Editor’s Note: Adam Hanft – an advisor to AgFunder, [disclosure: AgFunder is AFN’s parent company]– is a widely-respected brand strategist who advises Fortune 500 companies, and the world’s most innovative startups. He sits on the boards of Scotts Miracle-Gro – the leader in the consumer lawn and garden space, and a significant investor in cannabis – as well as 1800Flowers. Adam is co-author of the “Dictionary of the Future,” co-host of the podcast JOLTY, a frequently published journalist, multi-award-winning creative director, and active investor in all things plant-based. He was a strategic and digital advisor to the 2008 Obama campaign, and to the current Prime Minister of Israel.
The views expressed in this guest commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of AFN.
Radical innovation can be its own brand.
For a while. For a minute.
If you’re selling a revolutionary capsule that transports you anywhere in the world, in 30 seconds, you don’t need to say more than that.
It’s what I call the “Declarative Moment.” A simple statement of being.
But soon, 15 companies will be marketing that capsule. You’ll need to differentiate.
Your box is more accurate, for instance. It can bring you precisely to the restaurant you want in Paris, not plop you a mile away.
It does less damage to your immune system.
It comes with discounts at the Ritz.
You get the idea.
That has been the history of technological innovation. Take the initial advertising for the telephone – focused on the simple ability to make calls.
PT&T was focused on the shock value of the innovation.
It didn’t take long, though, for the Northern Electric Company, and others, to start marketing product distinction. Rapid and inevitable maturity.
The same pattern applies to the ongoing evolution of voice transmission: the cell phone. At the beginning, it was the basic “The Future Is Here” strategy. Like this Motorola ad.
We’ve come a long way, obviously, as Apple and Samsung fight it out over a combination of brand perception and features.
That brief expedition through the inexorable cycles of technology marketing brings us to what you, dear readers of AFN, are most interested in.
The marketing of plant-based foods.
Impossible Foods launched in 2016 with Burger King.
But the market has become crowded and noisy; the novelty has vaporized; and growth has slowed so much that Beyond Meat’s share price has cratered beyond belief, from a high of $109 to around $16 as I write this.
What’s happened? You can debate whether these are truly technological triumphs, but there is no doubt that they are marketing catastrophes.
There is zero differentiation or branding in the space; all the players are stuck in Motorola Land, going no further than saying “we are plant-based.”
This is marketing malpractice – giving plant-forward consumers no reason to consume your soybeans over someone else’s.
Impossible Foods commits the same felony. Interestingly, they are still speaking to vegans who are motivated by the plant provenance. Rather than the broader market – including flexitarians – who want to reduce meat consumption but still lust for hedonic gratification. Those are the
consumers Burger King is targeting with their Impossible Whopper.
Tyson, who jumped into plant-based when they saw the trend – and didn’t want to become the Kodak of protein and suffer the Innovators Dilemma by clinging to their meat legacy – is also failing to differentiate. They are selling plant-based as a commodity just like the start-ups.
Two smaller companies – Tattooed Chef, who is public and whose stock is also suffering mightily – and No Evil Foods (Disclosure: I am an investor, although I am not exactly boosting them) are also worth noting.
Let’s take a moment now and look more fully at what’s happening and why: what’s happening is that two monumental misses are happening at the same time.
Miss #1: In marketing, we like to talk about the difference between selling – creating a category – and positioning your brand within the category.
In the early days of plant-based, the hypothesis was that there were enough consumers who wanted to evolve from meat – for intersecting reasons related to health, humane treatment of animals, and climate change – so you simply needed to let them know there is now a choice.
And that choice delivered meat-like flavors and the famous visual “bleed” that was a proxy for actual dead animals.
Those intersecting forces created buzz, rapid awareness, and trial. Gallup found, back in 2020, that 40% of Americans had tried plant-based meat, and that roughly 60% of those who had tried it are likely to continue eating it.
That was promising.
What’s happening now?
Looking back, during those buzzy years, it was media obsession, fast-food partnerships, and curiosity that drove the nascent industry.
There was no augmentative category-creating marketing, no savvy, aspirational lifestyle messaging as we have seen in sectors like the mega-billion-dollar bottled water industry.
Whatever marketing was done, it was all based on the amazement of arrival: plant-based meat is here.
To be fair, part of the challenge is margin and cost-of-goods. These are expensive products to produce, unlike bottled water, so there isn’t much money left for marketing. I get that. But the leadership of – and investors in – plant-based meats should have understood that as well. As opposed to naively thinking that the category would be entirely self-propulsive.
By the way, I’m not saying that advertising is the only answer. Elon Musk famously hates advertising and built Tesla without any. But he was able to turn every customer into a tiny megaphone, amplified by his deafening personal loudspeaker.
Miss #2: When a category becomes mature, the next phase – inevitable as gravity – is the imperative to differentiate within the category.
When category growth will no longer sustain you, you must steal share. It’s the marketing equivalent of ground warfare.
There are many ways to do the job.
You can differentiate like Tesla: build a deep moat by combining innovation with badging and community to create a cultural synapse that creates imprinted, ineradicable neural associations.
You can build lyrical romance and expertise into your brand, like Starbucks did. (Less so, now.) Make the ingredients and the production methods your story, as those in categories like wine, beer, and chocolate are so skilled at.
Or you can differentiate by taking on the competition directly, like the famous Pepsi Challenge or Mac vs. PC. It’s amazing, when you think of it, that no one has done a plant-based meat taste-off – and turned it into entertainment.
We also have influencers today, and social media – including TikTok – to affordably amplify a taste test and send it speeding into the culture.
Those campaigns require hard work.
Differentiating within a commodity category requires the ultimate in creative jumps, leaps, and imaginative elevation. It’s the equivalent of developing a breakthrough technology, in the laboratory of the mind.
The tragedy is that no one is even trying.
“Why not?” is the existential question, which I posed earlier.
Who are the founders?
Let’s look at who’s behind these companies for the answer.
The founders of most plant-based companies are scientists and technologists who were inspired by the opportunity to use chemistry to save animals and the world.
Pat Brown, who founded Impossible Foods, says that the meat industry is “the most destructive technology in human history. We want to make it go away.” Ethan Brown, the president and CEO of Beyond Meat, has been vegetarian since high school.
How can such committed ideologues ever connect emotionally with the vast majority of Americans, who live in a far murkier and more ambiguous world than these on-fire advocates for change? Yes, Americans are concerned about climate change, but they don’t want to be lectured to, or made to feel guilty, or asked to transcend their Fred Flintstone genetics.
True, these founders recognized that taste and mouth feel mattered, but at the end of the day, they believed there were enough consumers like them; consumers who would drop all meat for plants, without branding and content and social media leading them to the righteous destination.
That’s why they position their products as implicitly “all or nothing.” There’s no effort to help consumers navigate this new food option, to teach them how to integrate plant-based into their menu planning, to change on your own terms.
Inflexible leaders can’t connect with flexitarians
Inflexible leaders can’t connect with flexitarians.
This also explains why fast-food companies are so far ahead of their plant-based partners. These consumer-first giants understand that consumers are complex and messy, driven by both the sensual id and the climate-tuned super-ego.
Because the leadership of the category made this an ideological battle, there was no segmentation. They couldn’t recognize that not everyone is on their crusade. They thought the Declarative Moment was enough and failed to identify actionable insights into their most vital and fertile segments.
Consider that 78% of Americans own a pet. Why doesn’t a plant-based brand grab that opportunity and use social media to target pet owners?
“We’re the meal choice for people who love dogs, cats, and all animals.”
Does that mean they won’t throw a steak on the grill and live with that sizzling contradiction? Of course not.
Or how about targeting the 13.5% who are early adopters, and the 34.5% who are in the early majority? No one in the category is appealing to the psychographics of those who self-identify as being on the pioneering edge. Instead of just showing a juicy burger – which is a generic image – there is an opportunity to develop a visual language that links plant-based meat to other lifestyle choices.
And that’s an even more complex challenge because fermentation and cell culture are bigger barriers than eating plants.
For this next generation of meat replacements, it is the opportunity to do it right the first time, rather than repeat the mistakes of your plant-based predecessors.
The faster you learn from Northern Electric Company – more than 100 years later – the better.