Plant-based brands are aiming for more differentiation while consumers are calling for ever more information about the food they eat.
The tricky part? Answering that call without making consumers so confused that they throw up their hands and default to familiar choices. It’s time to change the paradigm of confusion that has so long dominated the marketing conversation surrounding food. There’s a need for clear, easily understandable information at the point of sale—and plant-based brands have a fantastic opportunity to accelerate the shift.
Here are five ways to adjust plant-based messaging, clear up consumer confusion and spur positive change.
After so many decades of being bombarded with unclear, erroneous and downright deceptive information, today’s consumer is looking for real insights about where food comes from and how it’s made. For example, according to Jack Bobo, CEO of Futurity Food, 90% of consumers want to know if food contains GMO ingredients—and that’s just one of many concerns. But not every company is prepared to be forthcoming with this kind of information.
As vegan investor, entrepreneur, activist and advisor Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni points out, there’s a “war between [providing] meaningful, understandable, concise" information and those who want to make messaging "as confusing as possible.” Some of the companies producing ultra-processed convenience foods, Castiglioni says, aren’t interested in helping consumers understand what goes into their products. Nor do companies generating significant amounts of emissions want to disclose this fact.
Such a lack of disclosure can make it difficult for consumers to choose products that they view as better for their lifestyles in some way, whether it’s health, ethics or sustainability. Without a commitment to clarity from brands (and regulatory guidance from an objective third-party), consumers are largely left to fend for themselves.
And at the point of sale, there’s not much to go on. As Bobo notes, “The front of the package is with the company wants you to know; the back of the package is what the government wants you to know.“
Solution for plant-based brands: Find out what your target audience wants to understand about their food and what they expect from the types of products you’re making. Incorporate this into the essence of your plant-based brand from the start.
Here’s a weird and kind of frustrating thing, though: Once consumers get more information from brands, it doesn’t seem as though they apply it when deciding what to eat.
More information, says Bobo, doesn’t always equal better decisions. In one of those strange paradoxes of human psychology, giving consumer the very information they say they want can beget information overload and short-circuit the entire process, making purchasing decisions harder instead of easier.
On the other hand, certain types of information can open consumers' eyes to hidden factors affecting food choices and help them be more aware of why they buy what they buy.
Gerard Pozzi, a research and engagement specialist for the World Resources Institute, says the relationship between food, personal health and the health of the planet is one such type of information—particularly at the moment when consumers are making a choice about what food to buy or order.
Why? An interesting disconnect known as the hot-cold empathy gap.
This is when people underestimate how much being hungry, thirsty, tired or even emotional can affect food choices. It’s part of the reasoning behind the age-old advice not to hit up the grocery store when hungry and to always make sure there’s a healthy snack on hand when the temptation of the drive-through or vending machine is likely to call. It's also why putting information right at the point of decision can have the biggest impact. Registered dietician Cara Harbstreet cites the work of dietitians in retail settings, particularly those helping consumers make plant-based and plant-forward meals regular fixtures of their lives.
Positioning these helpers in grocery stores to provide guidance and education can lead to higher fruit and vegetable consumption by addressing the common barriers and objections that prevent people from preparing plant-based foods.
Solution for plant-based brands: Partner with initiatives or programs working to change food choices at the point of sale where your products are available, and develop messaging that bridges the knowledge gap for consumers seeking to incorporate more plant-based meals.
Currently, there's no single definition of the term "plant based." Health, the state of the planet and concerns about animal welfare are all big reasons why consumers choose mostly or complete plant-based diets. But without clear regulation, it's hard to know which products meet personal standards. Irina Gerry, CMO of Change Foods, believes there needs to be more nuance in labeling.
"The [plant-based] world is splintering, and it's becoming more complex," she says. Plant-based meats are increasingly coming under scrutiny for being ultra-processed, and developing labels to signal different qualities to different types of consumers could help reduce the pressure on the movement "to be healthy all the time."
This may include updating the definition of vegan to address the growing number of animal-free products created using cellular agriculture or precision fermentation and a "whole food plant-based" label to signal plant-strong fare. Regardless of how it plays out, companies need to be cautious when applying these labels. "Not all plant-based foods are good or good for us," Jack Bobo points out. And yet, most people making the switch to popular plant-based burgers are doing so because they believe it's a healthier choice.
If brands can't really deliver on that promise, consumers are likely to feel cheated and may lose trust not only in the brand but also in the plant-based label as a whole. It's a delicate balance. What the plant-based space chooses to convey through labeling will ultimately dictate how much it's able to achieve in the long run. And there's always the risk of additional certifications creating more confusion among consumers instead of lowering the barrier to entry for plant-based eating.
It doesn't help that some companies are slapping a "plant-based" label on anything that has plants in it, even if those plants are keeping company with animal ingredients in the same product. Anna Keeve, a freelance journalist covering plant-based brand and lifestyle topics, calls this "plant-based washing." Like greenwashing, this practice attempts to grab more market share by leveraging the favorable associations consumers already have with a term. Sebastiano Castiglioni sees this as unacceptable, saying people need "absolute clarity" on the "absence of animal ingredients" in products with plant-based labels.
Ultimately, getting a true definition of plant-based may come down to lawsuits—whether it's someone with an allergy who relies on vegan or plant-based labels to identify products without animal ingredients or the perpetrators of "plant-based washing" getting taken to task for misrepresentation.
Solution for plant-based brands: Take a critical look at your brand goals to determine if any current vegan or plant-based labels make sense for your products. If not, it may be best to skip the additional information to avoid confusion.
Information like knowing the calories in common fast food restaurant meals might shock people in the moment, but is it the right approach? Using fear as a motivator for food choices can have serious consequences, particularly for those who already experience food-related anxiety. Cara Harbstreet points to messaging that creates a "food hierarchy" where some foods are elevated as better than others for reasons that have nothing to do with nutritional value.
Take the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists: They put a halo of purity and virtue around fruits and vegetables with the least amount of pesticide residue and shroud those with more residue in a cloud of distrust. People often can't remember what's "clean" or "dirty" and wind up avoiding produce in general for fear of making the wrong choice.
Problems like this are worse for those who struggle with orthorexia, a form of disordered eating in which foods are eaten or avoided based on self-defined values like cleanliness or healthfulness. People with orthorexia suffer from a tangible and sometimes crippling fear of contaminating themselves with the "wrong" foods. What needs to happen instead?
Changes in messaging that guide consumers to healthier choices and more favorable outcomes without making them feel pressured by the weight of negativity. "People should be ... excited about the opportunity to eat better quality food," says Bobo. Pozzi adds that an emphasis on flavor, appearance and experience on menus can boost restaurant sales of plant-based dishes simply by showing consumers what they can enjoy—rather than what they have to give up—by making a more positive choice.
Solution for plant-based brands: Focus on words that position your products as something to be enjoyed and appreciated. When in doubt, choose positivity over fear as a motivator.
Making plant-based the norm in schools, universities, hospitals and other institutions that feed a lot of people on a daily basis is a powerful way to make sweeping changes in the food system. The World Resources Institute's Cool Food pledge is a good example of how this can work. The initiative identifies "climate-friendly" meals on restaurant menus using simple labels rather than numbers. This way, diners can choose more sustainable dishes without having to learn and internalize complex numerical data related to carbon footprints.
Cool Food uses a lot of data behind the scenes, though. They look at greenhouse gas emissions all across the supply chain for each recipe and require a specific level of "nutritional quality" for the meals that get their label.)Other organizations, including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), are also working to promote plant-based eating on a broader scale. From working with foodservice companies to show how taking a plant-forward approach can lower costs and increase margins to creating the systems necessary to support people in making more plant-based choices, these groups have been able to couple information with action to make an impact.
Solution for plant-based brands: Tap into plant-forward and sustainable eating initiatives to position your products in restaurants and foodservice settings if possible. Announce partnerships as part of your brand messaging to alert your customers to availability.
The plant-based space is growing fast, and many companies that started off as innovators are becoming big players. It won't be long before some of these companies mature into "big food" brands in their own right.
But with big growth comes big responsibility. Getting a balanced, engaging and appropriate message out there now will provide consumers with the kind of information they need to make good—and enjoyable—choices going forward.
There may not be a "secret formula" to getting this right. It will take time and experimentation to nail down the exact balance needed to address consumers' concerns while motivating them to take a plant-forward approach. When information empowers instead of overwhelms and encourages instead of frightens, it paves the way for positive change.