Olaf van Gerwen explores a bold new era – and the endless pioneering possibilities – for future meat-replacing products
Ten-year-old Olaf was an annoying little prick when it came to food. My mom forced me to eat healthy stuff I didn’t like – and I didn’t like that one bit. Now that I’m more aware of the world around me and the effect meat consumption has on it, I have voluntarily become a flexitarian.
When I eat meat, I often do so to treat myself to something special. A reward for an extraordinary achievement. Like the unscathed survival of a heavy night beer drinking. In that scenario, I sometimes order a juicy, scrumptious, sinful burger: all the goodies and baddies on a delicious bun including, of course, an actual meat patty. Opting for a meatless alternative would surely not give me the same satisfaction? Indulging and doing ‘what’s right’ simply don’t park their cars in the same garage. It can be astonishingly difficult to cut the umbilical cord between food and certain emotions. Annoying Little Olaf is still there, deep down inside of me, pulling the strings. But that’s me. I’m half a century old (ouch). The world around me is experiencing an interesting shift in food consumption, especially at home. For many years there has been a perception that being vegan or vegetarian was out of the ordinary, rare even, reserved for smelly crusties and social studies teachers. It was weird to hear a friend say ‘no thanks, I don’t eat meat’. However, a generation appreciative of bloody plates is transitioning into a greener territory.
It’s interesting to note that as mindsets and perceptions shift, so does one’s diet. Now, there’s actually just one problem on our plate: the messing up of Mother Earth. With eyes on the distant future, it’s time to dig into the overflooded world of meat replacement.
Why do we replace?
I was brought up with meat as a fundamental part of the meal. Now that we realise it’s not a sustainable option for the world, our gut and our animals, we have painted ourselves into a corner. We’ve convinced ourselves that meat is a vital source of protein, which clearly is nonsense. We’ve accustomed ourselves to the taste and texture of meat. And we adopted some hunter-gatherer style satisfaction in eating meat.
The meat replacements industry targets Little Olaf and all his peers, by tricking the senses into thinking they’re chewing meat, while it is really a completely different game. Producers search for fibers that resemble the thready textures, a smoky flavor is added and marketing departments resort to meat semiotics to slide into the mental space of animal meat.
People are attracted to things that feel familiar. It provides predictability and safety. It’s why nostalgia works. Honestly, I struggle cooking a meal without meat or meat replacement. Little Olaf gets upset. He misses salty, sizzly, umami and fatty. So, I replace (note to self: learn to cook a delicious meal with greens only!).
The market as it is now
My company Chuck Studios works for brands in the category. Not only do we shoot their products for packaging and TV ads, we also help some of them develop a distinct Culinary Identity. That’s the hyper product focused sister of a brand’s visual identity or sonic identity. It isn’t always easy to navigate through the wishes and desires of brands. Often, there’s a certain degree of schizophrenia: should we look like meat or not?
With our eyes firmly trained on numerous brand books and identities, we’ve discovered three sub categories in terms of brand identities.
1. Imposter brands
This group target carnivores that really don’t feel like abandoning animal meat but are forced to. They use dark backgrounds, bold typography, grill marks and leather aprons as icons to resemble meat semiotics as much as possible.
2. Hippie brands
These brands target people who seek health benefits, desire to lower their carbon footprint or wish to contribute to animal welfare. There’s a lot of green, plant leaves and bio carton textures in their package designs and marketing.
3. Rebel brands
These brands are loud and claim to be part of the revolution. Bold colors, loud typography, playfulness and illustrations are visual cues they often use to distance themselves from Imposters or Hippies.
Whilst many of the brands recognise taste is the main driver of repeat purchases, they all shy away from real innovative territories. Their products are still patties, nuggets and sausages. And nomen est omen: brand names such as Beyond Meat, Like Meat, Impossible Meat, The Vegetarian Butcher, Meatless Farm and The Very Good Butchers occupy mental territory related to meat. Some brands confusingly use visuals of cows or chickens on their packaging: the logo of Beyond Meat is a cow with a cape. Many of them use icons and terms related to meat production. You could say the brands depend on their arch enemy for their visual and culinary identities. Sounds kinda tricky eh?
Let’s go back to 1993 and take the Nokia 1011 as an example. This mobile phone’s keypad resembles the one on landline phones people traditionally used at homes and offices. The transition from landline to mobile felt in a way familiar due to this resemblance. Now, what happens with younger generations? They do not long for a physical keypad since it was never a part of their lives. You can’t miss what you never had, it’s that simple. The same reasoning applies to meat and meat replacers.
As new generations inhabit the planet, new trends and customer needs arise. Boomers, Gen X-ers and Millennials, Annoying Little Olaf included, recall a guiltless meaty childhood. A steak or a chicken on your plate back then was not a crime, it was the norm. Research published in The Lancet notes that in many Western European countries, ‘the proportion of meat consumers has decreased over time, whereas the proportion of individuals identifying as vegetarian and vegan has increased.’ Add a COGS crisis and a climate crisis and I’d be very surprised if this trend doesn’t push through. Vegetarian Millennials are normalizing flexitarian and vegetarian households, slowly embracing new perceptions. Our Gen Alpha, who will be your consumers in 15 years, is currently being raised by woke Millennials. They may not eat much meat. And they may just not crave it as much as we assume.
Innovation is the new replacing
I overheard a young colleague explain how he blind tested the Veggie McChicken with the regular one. He used only taste and experience as criteria. And he found the Veggie version more to his liking. What stuck in my head was that to him, it’s not about the ingredients or its resemblance to meat. If taste and experience are the most important criteria, there’s a world of opportunities that can be built on new and exciting foundations. There’s an opportunity to design a whole new category of protein delivery products from the ground up. Its shape and form are currently unknown, but can you also hear the future screaming for it? While meat associations have been a successful branding asset for meat replacers, future generations will unlock alternative mental territories.
I think it’s a great time to look in a new direction through a different lens. In that world, the protein delivery industry has to dance to a different tune. Bleeding steaks and smoky aromas might no longer please future needs. While it might resonate with my generation, it might lose its connection with any new one. Meaty brand names and semiotics make the brand scream ‘I’m temporary!’. Again – tricky, right?
So what now?
A brand’s positioning provides its raison d’etre and to whom it satisfies a need. As society changes, these needs change with it. Your marketing department’s priority is to find the right ‘get-to-by’, which is an immediate and ongoing mission. It’s the C-suite’s task to create a sustainable future for their most valuable assets: the brands. As society evolves quicker than ever, the time to start designing the products and brands of the future has come. There’s first mover advantages all over the place. Yes, it’s scary to tell R&D to pave new ways. It’s scary to assume as a brand, you can help land new eating habits. But just imagine cracking it – you will have created a ‘category defining’ product or brand. And we as makers of food images look forward to giving it a recognisable and tasty face and identity.
Change is good. It is a half-full glass of opportunities. It may be somewhat late for Annoying Little Olaf, but your future consumer does not carry the burden of our meat-eating history. Brands that make an early jump will get ahead of the rest. It may seem scary but leap, and the net will appear.
If not now, then when?