Nobody Wants a Substitute

Topher Burns
Oct 8, 2020 · 6 min read

What alternative proteins can teach us about selling earth-friendly choices

Block tofu, at its most alluring (image: https://garlicdelight.com/regular-brick-tofu/)
Photo by Alexander Dinamarca on Unsplash

It’s been a long day. You put your feet up on the coffee table and rub your eyes but an image of your email inbox seems to be burned into the back of your brain. I come over and put a sympathetic hand on your shoulder, give it a little squeeze. “You’ve been working hard honey, let me go the fridge and bring you a substitute beer.”

All those Good Husband Points I was about to earn just evaporated. Because even though you don’t know what a substitute beer is, you know you’d much rather just have the real thing.

This is what I’ve been struggling with about the plant-based protein industry for so long. If you offer me a meat substitute, no matter how tantalizing, it just mostly makes me want the meat. Even the industry’s soi-disant title, “alternative proteins”, makes you plainly aware that you’re out of option A’s and only choosing option B’s now.

From a marketing perspective alone, this is a tough place to be if your job is to sell tofu. But the problem is actually much bigger. We need to figure out how to eat less meat, because after switching to mass transit eating less meat is the best thing we can do at a personal level to reduce our impact on the planet. But people still need protein to be generally healthy and to grow attractive muscles, so we’ve got to get them interested in other nutritional sources besides cows.

Let’s continue looking at this as a marketing problem. While vegetarians and vegans make up about 5% of the US population, a recent study shows about 45% of the US to be “flexitarian”, meaning not interested in going off meat or animal products entirely but still looking to eat less meat overall. This underscores another weakness in terminology around alternative proteins. Because while meat substitution is an appealing proposition to the 5% segment, the larger 45% segment is much less likely to be inspired by tofurkey.

Indeed, in studies about what stops people from trying protein alternatives, taste ranks #1. The problem? 73% of people sampled say that alternative proteins should taste like meat. But this is a trap that the industry has set for itself! No one says they don’t like falafel because it doesn’t taste like meatballs. The more that marketers try to sell alternative protein as a substitute to actual meat, the more that our persuadable 45% of Americans who want to eat less meat will point out that these tempeh squares do not in any way resemble spare ribs and so they’ll just stick to the real thing this time thank you very much.

But we still have to sell this stuff. So how? Don’t name your products around what people are giving up. Make it about the great stuff they’re about to get. It shouldn’t be surprising, but a comprehensive look at what product names make people buy more alternative proteins highlights four things: flavor, texture, color, and provenance.

If those sounds familiar it’s because those are the cues that have been used to sell food as long as we’ve been buying it. Tangy barbecue. Golden beets. Florida Orange Juice. Crunchwrap Supreme. These are all naming conventions that make your tummy perk up and pay attention. And when we’re trying to get you to make a food decision, we should be speaking the language of the gut.

What didn’t work, when trying to get food buyers to choose plant-based proteins over animal proteins? Names that served as absence cues. Stuff that told you what you weren’t getting (and reminded you of how good it would have been). Non-fat veggie sausage. Meat-free pot pie. Mock duck salad. These names only appeal to those for whom meat is unappealing. The rest of us see names like that on the menu and start dreaming of a porterhouse for two.

It’s not to say that there’s no room at all in the world of alternative proteins to talk about earth impact. In fact I think that’s a really important conversation that many more companies should be having with their consumers. But rather than attach that type of thinking to the products themselves, ideas like sustainability and renewal should be connected to the brand. Use the brand to paint a picture of how the world can be better when people make choices like eating less meat, and then let your tasty products speak tummy language with words around flavor, texture, color, and provenance.

One more important thing to note: if we’re going to accomplish our mission of getting people to eat less meat: we need to stay away from “fancy.” There are already too many structural and economic barriers standing between the average American and good food choices. The last thing we want to do is wrap up alternative protein in a veneer of elitism and exclusivity. The rich 1% occasionally buying an Impossible Burger over champagne brunch is not going to be what makes a meaningful dent in our country’s meat consumption.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

So imagine your friend asking you to meet at Blue Sky Burrito Box for lunch. The restaurant’s decor and imagery evokes clean air and abundant plant life. When it’s your turn to order you choose a regional flavor profile (a Smokey Santa Fe Burrito) and then you’re asked to choose between Hearty, Crunchy, or Crumbly (tempeh, chickpeas, or tofu). Think of all the positive cues you’re getting. You’re feeling healthy without any sense of punishing yourself. You’re feeling more connected to nature without needing to pass a Green Party purity test. And you’re excited about what you’re eating, without being reminded that you passed up having a seared flank steak.

To back out from alternative proteins for a second, what do I hope we take away from this discussion? When I see a lot of earth-friendly products and services being offered, it feels like they’re making a lot of the same mistakes. I find myself wishing they’d be guided by a few basic points:

  1. Talk about the great stuff you’re offering, not what you’re replacing
  2. Speak the language of the decision that is being made
  3. Remind me of the better world I’m helping to create with this choice
  4. Make it something everyone can join in on

And I guess, consider having something else tasty instead of animal protein for your next meal. There are so many good options out there now — go find something you like, even if maybe its name isn’t the most exciting part about it.

If you want to read more about the world of alternative proteins, McKinsey wrote a fascinating report that I’d highly recommend you check out. They stack up production realities for a number of different protein sources (plant, insect, myco, synthesized) against actual nutritional output and weigh general familiarity and affinity for these sources to give you a really comprehensive view of the space.

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