It’s fair to say that nobody was ever successfully guilt-tripped into becoming a vegetarian. Most of us know that collectively changing our diets and eating less meat are key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change. But no matter how compelling the argument, broader mainstream adoption of alternative proteins is still a ways off.
While there are technical hurdles to overcome in order to produce alternative protein at scale, companies must also consider the power of storytelling if they want to accelerate the move from niche to mainstream.
With a global population projected to reach 10 billion in 2050, new protein alternatives are necessary to meet our future needs in a more sustainable way. The good news is that technological innovation in both plant-based proteins and lab-grown animal proteins is accelerating. But growing production capabilities do not equal a growing appetite for mass adoption. Shifting habits toward new alternatives will be more complex than just serving up something new.
Tapping the tipping point
So what does it take to translate emergent ideas into mainstream movements? First, companies need to understand what audience they should be aiming for. They need to bridge beyond “innovators” and “early adopters” (who already love these new ideas) and connect with the “early majority” to reach the tipping point of mass adoption. For alt-protein brands, these are the flexitarians, the “swing voters” who are aware of the issue, on the lookout for new options, and more open to switching their habits than full-blown carnivores.
One element of brand storytelling, critical in winning over swing voters, is how emerging categories are named. Getting this right can influence where customers place new alternatives in their minds—”alternative proteins” as a category name is arguably not there yet. The best category names make it easier to relate to new offerings. They do this by either positively juxtaposing commonly-used categories (think “clean energy” versus the implied “dirty” old energy industry, or “smart” phones against “dumb” tech), or by elevating them (“wealth management” versus “banking”; “life sciences” versus “pharma”).
There’s still an ongoing linguistic evolution in the emerging world of alternative proteins, and “plant-based meats” and “cultured meats” appear the leading contenders—for now. But eventually, perhaps, the term “meat” itself could be evolved to make it more inclusive of a variety of sources, plant- or cell-based. Why not even coin an entirely new word? Fresh, delicious “protees,” anyone?
It’s worth getting this right. Not just as a single brand but as a collective of companies working toward mass adoption. Positively framed categories help customers better understand and make choices in unfamiliar territory.
Meet the new meats
Against that wider context, companies also need to reconsider how to frame their brand stories. A few notable brands do this well. Impossible’s initial narrative positioned it as a way for people to participate in a mission that seemed both utopian and impossible: the taste and satisfaction of meat, while doing your bit to save the earth. Having won over many flexitarians, the brand is now attempting to shift the weight of its story with its first national, mainstream “Meat Eaters Only” ad campaign. It unapologetically seeks to turn on its head the conventional idea that delicious meat must come from animals. “Meat, but made from plants,” is its repeated mantra.
Beyond Meat, meanwhile, positions itself as the “Future of Protein,” using a story that projects a growing “soft revolution” of everyday heroes making bold choices. The brand connects with people via inspiration, inviting them to dream big and go beyond—beyond eating the expected.
These brands lead the way, but most other plant-based meat offerings are still focused too narrowly on a small audience of veggie-loving early adopters. Emerging brands need to develop more tailored narratives that tap into the broader and more promising audience of flexitarians. They must move beyond the good versus bad, history versus future, cruel versus kind, daring versus set-in-your-ways framing. They need to adopt messaging that does not contrast but includes, that does not alienate but moves flexitarians toward the better choice.
For example, the rapid rise of hard seltzers drew in younger customers, not by pitching itself directly against competitor categories (aka beer), but through conveying more contemporary notions of wellness and health, social fun, and greater diversity (both of flavors and people).
Telling a different story
As the science and innovation around alternative proteins gather steam, a focus on tailored narratives becomes ever more important. In 2013, the first cell-cultivated meat burger was lab-made in the Netherlands. Last year, cell-cultivated chicken was approved for human consumption for the first time in Singapore. In 2020, investments in the cultured meats sector topped $350 million, nearly doubling all previously made investments. Meanwhile, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has urged that the world makes more of the “underutilized” resource of insect protein.
But just because it is now technically possible to cultivate chicken, beef, or seafood in a lab, it doesn’t make them immediately appetizing to everyone. Mainstream customers won’t automatically consider them the better alternative over the grass-fed/wild-caught originals. And even though insect protein is having a moment, barriers to adoption are still significant. Just as Impossible and Beyond used clever narratives to drive plant-based meat alternatives, lab-cultivated brands need to establish their animal proteins as the new—and naturally better—normal.
Alternative protein companies need to effect behavioral change that’s deeper and more complex than just getting people to use smartphones, say, or stream their entertainment. What we eat is personal, linked to our sense of self, and has been tested and tried over lifespans. So it will take radical innovation (and an equally radical approach to storytelling) to bring the tipping-point customers—and then the rest of the world—to the table.
Frank H. Vial is the director of strategy at Landscape, a boutique brand strategy and design studio shaping structure and surface in service of social good.