Plant-based brands: what does it take to break through?

We investigate what it takes to stand out in an increasingly crowded retail space.

Forward: features are independent pieces written for Mewburn Ellis discussing and celebrating the best of innovation and exploration from the scientific and entrepreneurial worlds.

A decade ago, it was tough to track down a vegan sausage in most UK supermarkets. The term ‘plant-based’ hadn’t yet made it into our everyday vernacular, and those brands catering to meat- and dairy-free diets were few and far between. Competition on the shelf was practically non-existent as a result.

But in the years since, that has shifted dramatically. According to Mintel, one in six products launched in the UK in 2018 carried a vegan claim – a figure that has doubled since 2015. In 2020, no less than 15,206 products were registered with the Vegan Society too – accounting for 30% of the total products it has trademarked since first launching the label in 1990.  

From pulled jackfruit and vegan ‘steaks’ to a dizzying array of plant-based milks, butters and cheeses, there is now a huge breadth of choice for those looking to cut out or reduce the animal products in their diet. And there is now a steadily growing number of those individuals. When Eating Better, an alliance of civil society organisations, conducted a survey of 2,743 ready meals across ten UK supermarkets in March 2021, it found that plant-based ready meals were the fastest growing category, up by 92% since 2018.

The pandemic has only added fuel to the fire. A survey by Mintel, released in June 2020, found that 12% of Brits reported that COVID-19 had made a vegan diet more appealing.

In short, what was once a niche category confined to a tiny corner of supermarket freezer aisles or wholefood shops has now well and truly made its way into mainstream diets.

Branding transition

What does that all mean when it comes to carving out a compelling brand identity? With competition now so fierce, how has branding and packaging changed to deliver a USP beyond simply being plant-based? And how do the challengers and more established operators compare?

It’s clear there has been a big transition in how companies approach branding in this space. ‘There was a time when plant-based products were marketed primarily as a choice for “needs-based” shoppers, ie. those with an allergy or intolerance, or those following a specific diet such as veganism or vegetarianism,’ says Nicole Kennedy, strategic director at Richmond & Towers – and one of those in the public relations industry who first helped to coin the term ‘plant-based’ in the UK through her work with Alpro. ‘But those days are long gone. With people much more aware of the impact that food and drink can have on their health, as well as the health of our planet, plant-based food and drink is now positioned very much as a mainstream choice for anyone looking to enjoy a healthy, sustainable lifestyle – irrespective of their dietary persuasion.’

Take early adopter Quorn. When it first entered the vegan market five years ago, the language used on packs of its ‘Hot and Spicy burgers’ revolved solely around ‘vegan’ and ‘meat-free’, with the green Vegan Society trade mark being given significant space on the packaging. There was little emphasis on taste, health or other attributes, with all branding geared toward communicating its suitability for a particular diet. Fast-forward to 2021, and not only is the imagery on the same product far more geared towards foodies, but specific health attributes are listed, the trade mark is far smaller, and a tagline focuses on the taste of its ‘fiery breadcrumb crunch’.

“Gone are the days of dull logos and uninspiring packaging; vegan food is now directly competing for meat eaters’ attention”

‘Gone are the days of dull logos and uninspiring packaging; vegan food is now directly competing for meat eaters’ attention, and as a result it needs to look – and taste – like the real deal,’ says Caroline Burgess-Pike, founder at Eden Green PR, which works with a raft of plant-based brands. This reflects a clear change in the target market, with ‘flexitarians’ – those who are looking to reduce their meat and dairy consumption rather than cut it out altogether – now being counted among these brands’ most valuable demographics. The priorities of this group are different. Fifteen per cent of British people say they are avoiding red meat for health reasons, for example.

As a result, ‘as the category grows, we are also seeing plant-based food brands not only compete to provide the best taste and texture to replicate their non-vegan counterparts, but also to ensure the nutritional value of their products provides additional benefits, such as added vitamin B12 or iron,’ says Burgess-Pike.

This greater parity between meat and meat alternatives is also visible among traditional meat brands taking their first steps into the category. When Richmond launched its meat-free bacon rashers in May this year, the product shared a significant number of visual cues with its classic sausages, with the colour palate, imagery and focus on taste – the bacon was described as ‘tasty and succulent’ – remaining much the same.

Cutting through

But if large and established brands have tweaked their on-pack messaging and design for a more mainstream audience, for challenger brands the focus is just as much on cutting through the noise. This was a big challenge for London-based Native Snacks, admits co-founder Charlie Bowker. ‘It is becoming increasingly hard to stand out in such a competitive market,’ he says. ‘With so many different brands providing plant-based or vegan snacks, you have to have a genuine point of difference.’

That’s why, at the launch of its vegan prawn crackers in October, the emphasis was firmly on how the snack represented a ‘world first’. ‘This, paired with a really strong pack design and tone of voice, and the fact that they taste identical to traditional prawn crackers, has led to the success of our range in such a short period of time,’ says Bowker.

For other brands, it has paid to be a touch provocative. That might be via the choice of name, such as plant-based bacon brand ‘Vegan Cartel’, which launched in 2018, or ‘The Vegetarian Butcher,’ which could have faced flack for its use of a meat-based term for its range of plant-based products but instead walked away with a new owner in the form of consumer goods behemoth Unilever.

Sometimes it takes broader marketing tactics too. For instance, In 2020, Leeds-based Meatless Farm launched an advertising campaign with the provocative strapline, ‘M***, F***’, which the brand called ‘light-hearted’ and ‘fun’. The same brand also created a pop-up restaurant in East London, the M*** F*** drive-thru, notes Burgess-Pike, and she also points to vegan chicken brand VFC’s ‘bold and provocative interactions with social media followers who mock the vegan movement’.

‘Meanwhile,’ she continues, ‘brands like Squeaky Bean have launched innovative social media influencer campaigns such as “Squeaky House”, to attract the attention of a younger audience, utilising non-vegan influencers to showcase their products to an increasingly flexitarian audience.’

Heura – described as ‘Europe’s fastest-growing plant-based meat brand’ in has even faced legal proceedings in relation to a billboard advertisement that proclaimed that a meat burger pollutes more than a car. Heura subsequently removed the billboard, although the related legal action was rejected by a Barcelona court. On the Heura website there are places to find out more about ‘food activism’ and links to resources that explore the impact of the industrial meat industry on the planet.

Opposing camps

This bold, provocative approach tends to distinguish the more established brands from start-ups looking to make their mark, says Kennedy. ‘What you tend to see is that brands fall into two camps. You have those shouty, slightly “out-there” start-ups who use bold, disruptive marketing – and messages – to try and get consumers to stop and listen. And then you have those long-standing brands who tend to focus on championing small, positive steps to move towards a plant-based lifestyle in a way that works best for you.

‘Both approaches can be executed with varying degrees of success but, whichever camp brands fall into, it’s vital that this feels authentic. Consumers are savvier than ever, particularly when it comes to brands making health- or sustainability-related claims that could be perceived as “greenwashing”. And brands that don’t have the credentials – or the conviction – to back up what they are saying simply won’t succeed.’

That kind of scrutiny can extend to brands’ choice of language too, with increasing debate around the suitability of the terms ‘plant-based’ and ‘vegan’. The former is more flexible and doesn’t require the complete removal of animal-based products, while the latter requires far more stringency in eliminating these from any part of the supply chain.

It’s vital that brands are clear, says Helen Jambunathan, associate insight director at behavioural insights agency Canvas8. ‘In the current whirlpool of greenwashing, brands can essentially say anything they want as a part of their marketing strategy, but when a product is verified as 100% vegan or vegetarian by an independent authority, it gains trust,’ she says. That’s why VFC chose to drop ‘plant-based’ from its marketing, swapping to ‘vegan’ instead, for example.

With plant-based and vegan foods now firmly in the mainstream, the latest evolution in branding is championing accessibility too, Jambunathan adds, and busting myths around price and taste. Oatly’s ‘Help Dad’ advert is a great example. ‘Released off the back of research showing that older men aren’t interested in environmental issues, the Oatly ads aim to empower teens to educate dads and change their minds,’ she says.

‘More and more plant-based brands are working to “normalise” plant-based foods through mainstream marketing activity,’ says Kennedy. ‘Whether that’s Alpro teaming up with one of the most famous athletes on the planet, Usain Bolt, Meatless Farms taking over high-impact outdoor ad spots in London, or Quorn recently opening the doors to a meat-free chicken nugget pop-up.’

It all goes to show how far the plant-based category has come in just a few short years, emerging as an explosion of new product development in consumers’ shopping trolleys. For brands competing in this space, the game has well and truly changed, for everything from design to marketing and product names. Indeed, everyone seems to be making whatever moves they can to get their hands on a bigger piece of this lucrative meat-free market.


Standing out from the crowd

Rebecca Anderson-Smith, Partner and Chartered Trade Mark Attorney, Mewburn Ellis comments:

With the plant-based food and drink market becoming increasingly competitive, companies are finding they have to fight to be noticed. Having a clever, good tasting product just isn’t always enough anymore. This is where strong branding can really elevate a product’s status in the market. A memorable name, an eye catching logo and a unique packaging design can really help a product stand out from the crowd, becoming hugely valuable assets for a brand. Having strong and ideally multi-layer IP protection in place in the form of trade marks and designs helps ensure you’re protecting your valuable assets.

Written by Megan Tatum