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Marketing challenge: how can you get the world excited about plant-based food?


From flexitarians to vegans: people's interest in plant-based food is growing. Despite compelling reasons such as the health benefits, animal welfare and building a better world, it remains difficult to get the general public excited about these products. Whatever your personal position may be, it is an interesting problem from a marketing perspective.

One of the organisations that possesses global knowledge of plant-based food and knows what it takes to get as many people as possible excited about these products is ProVeg International. From Asia to the US and Europe: the food awareness non-profit organisation takes a variety of actions on different continents. It knows what it takes to get brands, retailers and policy makers on board.

One of the most important tools are the various surveys that ProVeg regularly conducts in collaboration with various partners, says co-founder Veerle Vrindts. "The majority of the Dutch population says it is important to them to eat more plant-based food (72%). 28% believes it will be possible to adopt a fully plant-based diet in the future."In today's society, it proves to be quite a challenge to translate your good intentions into concrete action, Vrindts continues. "This has to do with a number of factors: the products found on supermarket shelves, availability, taste and social pressure that complicates things. The plant-based choice is therefore usually not the easy choice. Additionally, price is a key factor: many plant-based products cost more than animal products."

Communication plays an important role in clarifying the benefits of plant-based products, Vrindts says. "For example, we know that it helps to provide insight into how much of a difference you are making by buying a specific product. On the packaging, for example."Vrindts and her team can tell just how much of a motivational effect this information has thanks to the ProVeg Veggie Challenge. "The challenge consists of the choice to adopt a flexitarian, vegetarian or fully plant-based (vegan) diet for thirty days. During that time, many users come to realise that eating plant-based food is easier and tastier than they previously believed."

Veerle Vrindts

Saving animal lives
What also helps is that the personal overview in the Veggie Challenge App shows you just how many animal lives and how much water, land and CO2 you are saving, based on your menu. "This shows people at a glance that their new diet is having a concrete impact on the world, which serves as a powerful motivator." Recently, it became possible to take on this challenge as a group, the ProVeg founder continues. "Doing this together with your friends, colleagues or sports buddies has an even stronger motivational effect. In just a few days, you have offset the impact of a flight from Amsterdam to Paris together. We stimulate the companies with whom we are collaborating on this to also offer plant-based choices in their cafeterias."

National Week without Meat and Dairy
In the same vein as the Veggie Challenge, the National Week without Meat and Dairy (7-13 March) serves as another wonderful jumping-off point. Founder Isabel Boerdam explains: "We started in 2018 and in our best year so far, we had 2.4 million people joining in. During that year, 46% of the Dutch population had heard of the campaign. That was in 2020. We saw a slight decline in 2021 as a result of the coronavirus. It has a long-term impact as well: half of the participants say they have permanently reduced their meat consumption."

The fact that Boerdam was able to get major supermarket chains on board from the very beginning has made it significantly easier to reach out to a wide audience and lower the threshold for the mainstream."It did take quite a bit of effort to get all those supermarkets to join in. As more and more people begin to realise that this has real social relevance, it has become much easier to form such partnerships." 

Isabel Boerdam

Marketing calendar
These days, the event is a fixture on the marketing calenders of major parties such as Albert Heijn. "They promote it with recipes in Allerhande magazine, special bonus promotions and online attention. In doing so, they promote plant-based alternatives in different ways and let people know just how fun, delicious, easy and affordable it can be to include these products in their diet." In addition to retailers, major brands and their product ranges are important to get the general public excited about eating more plant-based products. ProVeg was able to convince major brands such as New York Pizza and HEMA of the importance of offering vegan products. Vrindts: "Five years ago, we were told there was no demand for such products. In response, we called on our community to let major brands such as HEMA know that this demand did in fact exist. That helped a lot," Vrindts says. "HEMA decided to introduce a vegan apple pie, for example. It has been flying off the shelves ever since. The positive impact on sales figures was immediately clear."

Price tag
Besides the taste, a product's price is another major factor, Vrindts emphasises. "The price remains the main criterion: if plant-based minced meat costs more than real meat, consumers are more likely to choose the latter."

Another important factor in reaching out to mainstream consumers and getting them excited about plant-based products is a product's name. "Consumers must be able to easily recognise the names of plant-based products. If that is not the case, many people struggle to include these products in their diet. People want to know exactly what they are buying. For a while, it looked like European regulations would ban the use of meat-based product names. Fortunately, our 'ban on vegan burgers' campaign ensured that terms like 'sausage,' 'minced meat' and 'burger' can still be used on a product's packaging. Product names referring to dairy have been banned, however."

Germany, Spain, the UK
With offices on four continents, the ProVeg team has clear insight into the global state of affairs. Vrindts: "Together with Germany and the UK, the Netherlands is leading the charge. Spain is two years behind where we are, but the popularity of plant-based products is growing rapidly there."On a global scale, these products are especially popular among millennials and Gen-Z, Vrindts reveals. "The funny thing is that our Veggie Challenge app is not only used by these younger generations, but also by many women between the ages of 50 and 55. Health and nutrition are more of a concern for them at that point in their lives."

Some brands capitalise on this increased awareness among millennials and Gen Z, Isabel Boerdam says. "Look at the American brand Oatly, for example. In their campaign, you see children trying to get their father to stop drinking cow's milk. He is caught drinking a glass of milk: 'Oops, I did it again.' It got Oatly a lot of attention and led to some discussion as well: should you be ashamed of drinking milk? As a brand, you have to be careful when you do something like that. It can easily backfire. The last thing mainstream consumers want is to be told that they are doing things wrong."

Not vegetarian or vegan
Throughout this entire transition towards a more plant-based diet, it is therefore incredibly important to focus on the positive aspects. This ensures that consumers who continue to eat animal-based products do not feel attacked in any way. Vrindts: "That is why we always communicate in a positive, solution-oriented and practical manner. We also prefer to use the term 'plant-based' rather than 'vegetarian' or 'vegan,' because the latter two are associated more with identity and lifestyle. 'Plant-based' says something about your diet, which appeals to people more." 

Supermarket Coop
Besides the Netherlands, the UK is also doing well when it comes to eating more plant-based products. "Last year, the Coop supermarket chain in the UK decided to never make its plant-based private-label products cost more than the animal-based alternative. This is a great initiative, which we frequently bring up in our conversations with other supermarket chains," says the ProVeg founder.The concept of Veganuary was also born in the UK. It challenges people to eat only plant-based products for the entire month of January. "During that month, various media devote extra attention to the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle and brands use this opportunity to introduce new products," Vrindts says.

The new brand PLNT (pronounced "planet") capitalised on Veganuary to boost its brand recognition, says Anouk Schepers (PR Consultant at COOPR). "During Veganuary, we got a chef to host an online cooking class. It was a big hit: we sent the recipe and the box of ingredients to various influencers so they could cook along at home via Zoom. They then shared the stream with their own followers. In no time, everyone got to enjoy a vegan stew inspired by the classic Boeuf Bourguignon. The reactions on Instagram were amazing, which had everything to do with the taste experience." 

Anouk Schepers

Meat successors
PLNT targets flexitarians, Schepers says. "To appeal to this audience, they are calling their products 'meat successors' rather than 'meat substitutes.' The brand strives to make its users feel good by offering plant-based alternatives that are similar to the original product. One of the key criteria for the brand is the taste of its products. They collaborated with former butchers during the product development phase."

Food influencers
As part of the brand's strategy to reach flexitarians, its focus is on foodies and their followers, rather than on vegan influencers, Schepers reveals. "For example, PLNT developed a recipe for vegan Chili con Carne together with Taco Mundo. We sent a box to dozens of food influencers and asked them to taste the dish and share their experiences online. We wanted them to be honest, because PLNT wanted to learn from their feedback. It led to a tonne of positive reactions."

Tasting is believing
Isabel Boerdam knows just how effective it is to use hero recipes during this plant-based transition. "For example, the American brand Beyond Meat brought the American hype surrounding the smash burger to the Netherlands. A smash burger is a very thin and crispy burger with a hilarious preparation method: you have to smash it flat. My food communication agency Green Food Lab helped the brand bring this recipe to the attention of a wide audience. As with all other plant-based products, tasting is believing. If that initial experience is a bad one, you have lost the mainstream consumer. As a brand with a good and tasty product, you have to make sure consumers have a fantastic experience."

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