Beyond Meat Tries Again

Beyond Meat, the plant-based protein alternative, just concluded its Quarter 1 2024 earnings call. Creator and CEO Ethan Brown spent a good portion of the call explaining the rationale behind the brand’s new strategy. 

From observations, strategically Beyond Meat never really focused on its brand promise. Customers never really understood what was relevant and differentiating about Beyond Meat. This was unfortunate because Beyond Meat’s brand promise would have relevantly differentiated the brand from its competitor, Impossible Foods. What we knew was that these plant-based burgers, nuggets and crumbles were a non-animal alternative to cattle-based protein. We also knew that Impossible Foods chose restaurants as the preferred channel and Beyond Meat chose grocery as the preferred channel.

Weak communications allowed the association of cattlemen to skewer Beyond Meat as ultra-processed, lab-generated, bad-for-you food. This relentless attack impugned the brand irking Mr. Brown. To be fair, there were some taste issues that only hard-core vegans could excuse. However, Mr. Brown became laser-focused on returning fire. Innovation has helped. The latest iteration of Beyond Meat is supposedly better-tasting and even better for you. 

This brings us to Beyond Meat’s new strategy and communications.

Beyond Meat decided that gaining the approval of highly reputable, trusted organizations would be the best counterweight to the aggressive derision of cattlemen. Beyond Meat decided to use dietary, nutritional and health science information to gain institutional approval hopefully leading to consumers’ approval.

Reaching out to third-party signifiers such as the Good Housekeeping Institute for its Nutritionist approved seal of approval, the American Diabetes Association for its imprimatur, the Clean Label project certification, the Non GMO project verification and the supremely trustworthy American Heart Association checkmark, Beyond Meat believes that consumers will realize the cattle-meat industry has been remiss in its accusations. Beyond Meat believes that consumers will change their minds about eating Beyond Meat’s plant-base alternatives because eating right for your heart and health are serious drivers in which foods we choose.

It is also important to note that the tag line – Serve Love – has a steer in the “O” of the word Love. Possibly to subtly remind us that cows are loved but are killed to make meat protein items.

Beyond Meat is betting on three things for its revitalization: 1) the power of third party expert testimony; 2) the consumer’s actual purchase of food that is better for them; and 3) the improved taste of offerings.

  1. Third party expert testimony has been powerful, no question.

Decades ago, when advertising agencies and researchers spent time and money understanding how advertising works, we learned the value of third-party testimony in marketing. Crest toothpaste is one of the oldest and best examples of the power of third-party testimony. Crest obtained the seal of the American Dental Association (ADA) for its fluoride (Crest’s formula “flouristan”) toothpaste. People with TV sets saw black and white ads with a kid coming home from a dental visit saying, “Look Ma, no cavities.” 

We also learned the power of peer testimony. Pillsbury used children as peer testimony in its cake mix commercials. Cakes were now easy to make and less time-consuming. But, many people thought that all this convenience took the heart and the taste out of baking. Pillsbury had a grinning child say, “Thank you, Mom” after eating a piece of Pillsbury cake mix cake.

The 2003-2005 McDonald’s turnaround used peer testimony. The idea behind “I’m lovin’ it” was speak in the voice of the customer. Up until “I’m lovin’ it,” McDonald’s had always used the corporate voice, telling customers what McDonald’s could do for them, such as “Your deserve a break today” or “You… you’re the one” or “We love to see you smile.”

Third-party experts and peer testimony have been important reinforcements for consumers. Over time, however, we lost trust in institutions and experts. The annual Edelman Trust Barometer 2024 data show the continuing decline in institutional trust. Today, we trust peer testimony over expert testimony. Social media has spurred this default to peer testimony.

Edelman data indicate that peer testimony (people-like-me) is equal to scientists’ testimony when it comes to “telling me the truth about innovations and technologies.” Both scientists and people-like-me were tied at 74%.

As for third-party seals of approval, research from 2018 indicates that “… the success of a seal is dependent of consumers’ knowledge of the brand being marketed, their awareness of the third-party seal being applied in marketing material and the seals ability to convey information important to the consumer in differentiating offerings.”

  1. Buying For Health Benefits

Studies show that when food shopping, prices and quality are more important than health, safety and environmental impact. And, other data show that price, quality and convenience are more important than having a seal of approval relating to health or environmental issues.

A recent US survey indicated that 37% of those interviewed were in the highest bracket of concern (a 5-point scale) when asked “How conscious or concerned are you about your current or future heart health?” Thirty-three percent (33%) of respondents placed themselves in the second highest bracket. Aggregating these data, 70% of consumers said their personal health concern was high.

This high level of concern did not seem to translate into purchasing heart healthy products. So, when asked what is most important in maintaining or improving heart health, a mere 40% of respondents said “physical exercise “ Only twenty-one percent (21%) said foods that have heart-healthy benefits, while only 13% said exercise and heart-healthy foods. Asked about “food making heart healthy claims,” only 3% said this was important.

  1. Taste

And, then, of course, there is taste. Being vegan or vegetarian is difficult. There are many products designed for vegans and vegetarians that taste great and there are many offerings  that do not. CEO Brown tells us that the new versions of Beyond Meat are “loved” by people who have tasted the products. 

Taste is critical. Especially when many people believe that good-for-you foods do not taste as good as foods with fats, sugar and salt. Just think about all those chips, pretzels, crackers and cookies made with olestra – a fat substitute introduced into foods in 1998 – that died on grocery shelves. Even if the new iterations of Beyond Meat offerings are delicious, consumers will compare Beyond Meat offerings to cattle and chicken offerings.

Wall Street did not seem very impressed with Beyond Meat’s performance and strategy as the brand’s share price fell post-call. One reason may be pricing. To be profitable and demonstrate that this “next generation” of Beyond Meat is of the highest quality (and to protect while growing margins), Beyond Meat raised prices. Beyond Meat products are already at a premium to animal-based protein offerings. Prior to these new versions of Beyond Meat, consumers looked at the price of meat and the price of Beyond Meat and chose meat. 

It may be that once again Beyond Meat is missing the compelling, uplifting message of its core vision and essence. Seals of approval are nice to have and meaningful but only if customers understand the seals. Peer testimony is critical; relying on expert testimony alone is probably not as strong. And, it is unclear whether customers will understand the meaningfulness of each seal. Hoping that people will eat for their heart health is nice but what people say and what they actually do, especially when it comes to food tend not to match. Most people say they will eat healthy but do not follow through. 

The first Earth Day was in 1970. That was 54 years ago. We still are divided on issues such as climate change. Expecting people to change attitudes and behaviors on food may take just as long. After all, during the 1960s and 1970s, vegans and vegetarians introduced tofu, brown rice, kelp, daikon, nori , miso, tahini, dates, seeds, turmeric, ginger and kale that are not only now mainstream but highlighted in restaurants including fine dining. But the 1960’s were 64 years ago; Molly Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook and Michio Kushi’ Book of Macrobiotics were published 47 years ago

It is difficult to change behaviors. But, changing behaviors can be easier than changing people’s attitudes. The questions are: Will seals of approval change behaviors? Will seals of approval make a relevant difference in a world where the opinions of people-like-me carry equal or more weight than the opinions of experts? The current strategy and communications from Beyond Meat may make employees and executives happy and show shareholders that Beyond Meat is challenging the status quo. But, is this approach the way to generate users, loyalty, revenue and enduring profitable growth?