In the late 2010s, Beyond Meat developed the next generation of plant-based meat products, winning over consumers with its innovative new take on the veggie burger. Then it impressed investors in 2019 when it had the most successful stock market debut in over a decade. At its initial public offering (IPO) price, Beyond Meat was valued at $1.46 billion. From there, plant-based meat sales skyrocketed.
However, 2022 hasn’t been as kind to the plant-based meat market leader. Amid declining plant-based meat sales, Beyond Meat recently announced it will lay off 19 percent of its staff by the end of the year. Its stock price has tumbled, and it recently told shareholders it expects to bring in less revenue this year than originally forecasted, citing increased competition and high inflation.
In response, Beyond Meat did what many food companies do when they’re at risk of losing market share — they’re pushing out a new product: plant-based steak tips, which will be available nationwide in more than 5,000 Kroger and Walmart locations as well as several other retailers. It will also be available to food distributors, so it could start showing up on restaurant menus soon.
But will this tactic work? Will yet another new product from one of the most recognized names in the alternative meat industry be enough to recoup plant-based meat sales? By now, the fanfare around plant-based meats that once captured the attention of many consumers has faded, but why? The answer is simple: poor marketing.
Related: Will Plant-Based Technology Ever Fully Replace Meat and Dairy?
Where Plant-Based Meat Marketing Falls Short
Consumers have long moved past the defining moments, from Beyond Meat launching in Whole Foods in 2016 to Impossible Foods launching with Burger King that same year. Countless other plant-based meat startups have taken place since then, resulting in a crowded market that has ultimately weakened the novelty of the industry.
Plant-based meat sales have slowed so much that Beyond Meat’s share price has gone from a high of $109 to around $12. While the technological triumphs brought forward by the plant-based meat industry should not be understated, it’s clear that the industry is a marketing catastrophe.
That’s because there is little to no differentiation in the space among the most prevalent brands, smaller startups and everything in between. Most plant-based meat players go no further than advertising, “we are plant-based,” giving consumers no reason to consume one company’s soy-based products over another’s.
Impossible Foods, for example, is guilty of still marketing to vegans who are motivated by the plant-based movement, rather than the broader market, including flexitarians who want to reduce meat consumption but still include it in their diet.
Meat giant Tyson, who jumped into plant-based offerings when they saw the trend emerge, is also failing to differentiate, selling plant-based meat as a commodity just like the startups that specialize in the space. JBS-owned plant-based meat brand Planterra Foods recently shut down only two years after it made its retail debut since it was also unable to stand out from the rest.
Why Differentiation in Plant-Based Meat is So Difficult
In the early days of plant-based, the idea was that there were enough consumers who wanted to evolve from meat for a variety of reasons related to health, humane treatment of animals and climate change. Plant-based meat provided consumers like these with another option, which often delivered meat-like flavors and the famous visual “bleed.”
Buzz was created, awareness was raised and a Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans had tried plant-based meat, and that roughly 60 percent of those who had tried it are likely to continue eating it. Media obsession, fast-food partnerships and curiosity drove the budding industry. Whatever marketing was done was all based on the amazement of: “plant-based meat is here.”
When a category becomes mature, as plant-based meat eventually did, the next step is to differentiate within the category. There are several ways to do this, including community and expertise building, taking on the competition directly or taking advantage of social media platforms to build campaigns.
Differentiating within a commodity category requires creativity, innovation and imaginative elevation, which are things that, unfortunately, a few plant-based meat companies are attempting. While the founders of most alternative meat companies are scientists and technologists who were inspired by the opportunity to use chemistry to save animals and the world, they positioned their products as “all or nothing.”
There was no effort to help consumers navigate this new food option, to teach them how to integrate plant-based into their menu planning or to change on your own terms. Because inflexible leaders can’t connect with flexitarians and meat-eaters, there was no segmentation. They couldn’t recognize that not everyone was on their side.
The need for sophisticated marketing is only going to grow in the alternative category, as lab-grown meat and fish will be commercialized in the coming years. For the next generation of alternative meat, brands can hopefully market their products properly, rather than repeat the mistakes of their plant-based predecessors.
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