Letters from the fringe.
The world’s first official vegan was a British man named Donald Watson, who coined the term in 1944 and shared his Vegan Society newsletter with 25 subscribers. By the time he died 61 years later, the vegan community comprised more than 2 million vegans in the US alone.
A number of factors have fuelled an increase in plant-based foods, from dairy alternatives to meat substitutes. The branding of these products tends to be bold, punchy and irreverent, with an equal emphasis on health and personality. The days of vegans being largely viewed as fringe weirdos wearing hemp shirts are gone. Instead, veganism has become almost sexy. It’s no longer a single carton of soy milk hidden at the back of the store, but it’s young brands like Oatly that turn a yearly profit of hundreds of millions of dollars by producing over ten different types of oat drink, ice cream, and vegan yogurt called “oatgurt.” Rather than having Donald Watson explain how to pronounce “vegan” to a small group of subscribers, it’s Ariana Grande sharing #vegan recipes with her 289 million followers on Instagram.
This leaves our Creative Director Films & Content Ben Phillips, Executive Creative Director Christy Srisanan, and Senior Copywriter Omnya Attaelmanan wondering: Is the advertising industry helping plant-based brands lean into veganism’s popularity and perceived edginess? Or are we relying too much on tried and true food marketing techniques, failing to support these brands in setting themselves apart from more traditional ones with fresher approaches to advertising?
More consumers are going for clean greens.
Surprisingly, vegans aren’t necessarily the driving force behind the rising popularity of plant-based products, as one in four consumers identify as flexitarian. This means that the largest, most significant consumer group for plant-based products might not be vegans or vegetarians, but omnivores trying to fit a few non-meat days into their weekly menu.
For many consumers, concern for the environment is a driving factor behind choice of diet. A study by the University of Oxford found that animal products are responsible for more than half of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), adopting a plant-based diet can help fight climate change. Simply put, plant-based food and drinks can offer up a flavorful experience without the carbon footprint associated with animal products.
Flexitarianism, vegetarianism and veganism represent steps towards more climate-friendly ways of consuming. This opens up great opportunities for marketing and advertising plant-based products in a way that emphasizes their minimal impact on our planet. Such environmental messaging is likely to resonate more strongly than ever, especially considering recent extreme weather events around the world—because selling plant-based food is all about the mission.
Thinking outside the animal-based box.
As opposed to animal products, plant-based food and drinks are rarely advertised with a focus on the sensory pleasure of consuming them. That’s the case for beef burgers, not plant-based patties. For the latter, advertising always needs to account for a consumer mindset that’s deliberate and thoughtful in its approach to food. Besides trying to compete with animal products in terms of taste and texture, vegan brands also aim to focus on their mission and bake it into their branding at every level.
This typically translates into positioning themselves as being morally superior to “old school” animal products. The messaging of plant-based products often tends to call out non-vegan competitors, from Oatly’s “It’s like milk, but made for humans” to Beyond Meat’s “You’ve evolved. So should your snacks.” Sometimes, this can have dramatic results. Oatly, for instance, was sued by the Swedish dairy lobby over an ad that featured their slogan and the line “Wow, no cow.”
These brands are navigating multiple fine lines—between confrontational and adversarial, between punchy and preachy, and, perhaps most importantly, between cool and commercially viable. Too quirky, and you might lose consumers who would otherwise be interested. However, too bland, and you don’t stand a chance in a market full of edgier brands. Maintaining the right balance is a real challenge, which is an opportunity for advertising partners to step up their game.
(Re)planting the seeds for plant-based brands’ success.
When partnering with vegan brands, it’s crucial to bear their mission in mind. It isn’t just important—the mission is everything. Even the most profit-focused vegan brands will want to highlight their commitment to fostering sustainability, animal rights and healthy eating habits. So, it is our job to tap into that shared passion between plant-based food producers and consumers.
However, there’s still plenty of room to explore the sexier side of veganism and promote both the mission and the taste, texture and satisfaction of the product. So, we believe that the next step for advertising partners is to think about how, when and where we can help vegan brands add some sizzle to all the substances. How do we make plant-based food and drinks not just appealing, but actively tempting? How do we elevate both the mission and the marketing? How do we do all of this without rehashing old, stale techniques to sell food that the industry has relied on for decades?
“There’s usually a strong directive from brands to ‘stay in category’ to meet consumer expectations, resulting in a lot of food-related ads using similar tropes,” says Catherine Millais, our Film Director and tabletop photography expert. “Think of dairy products being shot in morning light, the classic chocolatier stirring his melted chocolate, or ads highlighting a burger’s ingredients through slow-motion footage—usually with a male voice-over and masculine energy.”
In addition, Millais argues that there’s room for much more storytelling in the plant-based product space. “Older, more established brands rarely introduce themselves to consumers anymore,” she says. “Why should they? The legacy has already been established and the origin story has largely been told. We all know about Ray Kroc and McDonald’s. Newer brands, however, have a chance to introduce themselves and tell their brand story in engaging, inventive ways that weren’t available ten or more years ago.”
By adhering to traditional food advertising tropes, we’re missing important opportunities to market plant-based products as an entirely separate category. This is a chance to substitute standard practices for new, innovative ideas and swap masculine energy for gender-neutral joie de vivre—all to exceed and subvert consumer expectations.
Plant-based food brands represent a bold departure from a long-established norm. This is as true today as it was back when Donald Watson started his Vegan Society. In trying to appeal to a consumer base of both vegans and meat-eaters, we can’t afford to tread the same old paths and forget that boldness—this does a disservice to brands that strive to fulfill a mission, consumers that try to take a more conscious approach to food, and advertising partners that aim to connect them through meaningful marketing.
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