Fake Cheese, Long a Flavor Failure, Is Growing as Brands Like Daiya Refine the Recipe

Campaign from TDA Boulder focuses on craving and simple moments rather than selling veganism

DA_Boulder promotes the taste of Daiya vegan cheese––with the help of a very cute baby.DA_Boulder / Daiya

It might be unspoken in the marketing world, but it’s no secret to consumers who have eaten fake cheese in the last few decades: Many of those products are, well, gross.

Daiya, a Canadian brand that launched in 2008, tacitly acknowledges the problem and uses it as an underlying theme in three new spots with the tagline, “Enjoy the Unexpected.”

The campaign, which represent the brand’s heaviest investment in digital video to date, aims to challenge preconceived notions about non-dairy cheese and put an upbeat spin on the category, which represents a small but growing slice of the plant-based food market.

For context, reviews of vegan cheese—which can be made from a range of ingredients like nuts, pea protein, tofu or soy—have often described the options in the marketplace as “rubbery” and “artificial,” comparing some products to Play-Doh and others to sawdust.

“We’re using some candor around the fact that people have been disappointed in the entire category, and often they think it tastes bad before they’ve even tried it,” said Jonathan Schoenberg, executive creative director and partner at agency TDA_Boulder, which is behind the new ads. “We’re trying to build some trust.”

Daiya has reworked the recipe for its shredded products, which sell as stand-alone items in mozzarella, cheddar, pepper jack and other styles and also show up as ingredients in the brand’s pizzas and burritos.

The campaign, like previous work from the agency, does not position the products as “cheese substitutes,” but rather “cheese that happens to not come from dairy,” said Paul Siegel, the agency’s brand director. It intends to capture “moments of joy” that happen when people eat Daiya food.

The ads were shot in Los Angeles during quarantine and “written accordingly,” with safety protocols in mind and limited cast and crew, Siegel said. The spots will be distributed via social media and digital platforms in key regions of the country. 

The agency, which has worked with Daiya for nearly seven years, has purposely avoided the potentially polarizing word “vegan” in its marketing, even though vegans and vegetarians (and the lactose intolerant) have been consistent targets.

These days, Daiya is aiming at its core of plant-based loyalists but also the exploding flexitarian population, which execs refer to as “plant-based curious” or “plant-based explorers.”

Daiya had planned to roll out advertising earlier this year but paused it because of the coronavirus crisis. “We did a gut check for the right time,” said Jocelyn Robertson, the brand’s director of marketing.

The brand’s pizza line, like many frozen foods, has seen a sales bump during the pandemic as consumers stocked up on comfort and convenience foods. Meanwhile, the brand has expanded its retail footprint, already spanning Walmart, Target, Kroger, Whole Foods and Sprouts, among other chains, with new distribution at Costco.

A growing category

Like imitation eggs, faux cheese represents a small portion of the overall plant-based food category, logging about $189 million in retail sales in 2019, according to Good Food Institute. (Compare that to almond and other milk substitutes at $2 billion and fake meat at nearly $1 billion in 2019 sales).

Consumer demand is spiking, though, with the plant-based cheese category growing 51% between 2017 and 2019, while conventional cheese sales grew at a more modest 5% during that time, GFI stats show.

Some of the best-selling brands like Lisanatti, Follow Your Heart and Tofutti have been around since the 1970s and ’80s, with others such as Treeline, Kite Hill, Miyoko’s Creamery and Daiya launching in more recent years. The top 10 brands (including Field Roast, Go Veggie! and Violife) account for 94% of retail sales in the category, according to GFI.

Like plant-based burger makers, vegan cheese brands have improved their formulas in recent years with an eye on a broader consumer base that demands products that more closely resemble the dairy-centric originals.

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