As Faux Burgers Boom, Pioneer Dr. Praeger’s Launches Biggest Marketing Push in 25 Years

Legacy plant-based brand, acting more like a scrappy startup, launches first connected TV ad

Dr. Praeger's says it has benefitted from the competitive surge by brands like Impossible and Beyond. Dr. Praeger's
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Dr. Praeger’s, a pioneer in veggie burgers, launched its first major national ad campaign this week with an animated face-off between fresh produce and junk food. (Guess who wins?)

The brand debuted in grocery freezer cases in 1996, long before plant-based food was mainstream, and introduced many American consumers to “burger” patties made from a medley of carrots, peas, zucchini and other vegetables. Its new 30-second commercial, produced during lockdown, is the centerpiece of its largest-scale marketing effort to date.

The company, whose formal name is Dr. Praeger’s Purely Sensible Foods, recently jumped into the fiercely competitive fake meat category with meatless beef and turkey burgers, sliders, breakfast sausage and grounds (an imitation of ground beef).

The “Powered by Praeger’s” campaign, a collaboration between the brand’s in-house marketing team and Brooklyn-based Special Operations, touts the flagship California veggie burger but intends to throw a halo over the extensive product line, now numbering north of 50 items such as sweet potato hash browns, chicken nuggets and tenders, “Spinach Littles” for kids, French toast sticks and Brussels sprout cakes.

The ad aims to be “playful, approachable and memorable,” delivering the better-for-you message with a light touch, according to David Cantor, vp of marketing.

“It has a different flavor than anything we’ve done before—we didn’t want it to sound like your mother or your teacher telling you to eat your veggies,” he said. “We’re celebrating the power of vegetables and bringing that to life with these characters.”

Stars of the ad include “hero vegetables” Broccoli Rob, Barry the Beet and Professor Pepper, among others, who may return in future communications, Cantor said.

The ads, with Portland-based House Special handling the animation, will run on connected TV, digital and social.

Expanded outreach, broader target

The marketing splash is unprecedented for Dr. Praeger’s, founded 25 years ago by two heart surgeons and now run by the second generations of both their families. Traditionally, its campaigns have been “very trade specific and somewhat tactical,” Cantor said, focused almost solely on in-store collaborations with retailers, as well as some consumer-centric digital and social media outreach.

The time was right “to go after a wider audience,” beyond vegan and vegetarian loyalists, said Cantor, a 15-year veteran of the natural and organic food space, noting the uptick in consumer interest in plant-based eating.

We’ve benefited more than been harmed by the increased attention for plant-based eating.

David Cantor, vp of marketing, Dr. Praeger’s

Though shoppers were already making more plant-based food purchases in recent years, particularly in 2019 with burgers that mimic real meat, they’ve propelled triple-digit sales spikes during the pandemic. They’re citing safety, health and environmental concerns, increasingly identifying as flexitarian and purposefully cutting down on red meat.

Dr. Praeger’s, also served in some restaurant chains and hotels, is glad to see “so many more people coming into the tent,” Cantor said, even though it means trying to go toe-to-toe with well-funded, high-profile rivals like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. “We’ve benefited more than been harmed by the increased attention for plant-based eating.”

According to the Good Food Institute, the real growth has been in so-called “analog” plant-based meat, the products that try to closely resemble their real meat counterparts, showing 23% growth in 2019, while veggie-forward products “collectively experienced decreasing growth” last year.

Analog products made up 63% of plant-based meat but are responsible for 84% of plant-based meat category dollar sales, GFI stats show.

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@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.