ESG 2022: Can plant-based foods deliver Meaningful Change? – by M&C Saatchi’s Scott Feasey

M&C Saatchi’s Scott Feasey was sceptical of meat alternatives until his boss and a bold brief opened his eyes and tastebuds

At home and ready to partake in some Netflix, sadly without any ‘chill’, I couldn’t get the words from my last work conversation out of my head. Our great and powerful leader, Moray MacLennan, worldwide CEO of M&C Saatchi, was demanding more from us: “We need to be navigating, creating and leading Meaningful Change, not just for our clients but for the planet.” It was clear there was to be no greenwashing here.

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The group was firmly on a ESG mission and London was not hanging around. M&C Saatchi Life had not long been created. A company focused on helping our business and clients do better, and now it was clearly my region’s turn to step up.

Of course, we were reducing company travel, paper, plastic and our energy consumption. We had also not long ago won multiple awards and praise for our Pizza Hut Earth Hour campaign. Work that, with a little digital sorcery, had incentivised consumers to turn off their screens and Wi-Fi connection. But Moray wanted more. He’s a little demanding, to be honest.

Setting back to surfing Netflix, I came across The Game Changers, a documentary that claimed it would turn me vegan. Not an easy task considering I don’t think I’ve had a day in my life without eating some part of an animal.

I watched in horror, not just because of my lifestyle choices, but more for the sizeable problem that farming animals for food was causing. Apparently, it takes 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef. Not to mention the landmass of animal feed crops. As the documentary recommended, why don’t we cut out the middleman (or middle cow) and just eat the crops? 

The next morning, with my Mexican bean salad securely in the office fridge, an interesting brief crossed my desk. I nearly dropped my breakfast chickpea burrito while reading the line: “launch our new plant-based product range, to a meat-eating Arab consumer”.

This is it. Our opportunity to create Meaningful Change. Hey, if cauliflower can become pizza, we can sell plant-based food to meat lovers.

We’ve all seen the research about how plant proteins are transforming into all the mainstream foods we love. Once a small market segment defined by dietary requirements or fixed vegetarianism
and veganism, plant-based is more mainstream. 

Plant-based food products are finally delivering on what only meat had been able to promise before: taste, texture and satiety. 

What’s more, they’re growing up fast. Projections from Bloomberg Intelligence indicate that the plant-based foods market could be valued at more than $162bn by 2030 – up from $29.4bn in 2020.

It’s a multibillion-dollar opportunity with staggering potential for innovation and territory-building, not to mention that pesky Meaningful Change thing. 

We started by looking into what was driving demand and then what might be the strategies to capitalise on the category’s potential.

So, what is driving demand?

1. Consumer demand. Consumers have become increasingly empowered to support brands that commit to sustainability, with research showing that a third of US adults say they spend more time thinking about the climate than they did before the pandemic. Conscious consumption is continuing to gain traction and consumers demand ESG alignment from the brands they engage with.

2. Gen Z-ers are leading the growth. Their reach and savviness as digital natives, their social awareness and activism, and the dire state of the world they’ve inherited have combined to give them powerful opinions and voices they’re not afraid to use. They fully expect brands to deliver on sustainability principles and support holistic health, and they’re being the change they want to see in the world.

3. Costs are declining. While still not the lowest cost option, plant alternatives are becoming more accessible, and growing sub-segments – such as chickpea, lentil and pea protein – are cost-effective for brands to pursue and consumers to choose. As availability encourages testing, more and more people will purchase plant-based protein products, driving prices down and further lowering barriers to entry. Nick Halla, senior vice-president international at Impossible Foods, nailed it with this formula: “You’ll buy the product once based on novelty, you’ll come back if the taste was good and if there are benefits such as nutrition and sustainability, and you’ll buy it in the long run if the value is right.”

4. It’s trendy. How can you tell if someone is a vegan? They will tell you within five minutes of meeting them. Being vegan is cool: ‘cooler than smoking’, in the eyes of 44 per cent of Gen Z-ers.

It’s clear we are at a tipping point when it comes to plant-based foods, especially in the west, but how do we set ourselves up for success in this region? 

For us, the first step was to double down on understanding what our consumers needed. Not just an honest evaluation of our target consumers’ needs, expectations and pain points, we needed to get a handle on what’s driving our consumers’ decisions and, more importantly, what’s standing between them and the choices they might want to make (like integrating more plant-based options) but don’t end up pursuing. How can we help more people who want to be flexitarians become flexitarians? Sensory research is critical to helping you strategically overcome the barriers separating consumers from initial – or increased – plant-based adoption.

We found the top two hurdles to overcome were taste and texture. Conducting focus groups for pilot product testing, we also knew our biggest advantage over what’s currently available is that our plant-based options have exactly the same taste and freshness as the meat-based options, with the bonus of being accessible to everyone. Not an easy task, as research also showed other brands had failed and that Arab consumers were a little put off. We would need to convince them it was time to try again, and the taste they love in meat dishes was evident in our new plant-based range.

Our next stage was to innovate and be creative against our deep and clear understanding of the consumer. We had asked the right questions and had a handle on consumer needs, but we also needed to step it up in communications. More than others, this category and the research demanded we be authentic, confident and distinctive in our positioning and communications. The value proposition and communication would be key. Focusing on those helps maintain trust and interest with the consumer base.

When it comes to ESG and marketing plant-based foods, we found it was important to be transparent about the benefits, the flavour profile and health claims. The key is to balance this with truth and not overpromise, while still dialling up where you can deliver. Essentially, bold claims that are strongly grounded in reality. We knew our taste was the best. To own the plant-based conversation, we felt we could go bold and brave on the taste promise.

It’s also recommended to focus on the tone in your comms and wider messaging like packaging. Where would we fall on the continuum of traditional plant-based brands and the irreverent, quirky tone of a brand like Oatly (whose ‘Wow, no cow’ Super Bowl ad split the internet last year)? Should we think outside the category like Simulate, whose ‘non-preachy’, meme-heavy positioning and direct-to-consumer (DTC) model have contributed to $60m in venture capital funding to date?

Letting the product stand on its own in a new territory can also yield results. You don’t need to try and make it feel familiar. On the contrary, this differentiation could have a huge impact on how consumers view and ultimately receive your product. If they’re approaching it as something entirely new, they won’t be bringing any bias about potential comparators into the experience.

That said, we felt our campaign could create an unprecedented statement in the category: the new plant-based range tastes, looks and feels exactly the same as the original meat-based products.

The results are looking good for our client’s campaign and there are lots of positive sentiments coming out, but for me none more that the take-up and rise of the Arabian Flexitarian. And that’s got to be good for the planet.

While there are plenty of exciting chances for brands to step up in the plant-based space, consumer demands and the market are moving quickly. Competition is already fierce between incumbents, startups, retail chains and producers. Laying the groundwork from now will give your brand the best possible chance of taking that coveted top spot – and making that multibillion-dollar commercial opportunity work for you instead of your competition.

By Scott Feasey, CEO, M&C Saatchi GCC