The plant-based industry is standing at a pivotal crossroads. While long-term growth predictions do appear to be promising and meat consumption is declining in developed countries such as the UK, the US, Australia, and certain European markets, current challenges such as decreasing sales and an increasingly competitive marketplace create substantial setbacks for plant-based companies.
The plant-based sector’s current predicament stems from several factors, including potential marketing missteps, consumer misinformation, and intense competition from traditional animal agriculture. Peter McGuinness, CEO of Impossible Foods, spoke to this at the recent Adweek X conference in Los Angeles, citing a much-needed industry-wide transformation that emphasizes collaboration to overcome these challenges.
At the conference, McGuinness pointed out the detrimental effect of early “wokeness” and foodtech positioning in plant-based meat marketing, which he claims alienated a significant portion of the potential market. He stressed the need for a shift from “insulting to inviting” in marketing strategies.
Call for a united front
Plant-based food leaders recently discussed the potential of forming a coalition and collaborating on a “Got Milk”-style public service announcement campaign, aiming to reposition the industry as a whole, counteracting the fragmentation and individualistic strategies that currently hamper the sector’s growth.
But inflation-driven setbacks have led to delays in such action, with McGuinness noting to Adweek that they are no closer to making this happen than they were during the summer. He stated, “We have like 200 plant-based businesses, half are going out of business, we’re highly uncoordinated, no one has any money, everybody’s out for themselves. It’s a total mess.”
The call for a united front is not just a strategic move but a survival tactic. The competition is not posed so much by fellow plant-based brands but by the well-entrenched, heavily funded animal agriculture sector.
A recent report from the United Nations showed that $470 billion of harmful agricultural subsidies are given annually for high-emitting commodities such as red meat. While groups are working to reform these harmful subsidies, there is still a long way to go.
At ProVeg’s annual New Food Conference this year, the hot topic of discussion was around the need to level the playing field between plant-based and animal-based products, including achieving price parity. However, the substantial government subsidies allocated to the animal agriculture sector put the plant-based industry at a disadvantage. A united effort between key industry players could help drive innovation and amplify the strengths of plant-based products, emphasizing their health benefits, environmental impact, and ethical considerations.
Rebranding the industry
The rebranding of the plant-based industry should not just be about individual companies but the category as a whole. It’s about changing the narrative from an alternative option to a mainstream choice. This rebranding requires concerted efforts in education, advertising, and consistent messaging that resonates with a broader audience of omnivores and flexitarians, not just vegans and vegetarians. “There’s a massive amount of myths about plant-based products and the process,” commented McGuinness.
As Chef Spike Mendelsohn commented to vegconomist this week, “We are definitely experiencing headwinds in the plant-based space. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about plant-based meat and there are big bets being made against its growth and success. What we should all be working towards is a better balance in our food system, focusing on the effects of the planet really matters.” And this is exactly the point.
The path forward for the plant-based industry is clear: collaboration over competition, unity in messaging, and a focus on inclusive marketing. As McGuinness aptly summarized at the Adweek X conference, the goal is not to compete within the category but to expand it. The industry needs to come together, pooling resources and strategies, to redefine its image and appeal. In doing so, it can ensure its place not just as a niche market but as a significant player in the future of food.
Read more about what McGuinness had to say at Adweek X here.