Fast Co: Tastemaking for Tomorrow
Feeding a planet of 10B people sustainably isn’t going to be easy. But, new protein alternatives will make it possible.
We recently shared our thoughts on emerging brand strategies and stories with our friends at Fast Company. Read the long form version of our article below.
While investment and product optimization are crucial to scale, companies must also consider the power of storytelling. It is a key factor in accelerating their move from niche to mainstream.
With a global population projected to reach 10B in 2050, the truth is that protein alternatives are necessary to meet our future needs in a more sustainable way. The only question is how fast brand storytelling can help make their mass adoption happen.
Good brand stories can make the unknown appear familiar and translate confusing complexity into clear choices by introducing a better way forward and making new ideas easier to connect with.
This means getting a few things just right: a good brand story must spark intrigue, propose a better option in order to drive trials, and ultimately, build trust and fuel evangelism. This is especially true for emerging food companies trying to move alternative-protein offerings from fringe appetizers to mainstream meals.
- Alt-Protein (Alternative Protein) is a rapidly growing category of new protein choices, ranging from plant-based meat substitutes to cell-cultivated and lab-grown meats.
By now,¹ about half of Americans are aware of plant-based meat products, more than 41% have tried them, and U.S. retail sales are up 40% at an estimated $1.8B slice of $4.2B global sales (2020).²
Food is highly personal and often intimately linked to our sense of self. Whether it’s flavor flashbacks from our childhood, community bonding over shared preferences, or culinary horizons explored while traveling, the memories connected to food can sustain us through an entire lifetime.
That’s why changing our eating habits may be as hard as changing the way we think about ourselves.
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 new ideas) and connect with the ‘Early Majority’ to reach the tipping point of mass adoption.
For alternative protein brands, these are flexitarians: the swing voters who are aware of the issue, on the lookout for new options, and more open to switching their habits than omnivores and carnivores. They represent a rapidly expanding segment4 and tend to be more conscious of the health, ethical, and environmental implications of their diet.5 They can be seen as the ‘Early Majority’ because their conversion will signal ‘Late Majority’ customers to follow them.
- Health: I’m always on the lookout for better ways to eat. I want to feed my family with foods that taste great and support our health.
- Environmental Concerns: I like eating beef, but I lose my appetite when I think about the environmental costs of mass farming. I’m looking for a way to reduce my carbon footprint.
- Animal Welfare: I’ve always been a meat-eater, but learning about how factory farming treats animals is starting to weigh on my conscience.
- Revolution: I’m fed up with the way food gets on our table and want to make a difference by changing things up.
- Curiosity: I’m curious how the taste and texture stacks up against the real deal. If it’s really all that good, I might make the switch.
- Taste: I crave great taste and meat has it. I wish there were a way to have it more often and still feel great about it.
The motivations for shifting eating habits, whether towards plant-based meat substitutes or cell-cultured meats, will be a weighted mix of the above and largely depend on which fragment of the adoption curve your ideal tipping point customers come from.
A second, critical element of brand storytelling that wins over swing voters is how emerging categories are named. Getting this right influences where customers place new ideas in their minds—the name alternative protein is arguably not there yet. Consider clean energy against the implied dirty energy, smartphones, homes, and cars against dumb technology, wealth management against banking, and life sciences against pharmaceuticals.
The best category names positively juxtapose or elevate commonly used categories to make relating to new offerings easier. There is still an ongoing linguistic evolution in the emerging world of alternative protein based on research, debate, and lobbying for standardized product messaging, which makes things more complicated.
- “Plant-Based Meat,” which describes protein made with purely plant-based ingredients, is emerging as a more widely accepted juxtaposition to animal meat (although, the state of Texas recently blocked the use of “meat” or “beef” on labels of plant-based foods).
- “Clean Meat” was initially used to refer to lab-grown animal proteins (in contrast to the implied unsustainably farmed meat), but has unsurprisingly encountered pushback from the legacy meat industry.
- “Cell-Cultured/Cultivated Meat” is gaining popularity as a less provocative descriptor with consensus from the industry association.
‘Plant-based meats’ and ‘cultured meats’ appear to be the leading contenders (for now). But, perhaps the term ‘meat’ itself could eventually be evolved to become more inclusive of a variety of sources.
It’s worth getting this right—not just as a single brand, but as a collective of companies working towards a category kickoff. New names can’t gain currency until they become more broadly adopted and commonly used by enough customers.
Fresh, delicious “protees,” anyone?
Companies also need to reconsider how to frame their brand stories against a wider context. A few notable brands do this well. Impossible’s initial narrative positioned itself as a way for people to participate in a mission that seemed both utopian and impossible: Eat Meat, Save Earth. Having won over many flexitarians, the brand is now attempting to shift the weight of its story with its first national, mainstream ad campaign, Meat Eaters Only. The campaign proudly and unapologetically seeks to turn the conventional idea that delicious meat must come from animals on its head. “Meat, but made from plants” is its repeated mantra.
Beyond Meat, meanwhile, acts as the “future of protein” by using a story that projects a “soft revolution” movement of everyday heroes making bold choices. The brand connects with people by inspiring and inviting them to dream big and go beyond—beyond eating the expected, that is.
Unlike mass cow farming, chicken meat production has a significantly lower carbon footprint, which is why some of the emerging plant-based chicken brands lean into ethical concerns around animal welfare as part of their brand story.
- UK-based VFC (Vegan Fried Chicken) built a provocative brand identity that showcased the horror stories of chicken farming and proposed a positive act of rebellion against a broken system: sitting down and eating deep-fried, vegan chicken that’s “big on taste and big on impact.” The brand’s guerilla-style chicken claw logo, social media trolling tactics, and unique brand voice help it connect with those who can equate eating differently as an act against the dark side of chicken farming.
- In contrast, Daring Foods (confusingly positioned as “the opposite of chicken”) takes a less rebellious, softer stance. Weaving a story more inspirational than shocking, the brand dares people to try bold, positive choices that remove chicken from the table “bite by bite.” Its brand identity leans into the more expected vernacular of good-for-you foods that connect with the younger customers at the heart of flexitarians.
- Simulate’s NUGGS, “the Tesla of Chicken Nuggets,” is using attention-grabbing tactics of an entirely different kind. Positioned as the “most advanced chicken nugget on the planet,” the brand’s story is built around being a software-based simulation of the real thing. The brand’s space-flight brand identity, technology references, and ironic voice focuses on a superior taste experience while staying conspicuously clear of mass farming shock tactics, inspirational utopias, or health benefit claims.
- Quorn (quirkily named after a village in the UK, not corn as an ingredient) is a brand with a wide range of mushroom, or mycoprotein, based meat alternatives. Quorn is a global brand that has been around for 30 years. So, while it probably can’t be called emerging anymore, mycoproteins are still an unfamiliar alternative to soy or pea-based plant proteins. With a broad brand story and an identity designed to resonate with mainstream families, it’s not trying to be chicken or beef-like, but instead a convenient choice of “nutritious protein for you and the planet.” This potentially more powerful but narrow story around performance enhancement, as told by their #fueledbyquorn influencer athletes, doesn’t resonate well in this context.
- Field Roast, an artisanal brand, tells a story of flavor discovery backed by culinary craftsmanship. With a heritage-oriented logomark, the use of black and gold premium cues, “Flavor Trailblazer” verbiage, and endorsements from culinary luminary Roy Choi, Field Roast signals the quality and choice that flexitarians may be looking to experiment with.
It will be the flexitarians, in tandem with the carnivores, who present the biggest tipping point opportunity for lab-grown meat brands.
As science and innovation in service of cell-cultivated proteins gather pace, 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 $350M, nearly doubling all previously made investments. Meanwhile, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has urged that the world makes more use of insect protein.
But, just because it is now possible to cultivate chicken, beef, or seafood in a lab, doesn’t mean that these options are appetizing to everyone. Mainstream customers won’t automatically consider them the better alternative over grass-fed or wild-caught originals. And, even though insect protein is having a moment, barriers of adoption are still significant. Just as Impossible and Beyond Meat 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.
As these offerings start to move out of labs, past regulators, and onto the shelves, they will present new choices to those who value the authentic taste experience of meat but are looking to offset the negative side effects of mass farming.
An estimated 70 startups across the globe are currently working to bring cell-cultivated meats to the table in the coming years. While most products are still in the prototyping phase, we can already see an emerging positioning spectrum: From “real meat—minus the negative impact” to “modern, natural meat—positive upside only.”
- GOOD Meat, positioned as “real meat, made without tearing down a forest or taking a life,” is aptly named in juxtaposition to (well, you guessed it) bad meat. With a long but artfully told story that takes us from our ancestors cultivating jungle birds to the negative impact of mass farming to the Anthropocene, the company is preparing the ground for a new cult-following around lab-grown chicken meat. After receiving the world’s first regulatory approval, it is the first brand to be available for sale in restaurants in Singapore, a future-oriented city-state focused on attracting new talent, tech, and investments in this space.
- Upside Foods, recently re-named to signal meat with all the upside and none of the negatives, is slowly emerging from the lab with a new brand positioned as real, delicious meat that’s better for you and the world.
- Meatable, a Dutch company working on launching cell-cultivated meats, is cleverly positioning its offering as the “new natural” meat alongside imagery of verdant pastures and happy cows, implying that our current state of meat production is highly unnatural and unhealthy.
Clever brand storytelling builds bridges into the future by balancing futuristic appeal with familiar approachability and compelling you to give it a try (driverless vehicle brand Waymo, for example, signals technical sophistication that’s familiar and friendly). This strategy can help signal a radical departure from old ways of doing things while still fitting into your everyday life with an easy stretch (think acceptance of AI assistants at scale).
It will take creativity, curiosity, and commitment to evolve our system to better feed our planet’s growing population.
We are still in the early days of this systemic and much-needed transition. Its speed and success will greatly depend on how well alternative protein pioneers can make their offerings and stories palatable, bringing the tipping point customers (and then, the rest of the world) to the table.
This is the long form version of a recent article published by our friends at Fast Company.
At Landscape, we found ourselves wondering how alternative proteins stack up against the real deal. To find out, our team taste-tested nearly 30 of the industry’s favorite brands—all in one afternoon. The results are in.
(P.S. We’re still waiting to eat our way through cell-cultivated meats, which we hope to try in 2022.)