“I just attended the Future Food-Tech Summit and am still rebounding from the incredible amount of innovation, leadership, and technological advancements that were brought the virtual table last Thursday and Friday,” says Elysabeth Alfano, vegan media star and MD of vegconomist North America.
While I have a solid foundational understanding about cutting edge fermentation, cellular agricultural and personalized nutrition through AI from hosting The Plantbased Business Hour, I was thrilled to dive into each of these areas more. When not learning about new products, such as the snack bar that can relieve your stress, I spent a good chunk of my time in the plant-based products sessions and roundtables, including leading a roundtable on behalf of vegconomist.
What came to the fore for me in my talks with entrepreneurs, scientists and brand leaders is that now is a moment of pause for global plant-based brands as they realize: uh oh, being plant-based is not enough.
One Product Scientist of a global brand lamented that their company had put forth a plant-based product, but in the end, their ingredients list is the same as other products, so they aren’t sure how to position themselves. A novel protein supplier wondered if the protein-driven consumer would ever accept their ingredient in plant-based products.
Indeed, many large-scale companies have placed their bets at the plant-based card table, only to find out that it is going to take a bit more finesse than perhaps initially bargained for. Clearly, what worked for Beyond Meat a few years ago, won’t work for brands entering the marketplace today.
In response, here is what I shared in my roundtable and at other summit discussions: five take-away tips for focusing on brand identity to carve out a profitable niche in the growing plant-based marketplace.
1. Going Up
Yes, more brands are entering the plant-based marketplace, but with the global meat business at $1.4T, the plant-based sector is by no means a packed elevator. That said, as more players enter the arena, brands need to differentiate themselves and hone-in on their who, what and why.
Plant-based / veganism isn’t a fad, but sometimes global brands, particularly if they aren’t mission aligned, can treat the category as a fad, quickly labeling something ‘plant-based’ or ‘blended’ in hopes of getting in on the action.
The consumer can smell a copycat a mile away. And this is a good thing. Don’t be Beyond Meat, be better than Beyond Meat. Find your whitespace. There’s still lots of room to carve out your space and get on the elevator going up.
2. An Existential Crisis
Focus, focus, focus on how your brand adds value to the marketplace and what makes it different. Focus on why you made this product and its reason for being. And remember, the brand can’t be everything to everyone and plant-based products don’t have to be a catch-all for every world issue.
Does your brand have a clean label? Is it a delicious treat that is kind to the planet? A novel protein? Nutritious? Fiber-packed? If you are a supplier to plant-based products, this applies to you, as well.
Focus deeply on the product’s strength to stand apart and own your territory. In addition, the better you define your product’s assets, the easier it will be to formulate a communication strategy and definitively reach your target. Again, this holds true for plant-based suppliers as they work to supply brands with novel proteins and potentially co-educate the consumer on the benefits of same.
We aren’t at the point of a communication strategy just yet, however. There is more to do.
3. Focus, Damn It!
Once establishing the brand’s solid strengths, you must again focus, focus, focus on brand identity. Have a POV and a moral compass and boldly support them. What does the brand stand for? Does it have a sense of sense of humor? What joke would it tell at a party? What would it wear on a Saturday? Drill down to the most intimate levels of the brand personality and let this inform your packaging, messaging and ad campaigns.
Yes, ad campaigns. While it isn’t a crowded marketplace, to quote Peter Link, one of the founders of vegconomist, “Viral is no longer enough. The hype was over when the first movers in the market, such as Beyond Meat, got worldwide coverage through regular PR.”
Further, once major brands start spending on advertising (also Beyond Meat), the gig is up. To stay in the game, competing brands must dedicate a budget to consistent, long-term, multi-platform campaigns, executing a tight communications strategy.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We still aren’t ready to let our communication strategy, freak-flag fly.
4. We Move As One
From the CEO to the Communications Department to your outside Communications Strategist, everyone has to embody the message.
Internal communications within the company can be as important as external communications for ensuring that the whole brand/company moves forward with a consistent and committed message. Why? Because increasingly people don’t only buy brands, they buy brands from companies and the people behind them.
More than ever, consumers hold brands and companies to authentic accountability, and they want to know who they are supporting with their dollars. It is important to have a solid and unified corporate culture and mean it. This, too, is a communication strategy benefit because even the best of brands can be derailed by internal company struggles or any part of company inauthenticity.
5. Power To the People
We start here and we end here. Of course, serving consumers by giving them something they want and need that they don’t already have is indeed the what and why of number one.
Now armed with the product what and why, a Brand Identity, and a unified company culture, you can take the product for a spin, testing it with consumers. Focus groups, consumer insight research and taste tests, soon to be direct mail into homes I am told, will help you understand how your product delivers, tweaking as needed.
It is important to cross the “t” and dot the “i” – so this part of consumer research is vital for both brands and suppliers. Don’t skimp on your bet at the plant-based card table by skipping this step.
There is no magic potion with plant-based. Tried and true marketing principals and communications strategies still apply. What has changed is the growing demand for these products – from the healthy to the decadent, from the environmentally upright to the environmentally novel – and the consumer’s willingness to do their homework, read the labels, demand socially responsible products in environmentally safe packaging from socially responsible companies, all while expecting taste, price and convenience.
Be ready. Be creative and Focus. There’s room at the plant-based card table and it’s an exciting time to have a hand in the game.
Elysabeth Alfano is a Communications Consultant, Consulting Managing Director of vegconomist, North America and the host of the Plantbased Business Hour.