How Plant-Based Meat Brands Fuel Growth

Everywhere you look and nearly everywhere you eat, plant-based meat companies are making incredible strides. Burger King recently debuted its beefless Impossible Whopper. KFC is currently testing a meat alternative from Beyond Meat, and — if the Colonel approves — there’s no telling what could happen to Beyond’s stock, already up 487% from its initial public offering in May 2019.

Beyond isn’t the only highflier in the space. Data from Nielsen illustrates that plant-based protein sales increased 23% from 2017 to 2018. While the $684 million industry category still represents less than 1% of the U.S. retail meat market, the explosion of meat alternative brands — and investments from major meat producers, such as Tyson Foods — suggest that figure could change dramatically in the near future. 

Plant-based meat companies are experiencing a meteoric rise because they’re carving out a new niche in alternative protein. Previously, this market space had been dubbed “vegetarian.” Bean burgers, soy sausage, and the like had been relegated to their own grocery sections, far away from the meat eater’s gaze. Now, however, alternative meat from Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and smaller brands owned by big companies like Kellogg and Nestlé graces grocery stores’ meat cases.

Lessons from the Meat Market

Whether or not they’re overhauling a market, startups from any industry stand to benefit from a few key growth marketing tactics that plant-based meat brands use:

1. Don’t be late to the data party.

Startups might not have the astronomical marketing budget of an established company, but they should still make key decisions based on data. When Beyond Meat looked at customer loyalty data in 2018, it found that 93% of shoppers purchasing Beyond Burgers were also buying meat. The data was a revelation that supported the company’s decision to market to everyone — not just vegetarians looking for meat alternatives.

Data can and should power efforts at every stage of a startup’s growth, and marketers should consider every lead source. “It’s important to know where your users are coming from so you can get more of them,” advises Janielle Denier, CEO at growth-stage startup marketing firm Rainfactory. “It’s also important to know what your potential customers are doing once they land on your website.” Track this information, and put it to use by creating lookalike audiences and optimizing sales funnels.

2. Make something for the masses.

Too many startups focus on their super fans and create content, messaging, and products for that small audience. As a young company, it’s more important to acquire a large audience and tap into greater potential. Plant-based protein brands used to target vegetarians and vegans, groups that represent 5% and 3% of Americans, respectively. Today, companies like Beyond Meat are marketing to people who eat. Spoiler alert: That’s a much larger percentage of the population — hence the messaging directed at any curious omnivore. 

As Caroline Bushnell, associate director of corporate engagement at The Good Food Institute, points out, “In the last few years, as we’ve seen more companies innovating and thinking of their market base as all consumers and meat eaters…the way these products are being innovated and produced has really evolved.” Instead of reserving products for a select few, plant-based meat companies are making them for, and marketing them to, the masses.

3. Pick your partners strategically.

To startups, partnerships with big businesses represent a wealth of opportunity. Seemingly boundless budgets, an army of experts, and the authority of an established name all appeal to intrepid innovators looking to get their big break. That’s why Impossible Foods has relied on partnerships with fast-food chains like White Castle and Burger King, in addition to well-known chefs in cities around the world.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize what startups bring to the table in a potential partnership. The ability of a small team to move quickly and innovate effectively is incredibly valuable to large, lumbering organizations hoping to keep up with smaller competitors. When it’s time to look for potential partners, gravitate toward relationships that offer mutual benefit and value alignment.

No matter what type of startup you’re marketing, you can learn a thing or two from the success of plant-based meat brands. In redefining an industry category, these companies have been forced to market for growth. That means making decisions based on data, appealing to a broad audience, and picking partners with more than money in mind.