The meatless food category: What's next?

By Tom Dougherty


The meatless food category: How it’s succeeding, and where it goes from here

Sometimes, there really is something in a name. For example, what do you call the meatless food category? Is meatless food enough? You’ve probably also heard alternative food, plant-based meat, vegan food and veggie meat. No doubt there are countless others.

Then, when looking into the category itself, you have the two main players: Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. How did they choose those names and what impact are they having on the…meatless food category?

Before we delve into answering those questions, a little background first.

The meatless food invasion

The category is booming. There are reports that meatless food could evolve into a $35 billion industry very quickly, meaning it would represent nearly 15% of the entire US meat industry.

What’s so interesting about the category is that Gallup reports that only 8% of all Americans are either vegan or vegetarians. Meaning, it’s not just them consuming all this plant-based meat. And one look at the marketing – and the names of the products – tells you it’s the meat eaters who are making the category explode. Sales have risen 37.1% in the last two years and experts predict that trend to continue.

da098bf3c449622844b538ed59934665Since Beyond Meat went public in May, its stock has risen more than 700% with a market cap of nearly $11 billion.

There is clearly an appetite (yes, we went there) for meatless food.

Who plays in this space?

The industry is also becoming very crowded. While Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are considered the market leaders, who knows how long that will last? Tyson Foods will launch its own plant-based division soon and Nestle is introducing the Awesome Burger.

That doesn’t even take into account the many other competitors already in the market, like Morningstar Farms, Amy’s Kitchen, Quom Foods and others. (Although most of them offer meatless frozen foods.)

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. You see all the offerings at the grocery store (strategically placed in the red meat section). And you’ve seen the Impossible Whopper ads for Burger King.

In fact, the Impossible Whopper is directly responsible for Burger King’s 5% rise in sales, basically bailing out one of fast food’s most troubled brands. That increase represents the chain’s largest growth in four years.

What’s behind the trend? It’s pretty obvious that Americans want to eat healthier, even if we all aren’t all vegetarians. We eat less red meat. We drink less milk (crushing the cereal market). And a whole lotta of us are eating meatless food.

How do the market leaders stay ahead?

What’s most interesting to us is this: Within the context of an increasingly competitive market, where do the brands of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods stand?

Screen Shot 2019 11 14 at 10.47.57 AMFor one thing, both sell category benefits. Marketing from both (and everyone) is built around the health benefits of eating meatless food and the benefits to our world. (Impossible Foods says eating its meat saves Earth, and Beyond Meat’s logo features a cow with a cape.)

Because of that, consumers have trouble separating the brands. Even Beyond Meat says so. In a blog post, the company responded to questions about which is which by saying:

“These inquiries reinforced our understanding that folks often confuse us with Impossible Foods. We get it – there are similarities. Our founder is named Ethan Brown. Impossible’s founder is named Pat Brown (no relations). Also, Bill Gates is an investor in both companies.”

Why so little differentiation?

Of course, that post ended with Beyond Meat saying its key difference is being more available in grocery stores. That’s true, but recent FDA approval for Impossible Food products means it’s now becoming available in grocery stores.

(In fact, Impossible Food gloats about its own initial grocery store success, saying in a press release that the Impossible Burger is the No. 1 packaged item at Gelson’s Market, a regional chain in California, and other such data.)

Screen Shot 2019 11 14 at 10.47.42 AMBut with consumers getting the two brands confused, how are they choosing between them?

Right now, it’s a free-for-all as more competitors enter the market. Therefore, meatless food consumers are simply buying based on price, availability and, well, package design. They will try whatever looks good.

That’s a sign of an immature market (at least it’s immature to non-vegetarians), which bleeds tremendous opportunity. (And the reason why Wall Street is investing so heavily in Beyond Meat, and Impossible Foods is considering an IPO.)

But is there something in the brands that might spur either of the two market setters to take control?

What the marketing says today

Right now, Beyond Meat’s advertising features celebrities extolling the value of eating its products, led by NBA star Kyrie Irving. The brand promotes itself as the Future of Protein.

Beyond Meat also owns first-mover advantage, which means the growth of the entire market elevates Beyond Meat. The brand is also expanding into the restaurant arena that Impossible Foods has conquered. It has a deal with Dunkin’ while testing a PLT (plant, lettuce, tomato) burger at McDonalds locations in Canada.

meatless foodIts promotion comes down to, basically, it tastes just like meat. Its website uses a quote from Vox that says Beyond Meat’s meatier Beyond Burger “tastes even more like meat.”

What about Impossible Foods? It has certainly gained great awareness by leveraging Burger King’s marketing budget. But it also promotes category benefits and hits (very hard) that its meat takes like real meat.

What’s in a name?

What makes the Impossible Burger stand out is its name. And that’s important. Just like the category struggling to find the appropriate name to describe itself, many competitors struggle with their own names.

Not the Impossible Burger. It faces head-on the main concern of non-vegetarians (where the market growth resides). Does it taste like meat? While all the players answer that question, the name of Impossible Burger aligns itself with a belief that it can’t. The subtext to the name is that it’s impossible for meatless food to taste like meat. How is this possible?

When you align your brand with a belief that exists in the market, you can more easily steal market share.

But is Impossible Foods too late? Even in an immature market? Among vegetarians at least, Beyond Meat’s first mover advantage makes it the default choice. Especially when all messaging is basically the same.

But the immature market lies with meat eaters who are beginning to consider meatless food as part of their rotation.

What SHOULD lie ahead

So, for all the meatless food players, including the Impossible Burger, it’s imperative that they distinguish themselves from the rest. It’s common in an immature market for category benefits to reign paramount. The strategy is to grow the category itself so you benefit. And it’s clearly working right now.

But, at some point, the category’s growth will level off. And all those competitors will be fighting for limited market space without a brand message to distinguish them.

Think about the craft beer industry. When the category was expanding, so many competitors entered the market that it taught users to simply try what’s new. That sounds great, but it eventually forced the industry to cannibalize itself as brands disappeared. Drinkers simply weren’t brand loyal because only a few of the beers actually did the hard work of creating brand preference.

Beyond Meat does many things well, and now has the investment money behind it. Impossible Foods has a strong start with a more interesting and meaningful name.

But both have a lot of work to do. They and the rest must think about what their individual brands represent that’s different and better. What makes the Beyond Burger eater different from the Impossible Burger eater? What makes one brand’s customer different from another?

Whoever answers that meaningfully and emotionally (without making it about the burger) will take over long-term leadership in the meatless food industry.

Or is it the plant-based food industry? Or…

See more posts in the following related categories: Food marketing