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These plant-based food companies are rebranding to target meat eaters—and it’s working

How do you convince people who are neither vegetarian nor vegan to buy plant-based food? Stop reminding people that there’s no meat, for starters.

These plant-based food companies are rebranding to target meat eaters—and it’s working

I’ve been a meat eater my whole life. But recently I went to my local burger joint with the goal of trying the latest craze in protein: plant-based meat. I ordered an Impossible Burger and a Beyond Burger and was delighted to find that the hype is mostly true. Both of the burgers, while not quite the same as the best juicy patties I’ve had in my life, were still pretty damn good.

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I’m part of a growing group of consumers that plant-based meat companies are racing to win over: Omnivores, or people who buy both meat- and plant-based foods. These people traditionally aren’t the ones ordering veggie burgers or buying egg substitute at the market. But times are changing. In 2015, the World Health Organization proclaimed that red meat and processed meat were carcinogens that increase your risk of cancer, especially if you eat them daily. Besides helping you stay healthy, reducing your meat intake also has a positive impact on the planet: Producing meat requires about 20 times more emissions than producing the same caloric amount of beans, and some researchers believe that cutting down on meat consumption is necessary for the planet to have a chance of meeting emission reduction goals. It’s no wonder that plant-based foods have exploded in popularity, with sales of plant-based protein growing 23% between August 2017 and 2018 according to Nielsen. Even big food companies are getting on board.

But to appeal to conscious omnivores—people who may eat meat, but are actively trying to reduce their intake of it, whether for health reasons, environmental reasons, or because of animal cruelty—instead of only vegetarians, companies have taken a new approach to branding plant-based foods. This makes good business sense, since 92% of all plant-based meals were eaten by people who aren’t vegan, according to the market research company Kantar Insights. It’s a much more lucrative market to tap into than the approximately 8% of Americans who are vegan or vegetarian.

[Photo: courtesy Sal]

For example, take the small Brazilian plant-based food startup that used to be called Vegan Já (which roughly translates to “vegan now”). It recently rebranded to de-emphasize that its food is all vegan in an attempt to appeal to more people, particularly in its home market of Brazil, where eating meat is an entrenched part of the culture.

Now, it’s called Beleaf, and the company’s packaging and identity—created by the Brazilian design firm Marcas Com Sal—don’t have any of the stereotypical references that often accompany vegan food, like earthy, natural tones. Instead, the designers at Sal created an identity that’s based on humor and bright, bold color.

“We tried not to use a lot of the ‘nos’,” says Leticia Pettena, a partner at Marcas Com Sal, referencing the way that vegan food often has labels emphasizing what it doesn’t include. “We tried to make the brand say more yes. That’s what we realized. People who eat meat were fed up with being told they were eating wrong.”

[Photo: courtesy Sal]

Similarly, the U.S.-based brand Just, which makes plant-based eggs, ditched its stereotypical vegan branding—like a logo featuring a plant and the heavy use of earthy brown—that it had featured in the past in favor of simple, bold packaging.

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“We’ve been down that road in the past and sure, it creates a homegrown, nostalgic, organic feel, but it immediately sets you apart,” says Jordan Viola, Just’s head of brand marketing and design. “People who are not looking for that glaze over it, and you miss the opportunity to tell your story to a broader audience.”

[Photo: Just]

That’s why Viola moved Just away from that aesthetic and toward the company’s current identity: The company’s Just Egg product, which launched in August 2018 and is now rolling out to retail stores and restaurants nationwide, has a clear bottle with the company’s logo, and a small amount of text clarifying that the “egg” is in fact not real egg.

“The only way to appeal to the masses is to be as simple and straightforward as we can,” Viola says. “It’s pulling from a more traditional, international, Swiss design style that’s all about clear communication, simple graphics, simple photography, that’s free of excess pattern and graphics and using color in an effective way but not overdoing it.”

[Photo: Just]

So far, it seems to have worked. According to data from the retail data company SPINS that Just shared with Fast Company, Just Egg has become the No. 1–selling liquid egg product, beating out eggs from chickens.

Just has also been pushing to be merchandised right next to all the eggs, not siloed in a part of the store where only vegans and vegetarians go. “It has a huge impact in terms of how many people will choose it off the menu or shelves when it’s positioned that way as a product for everyone, versus a niche or specialized product in the vegan corner,” says Daniel Scharff, who heads up consumer insights for Just.

For Beyond Meat—which became one of the most successful plant-based food companies after its historic IPO—where the company’s products live in the store is also vital to reaching omnivores. Will Schafer, the company’s head of marketing, remembers that it was the Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado, that first decided to put the company’s flagship product, the Beyond Burger, in the meat case. The decision impacted the way he thought about branding the Beyond Burger: “We thought about how we wanted to evoke everything we liked about meat,” he says. “So you have a style of package and font and communication that emphasizes all the positive sides of meat: The amount of protein, and the look of the product.”

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[Photo: Beyond Meat]
To show people how the Beyond Burger’s patty looked just like the meat they were used to—and eating it wouldn’t mean that they’d have to sacrifice on taste—Schafer decided that the burger would be displayed just like other meat is, with see-through packaging. “The packaging is designed to showcase that raw red patty that really looks a lot like a typical burger, what people are used to,” he says.

It’s worked. Schafer says that in summer 2018, the company looked at the data for customer loyalty cards at some of the retailers that Beyond Meat sells in. “We realized 93% of people buying Beyond Burgers were people who also put meat in their basket,” he says. “That was hugely validating for us in terms of our ambition to appeal to meat-loving consumers.”

[Photo: Burger King]

Retailers are also leaning into the kind of marketing that emphasizes just how similar new plant-based meat products are to the real thing. When Burger King decided to carry the Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat’s primary competitor, the chain made a telling decision: To bestow on the new burger the name of Burger King’s flagship brand.

“One of the things that was really important was for the product to bear the Whopper name,” says Chris Finazzo, the head of Burger King’s Americas operations. “We felt that it really needed to live up to expectations around taste and flavor. And Impossible really delivered on that.”

The Impossible Whopper is marketed with the same kind of droolworthy photography that accompanies any fast-food chain’s meat burgers. The tagline, “0% Meat. 100% Whopper,” underlines Finazzo’s desire to convey to consumers that this burger is going to taste just as good as the meat burgers they’re accustomed to. And so far, Finazzo says, the Impossible Whopper has been a success. He says that 90% of Burger King customers that have bought the product also consume meat, while only a small percentage are true vegans or vegetarians.

For these plant-based companies, trying to appeal to as many people as possible is just good business. And so far, that means designing packaging that makes sure people know that plant-based protein isn’t just for vegans and vegetarians.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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