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Plant-based food brands need to prioritize emotion over function

Plant-based foods have already won over people who aren’t eating meat for ideological reasons. To expand its consumer base, it needs to try something else.

Plant-based food brands need to prioritize emotion over function
[Images: Lubushka/iStock, olgaserova/iStock]

From Oatly to Impossible Burgers, the plant-based sector is booming, with some analysts predicting its value at $74.2 billion by 2027. Once a niche space, it’s now attracting multinationals like Nestlé and global investors like Blackstone. But as the sector grows, so too does its consumer base, bringing with it more diverse needs and desires than those of early buyers.

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According to Mintel, in North America and Europe 7% of food and drink companies have launched products with a vegan claim in the last five years, rising to 12% in the past 12 months. With consumers demanding a range of products that offer both health and environmental benefits, the trend toward vegan innovation is expected to increase. But it’s not just vegans who are buying these products—almost half of U.S. plant-based protein consumers are adding them for variety in their meals, not as a result of a principled diet.

Consumers are demanding different types, formats, and sources of plant-based protein innovation for realistic alternatives to meat and dairy products. The high uptake of burger substitutes, for instance, has helped brands such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods become more accessible and mainstream, with both brands adopted—with varying success—by the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King. Plant-based milk products have had a similar upswing in popularity, and options such as oat, nut, or soy milk are now commonplace at global chains and local coffee shops alike.

[Images: Allevinatis/iStock, olgaserova/iStock]
But with so many options now appearing in stores, positioning that focuses on being “plant-based” as its anchor message doesn’t have the same cut-through as it once did. When the category was novel, designers and brand strategists could bet on making a product recognizably plant-based or vegan through the use of neutral colorways and textures, and the emphasis of visuals that reflect goodness and nature. But now that plant-based products have found their way into the baskets of meat-eating shoppers, this common visual language is less effective.

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So, what can brands in this category do to ensure they are communicating with consumers in a disruptive and memorable way?

Go beyond the dominant category cues

Oatly was one of the first to try and move past these dominant cues of “goodness,” injecting a recognizably rebellious personality into its brand while maintaining a few of the softer design cues associated with being plant-based. Where other, traditional, plant-based brands had focused on natural, earthy colorways, Oatly broke the norms with a moodier, gray palette that imbued the brand with more attitude than the category had previously seen.

Also notably divergent for the category are the graphic taglines such as “Wow, No Cow!” and “Post-milk generation,” which adorn Oatly’s cartons, sitting alongside comic manifestos touching on the company’s work and environmental mission. Designed to be witty and often tongue-in-cheek, this packaging directly opposes the “preachy vegan” stereotype.

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Don’t let the product story drive your brand

Brand Opus, where I work, recently partnered with Nestlé to launch its new pea-based milk alternative, Wunda. Like all good superheroes, the brand is on a “mission” to make plant-based, sustainable food choices enjoyable and accessible for everyone. Instead of relying on its pea product to inspire the naming—a convention quite often adopted by brands within the category—Wunda leverages a distinctive superhero personality to build a more disruptive narrative that transcends its ingredients. Paired with a caped logo, it’s a symbolic story that audiences can connect with on a subconscious level.

This approach has similarly been adopted by Rude Health, whose name is reflective of the no-nonsense—and no additives—attitude it adopts for the creation of all of its products, from cereals to milk alternatives. Its red-lipsticked mouth icon adds to the symbolic story of walking the talk and cutting through the noise, encouraging consumers to buy into its attitude just as much as they buy into the taste and mission of the product.

Engage on an emotional level, beyond category

With 47% of young Americans 24 to 39 years old identifying themselves as flexitarians, plant-based options are no longer the quirky dietary choice, but have become a normal part of a healthy lifestyle. As such, designs that attract the lifestyle shopper on an emotional level will open themselves up to a broader audience. These consumers focus on pleasure, taste, and enjoyment, and don’t necessarily rely on supermarket shelves to divide their dietary choices.

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There is a lot to be learned from the approach being taken in the U.K. market in this regard. Brands like Temple of Seitan (a vegan fast-food chain across London) have built a cult following based on evoking the feeling in consumers of being part of a community that isn’t defined by a belief in plant-based but rather a shared emotional experience. In the U.S., plant-based chicken nugget brand Nuggs’s irreverent identity, steeped in internet and meme-culture, enables it to compete directly with meat-based nugget brands instead of just others in the plant-based category. By tapping into cultures and communities outside of plant-based, these brands have set themselves up to mean more to consumers—driving loyalty and future growth anchored in feeling over function.


Louise de Ste. Croix is the head of growth at Brand Opus.

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