Alternative Proteins: Speaking to consumers

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The global food system is recalibrating in the wake of many factors, one of which is the increasing demand for traditional proteins, driven in large part by low-or-middle-income emerging markets in the Global South (see Alternative Proteins: What’s the deal?). What this has led to is the rise of a new category ‘Alternative Proteins’ encompassing everything from re-engineered plant-based legumes to lab-grown meats. The mushrooming of new brands in this category have been centered in the Global North, with some markets even reaching close to saturation point (read this to find out what all the hype is about). The market share is expected to change as the case for alternative proteins in the Global South gains traction.

At Sight and Life, we thought it would be interesting to study how some alternative protein brands have chosen to open conversations with their consumers in such a fresh, new category. It becomes easier to understand the way brands speak if one were to look at them through the archetype lens, providing the brand a more human feel. Similar to how fictional characters are written according to paradigms in order to help understand their actions, a brand archetype is a way of presenting a brand and define its symbology, values, behaviors, messages – as a persona, thus making it more recognizable and relatable to target audiences. We looked at the main sources of brand communications available to decode the semiotics – the official brand website, the major social media accounts, official digital/ television advertisements, if any, and digital banners.

Key messages:

– The novelty of the alternative proteins’ category allows for bold claims, bold brand names, bold imagery
– The current marketing is for a consumer higher up in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – looking for a greater sense of purpose to participate in, a future-forward perspective
– Improving the world is an often-cited end goal and functions as the gratification – the product sensory experience is not usually the show runner
– Most brands in this space tend to speak to the public the same way they would to an investor – however, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have evolved and struck up new conversations with the consumer

Innocent vs. Hero Archetype 

First, we looked at Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, both based out of the United States. Both these brands stand out as more evolved in their marketing to consumers in that they attempt to engage the consumer in a less technical and more emotional conversation. This strategy could be because both brands are available in retail and need to do more than highlighting the scientific angle to their products.

Take Impossible Foods, for instance. The brand talks about respecting the magical moments we celebrate (all in the company of good food), without harming the planet. Impossible Foods has set out on a mission to create ‘Paradise’, a world where everything and everyone lives in harmony. When it talks about its mission (#MissionEarth and #MissionImpossible), much of the brand imagery alludes to elements of an ideal world – happy adults, happy youth, happy children, happy creatures, happy trees, and a blue sky. If you pay attention to the brand’s vocabulary, you can see it is current, outspoken, and determined, and seems to speak to a younger audience – the millennials and Gen Z – fitting into the Innocent archetype. The Innocent is someone that dreams of the ideal, is an eternal optimist, and celebrates wholesomeness.

A screenshot of the Mission page on the brand’s website. Source: https://impossiblefoods.com/mission/

Impossible Foods is not just for vegetarians; it is for meat lovers and the environmentally conscious and the flexitarians who may be a bit of all three. It also spotlights its science story, the champion being ‘heme’ – this is what makes the meat ‘bleed’ and gives it the right texture and flavor. Impossible Foods celebrates great taste, as much as the lack of environmental repercussions – which is significant since it shows that it understands the consumer is ultimately tempted by indulgence and not delayed gratification, no matter how noble the cause. It works hard to lend a sense of purpose to the Impossible Foods consumer in a vibrant, cool way – pops of color, flat icons, catchy hashtags et al. On social media, you can see Impossible Foods stand up for causes that are outside of environmental concerns. The leadership team even writes on Medium.com, a popular online publishing platform. In short, the brand continues to leverage every opportunity and every channel to reach its target consumer.

Now, let’s look at Beyond Meat. This brand brings to mind the Hero archetype, looking to inspire others to do better, achieve more, truly test the limits, go beyond and not settle for the standard. The Hero is an archetype that strives for mastery, showing courage that improves the world and this is exemplified in Beyond Meat’s communication. For starters, the brand logo is a buffalo that’s wearing a cape. The Hero is all about action, and Beyond Meat is no exception.

Beyond Meat’s homepage featuring Kevin Hart as the Beyond Ambassador. Source: https://www.beyondmeat.com/

Most of the brand’s imagery is dark and grave – a great deal of black is used to convey the brand’s bold personality, and the green bits pop up in places for greater emphasis. Much of the copy in the brand’s videos and banners is serious or inspirational. Beyond Meat breaks down four main reasons to make meat from plants: improve human health, positively impact climate change, address global resource constraints, and improve animal welfare. It features well-known sports and television personalities who act as Beyond Ambassadors.

The Go Beyond page, which features inspiring stories from individuals and communities. Source: https://www.beyondmeat.com/go-beyond/

Here we see two brands communicating a sense of purpose to the consumer – Join #MissionImpossible or #GoBeyond. Impossible Foods does shine a spotlight on its all-star element, heme, assuring the consumer of an equally – if not more – fulfilling gastronomic experience. Still, the real hero is the consumer, who chooses to further this larger cause. Beyond Meat also places the responsibility on its consumer to challenge the status quo and find a better solution.

Talking Logic vs Talking Emotions

Let us now move to the last two brands we considered, which have not yet started speaking to consumers, but are looking to craft their identity. In Hong Kong, HK Avant Meats is a brand that has innovated the production of high quality, sustainable, and tasty fish products. The brand uses cell technology to harvest premium delicacies from our seas and oceans, without harming the water bodies. How well does the brand convey this to an outsider, a potential consumer? Based on the website, the brand’s vocabulary is currently more scientific and functional than emotional, with terms such as ‘cell technology’, ‘GMO-free’, ‘innovate’, ‘sustainable’ etc. There are two products under the Avant Meats banner – Avie and Zellulin. The imagery for both is opposite to the clinical environment the brand sets up on its homepage: Avie feels like a lifestyle brand for younger millennials while Zellulin cues a luxury category such as cosmetics or perfumes.

HK Avant Meats advertising samples for Avie and Zellulin.

Lastly, there is Clear Meat, a start-up from India. The brand is resting on scientific credentials at the moment and does not yet elaborate on product experience. If we were to delve into the semiotics here, we see the process is celebrated more than the end product. This message is also apparent as the brand speaks of gratification and the emphasis on the process continues to overshadow the product.

From even a glance as cursory as this, we can see that given the novelty of the conversation, brands run the risk of speaking to consumers the same way they would talk to a potential investor. The consumer that these brands are targeting (potentially targeting – in the case of the last two) is ahead of the curve, someone who is aligned to the brand’s journey and mission and advocates the cause and not the product alone. Such a consumer could appreciate the larger objective and may even be willing to compromise on indulgence. This leads us to question how alternative protein brands should be speaking to consumers in the Global South? Could we alter the manifestations of such archetypes such that they resonate with low-and-middle-income consumers? In the seesawing between purpose and indulgence, how much weight should each carry? Can the sense of purpose be made more personal and placed within the Global South consumer’s direct needs? And lastly, will the product be the hero, or should the consumer be the hero?

You might also ask, what is the nutritional value of these products? Read more about this subject matter in the next post in this series Alternative Proteins: The nutritionists perspective.

All graphics created by Sight and Life’s Architect and Design Specialist Anne Milan.