Mario Braz de Matos
Mar 21, 2024

Why plant-based proteins shouldn’t be marketed as ‘alternative’

Flying Fish Lab's Mario Braz de Matos has a few suggestions on how to make the plant-based protein industry more exciting for various demographics.

Why plant-based proteins shouldn’t be marketed as ‘alternative’

The first time I heard of meatless meat, I was excited to see what the food industry had in store for consumers. The 21st century has ushered in a new era of exploration when it comes to alternative food sources, with one standout being plant-based meat. Initially welcomed with great excitement by consumers, this innovative approach to nutrition introduced us to delights like the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger, which quickly found a place on fast-food menus. Consumers were intrigued by the taste, while newly minted vegetarians and vegans saw it as a more practical protein option.

In Asia, a region renowned for its diverse range of plant-based diets stemming from cultural influences, as well as soy and wheat gluten products like tempeh and seitan, plant-based protein has held a particularly significant role. In 2022, the region's investment in the plant-based protein industry reached an impressive total of US$372 million. Meanwhile, the US experienced exponential growth in the alternative-to-meat sector, thanks in large part to industry giants like Beyond Meat, whose successful public entry in 2019 sent ripples through the market.

Amid a promising market landscape, several trends have been impacting rising consumer interest in the space especially with the emergence of conscious eating. Social media has also played a pivotal role in driving the buzz around this new category and its influence will only drum up in the future. It has spread more awareness, galvanised audiences through campaigns and, as a hub for recipes and cooking inspiration, driven people to try it at home.

January or Veganuary? And the rise of flexitarians

What started as a crowdfunded campaign to get people to take up the challenge of eating vegan for a month has evolved into an annual movement and made international headlines. The beginning of the year always brings with itself renewed health goals. Thereon, ‘Veganuary’ captured hearts and stomachs of people worldwide where the phenomenon saw more than 700,000 officially signing up in 2023. The campaign's social media presence also continues to grow around the world with #Veganuary now gaining more than 1.9 million posts on Instagram. Elite athletes such as Lewis Hamilton (Formula 1) and Novak Djokovic (tennis) have embraced plant-based diets. London’s Unity Diner and Singapore's VeganBurg have received rave reviews for their imaginative vegan offerings.

Lately, there has been a notable rise in flexitarians. Many people are becoming increasingly health-conscious, recognising the benefits of reducing their meat and dairy consumption. Flexitarianism provides a middle ground, allowing individuals to prioritise whole, plant-based foods while still occasionally enjoying the flavours of animal products.

Isn’t it all about those who are eating meatless meat?

The way forward for the plant-based meat industry should be on prioritising a compelling position and increasing consumer appeal. While the sector has made remarkable strides in recent years, capturing the attention of health-conscious consumers hinges on how effectively it positions itself and appeals to a broader audience.

By shifting the narrative from ‘alternative’ to ‘choice’, plant-based proteins can become a preferred option rather than a fallback plan. This requires a repositioning effort that emphasises taste, quality, and health benefits, creating a proposition where products are not just ethical choices but delicious and nutritious ones too. Plant-based protein needs to focus on giving consumers a strong reason to be chosen that goes beyond being a substitute.

To expand beyond the current niche market, plant-based meats must cater to diverse palates and cultural preferences. By providing options that are not only delicious but also culturally relevant, the industry can tap into a broader consumer base, including meat-eaters who are looking to reduce their animal protein consumption.

As the offering secures more consumer purchases, affordability will gain from scale. In these days of inflation, affordability is an increasingly key aspect in driving consumer appeal. While plant-based meats have often been priced at a premium, making them more budget-friendly will undoubtedly attract a larger audience. Achieving economies of scale and streamlining production processes can help lower costs, making these products accessible to a wider demographic.

Will the industry start to consolidate in 2024?

The plant-based meat industry has experienced rapid growth and attracted numerous players, resulting in a crowded marketplace for such a small segment. As competition intensifies, some companies may struggle to differentiate themselves, leading to consolidation. Moreover, as consumer tastes evolve, companies that fail to meet changing preferences or adapt to emerging trends could face challenges. If certain plant-based protein products lose appeal or fail to deliver on taste and quality expectations, those companies may be at risk. As the industry matures, investors may become more discerning, demanding clearer paths to profitability and sustainable business models. Companies that cannot demonstrate a solid financial outlook may face challenges finding the resources necessary to grow and compete effectively.

Currently, with a slump in investments and lagging sales, the plant-based meat industry is at a crossroads. Over the last year, the plant-based meat industry has battled a tighter capital market and those who have IPOs have faced stock declines. Beyond Meat’s stock price went down approximately 90% from its initial offerings and 97% off its peak in the July of 2019. Which might lead us to ask if going public is even the right route for plant-based meat companies since the sector’s dismal performance in capital markets can be attributed to it being not ready for a stock market which is heavily driven by investor sentiments. If a product is not a household name, IPOs are not a good way to establish it.

Some are taking lesser-known routes like tying up with school caterers who are trying to lower the carbon footprint of their menus, while still keeping children excited at mealtimes.

Finding its identity

In a world where authenticity is highly valued, following an existing path and trying to imitate something that you are not can be counterproductive. Rather than labelling themselves as ‘substitutes’, these products should embrace their distinctiveness.

It didn’t work for Unilever when they tried to market margarine products as direct ‘butter substitutes’. After years of milking their brands and failing to escape the ‘butter substitute’ trap of the category, Unilever ultimately faced failure and decided to divest the portfolio. Upfield, the company that stepped in to take over, achieved success in the same venture. The key difference? Upfield refused to be confined by industry norms; instead, they broke free from those constraints and forged their unique identity—as plant-based spreads. This serves as an example of how innovation can be stifled when a groundbreaking idea is hemmed in by the very conventions it seeks to revolutionise.

While the plant-based protein sector may not have fully met initial expectations, it holds immense unexplored potential. Innovative leaders and changemakers have the opportunity to redefine the value of plant-based protein, heralding a promising future for this category.

Mario Braz de Matos is the co-founder and managing partner at Flying Fish Lab.

Campaign Asia

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