User-Generated Content Will Allow Plant-Based Protein to Flourish

Once the novelty wears off, people will be less interested

Impossible whopper, Beyond KFC, Dunkin beyond sausage
Right now, plant-based protein brands are still hovering around the innovator/early adopter phase.
Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Impossible Foods/Burger King, Beyond Meat/KFC/Dunkin

Need a good small talk conversation starter? Look no further than soliciting opinions on the new trend of plant-based protein. “Have you tried the Impossible Burger yet?” “Would you ever eat that Beyond Meat stuff?” “I was a vegan once for two weeks.”

Nearly seven in 10 Americans are trying to increase plant protein consumption. And the growing popularity is translating into real dollar growth, as the sales of plant-based meat alternatives in the U.S. grew 10% in the past year. Just in September alone, six new plant-based meat brands emerged, including Protein Patties from Trader Joes, Incogmeato from Kellogg’s Morningstar Farms, Awesome Burger from Nestle’s Earth Foods and Kroger’s Simple Truth Plant Based.

However, many still remain highly skeptical of the movement’s future, including Chipotle’s CEO, who questioned whether plant-based foods designed to taste like meat have long-term staying power.

A new trend like this follows a similar pattern of any customer adoption story: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. But how can the plant-based protein movement become a ubiquitous staple in consumers’ diets and not just a fad that we all laugh about in 10 years and coin as “peak 2019”?

The answer is social proof. While there are a host of market factors that will contribute to adoption, recommendation currency will be absolutely critical to burgeoning plant-based protein brands and the restaurants and stores that will carry them. While marketers invest in advertising, celebrities and high-dollar influencers, consumers most trust recommendations from their personal social circles. In fact, in a study from Survey Monkey, they found about half of consumers have never bought something because of an advertisement. Fewer than one in 10 have ever purchased a product because of a celebrity endorsement, and only 13% have purchased because of an online influencer. Of all advertising mediums, TV is the most effective, but friends and family are approximately twice as influential across the board.

The real meat ... of this movement will be determined by the dedicated marketing apparatus these brands build to foster authentic UGC from everyday people.

Right now, plant-based protein brands are still hovering around the innovator/early adopter phase. As you move along the innovation adoption curve, it becomes harder to convince people. Many brands will see a natural stream of organic user-generated content (UGC) simply due to its novelty.

When Beyond Meat filed to go public, the company cited 7.5 billion earned media impressions in the first nine months of 2018. Take note though; this will fade. The real meat (yes, sorry) of this movement will be determined by the dedicated marketing apparatus these brands build to foster authentic UGC from everyday people.

Here are three ways for plant-based protein brands to achieve staying power.

Build a community home for both passionate advocates and curious lurkers

The plant-based protein movement is ripe with early adopters, also referred to as lighthouse customers, who are primed to be more socially connected. Nurturing a compelling brand community as part of your brand’s website experience will amplify its collective sharing power in a brand positive way that also builds emotional ties and loyalty.

Additionally, it’s widely accepted in internet culture that the majority of content is driven by a small percentage. The 90-9-1 rule states that 1% of users contribute the most, 9% contribute from time to time and the remaining 90% are lurkers. For plant-based protein brands, they must develop a home for both vocal consumers to connect and for inquiring consumers to learn and engage.

It’s important for marketers to facilitate a valuable information exchange in addition to emotional lifestyle engagement. Remember, lurkers still consider themselves very much a part of the community even if they don’t contribute.

Focus more on storytelling and less on innovation

While it may be tempting to get consumers talking about the use of pea protein versus soy leghemoglobin to achieve the right bleed effect, most people beyond early adaptors don’t care. Burger King’s Impossible Whopper commercial gets it right by showing reactions from everyday people who can’t believe the burger they’re eating does not contain meat.

But advertising focused on the taste test “meat or no meat” game will run its course rather quickly. Plant-based protein brands must embrace storytelling that appeals to higher-order emotions. Marketers should encourage content that shows how plant-based protein leaves a positive impact. Maybe plant-based protein brands inspire hope for consumers, for a future where less beef consumption leads to a better environment.

Get personal with power users 

Early adopters are guinea pigs for new products. They provide marketers with valuable feedback and are the most invested, both emotionally and financially given the fact that they are taking a risk by purchasing your product that will likely be cheaper in the future. As such, they are entitled to a higher value exchange. Personalized marketing is at the top of marketers’ agendas. However, personalization should go beyond personalized ads or a personalized email campaign.

Marketers should proactively collect zero-party data on early consumers that focus on lifestyle behaviors, beliefs, motivations and preferences. From this data, marketers can offer brand experiences that match a consumer’s emotions rather than demographics. It also shows consumers that the data collected provides value to their experience.

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