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Everything Your CPG Brand Needs to Know about Plant-Based Protein Trends

Jun 8, 2021

Written By
Kelly Criswell

These days, everyone and their mother is into wellness. You’ve noticed too, right? Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic really set in, it seems we’re all more attuned to our overall health.

Of course, wellness trends have poured over into the food and beverage industry. Alcohol-free drinks, naturally sweetened foods, probiotic everything — and who hasn’t at least tried Meatless Mondays?

As a result of our health-centric ways, plant-based alternatives (PBAs) have gone from hippie to mainstream and beyond. Even sworn steak-eaters are giving alternative proteins a go. And as these products become more popular, more and better options emerge, converting additional “average Joe” consumers into veggie burger lovers. It’s a classic snowball effect.

You want to understand the PBA space so you can drop an awesome new product that takes the category by storm, but you don’t really have time to dive deep into the plant product craze.

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

Consider top PBA trends and brands we’re keeping our eye on so you can take advantage of this new meat-free age.

Flexitarians Are Taking Plant-Based Mainstream

At least in part, we can thank flexitarians for bringing plant-based products into the mainstream and increasing their popularity. You can probably guess from the name, but a flexitarian is a person who follows a mostly vegetarian diet with occasional meat and fish dishes.

Keep flexitarians on your radar. This group is eager to try new PBA foods and they’re unlikely to read labels as closely as full-time vegetarians or vegans. Flexitarians are also less familiar with legacy PBA brands.

All of this means you’ll have to work harder to differentiate your PBA from actual meat — emphasize flavor, call out usage suggestions, etc. — but you have a new, less-discerning, and larger audience to cater to.

Grocery Stores Are Reacting to the Rise of PBAs

When PBAs are sold in the same grocery store section as animal proteins, sales of PBAs increase 23%. It’s no wonder many stores are merchandising PBA products in the “regular” aisle instead of in a separate health food section, as was typical.

As an innovator looking to break through in the PBA space, this shift offers a huge opportunity to change your packaging and differentiate your product.

Most plant-based protein brands are still mimicking their animal protein counterparts in terms of packaging design. This was acceptable when PBAs were sold separately (and when flexitarians weren’t a thing). Loyal vegan and vegetarian shoppers knew what they were getting when they walked into the plant-based section, regardless of the meat-inspired packaging.

But now that PBAs and animal products are sold side-by-side, the copycat packaging makes it wildly confusing for shoppers. If a PBA ham is next to “real” ham, can shoppers tell? Oftentimes, consumers are left to decide which hunk of meat is PBA vs. pig.

Here’s the huge opportunity part: If you come in with a product that stands out amid both plant and animal protein products, you’ll win. Game, set, match.

PBA Packaging Trends You Should Disrupt

“Regular” people (not just lifelong veg lovers) are buying PBAs. Plus grocery stores are promoting plant-based proteins to the meat cases.

What do both of these trends point to?

A likely need for a packaging refresh that informs shoppers exactly what your brand offers and makes a splash on the shelf.

To start, analyze what current PBA product packaging tends to look like:

  • White and green are dominant PBA brand colors
  • Stylized photography that pushes appetite appeal is the norm
  • Plant-based products lean on photography instead of actually showing the “meat” through a clear window, as animal products often do
  • The packaging relies heavily on informational claims over emotional, brand-driven elements

Use some of these expected PBA packaging elements so shoppers can quickly place you in your category, but leave the rest in the dust. Again, it’s time to differentiate your PBA from meat and from the growing plant-based competition.

Plant-Based Protein Brands to Watch

Remember the snowball effect? As plant-based foods become more popular, more companies create better products. PBAs have come a long way from veggie burgers and chicken patties. In fact, you might just see PBA bacon, cold cuts, non-breaded chicken, sausage, hot dogs, and even seafood in your local store.

And we’re not just pulling your leg. We actually tried over 25 products across 16 brands! Here’s what caught our attention, from both a taste and packaging perspective

Field Roast

This “sausage” is out of this world. It might be the best plant-based item we tried. The flavor is robust and layered, and the texture is hearty, just like the real thing.

Field Roast’s packaging is successful, too. It’s high-quality, premium, and flavor-forward — showing the product used in a recipe that’s very consistent with our actual experience.

There’s one negative about Field Roast’s product: It’s nearly impossible to unwrap! The sausages are “cased” in plastic and twisted between links to emulate meat sausages. And while consumers do want their PBAs to imitate animal products, you have to strike the right balance.

The takeaway? Consider your consumers’ usage experiences. It doesn’t matter how delicious your product is if people can’t get it open.

Daring and Tofurkey

We said you should disrupt the increasingly crowded PBA space with differentiated products and packaging. How about looking at some brands doing this well?

Daring, a plant-based chicken brand, is doing everything right.

They’ve created a striking visual language that defies category conventions. At the same time, their large product photography makes it clear to consumers what they’re getting — “chicken.” While the words don’t scream “plant-based,” the logo, layout, color combos, and photos do all the legwork.

Not to mention the product itself — un-breaded vegan “chicken” — is disruptive. Most veg “chicken” options are either breaded or in liquid, not seemingly grilled like Daring’s options. Plus, it’s delicious!

Tofurkey is basically the OG plant-based player. They don’t have to educate consumers about what their products are. This could be a disadvantage, making Tofurkey seem stale and outdated. Instead, they’re leveraging the fact that they’re well-known and leaning into their brand in a fun, hip, playful way — with adorable product illustrations.

These illustrations break the visual conventions of the space. The result is a unique, ownable voice for Tofurkey, and an earned spot among younger, trendier PBA brands.

JUST Egg

As mentioned, there are a lot of cool product innovations in the PBA space right now (plant-based salmon, anyone?). Our favorite innovation has got to be PBA eggs. Yep, you heard that right!

JUST Eggs are particularly magical. They taste almost exactly like “regular” eggs, perhaps a tad sweeter (in a good way). And the texture is reminiscent of fast food eggs in the best way possible.

We have one minor complaint: The packaging is too understated.

Look, we’re brand geeks. We’re aware of nearly every CPG out there. If we weren’t, we might not have known JUST Eggs are plant-based. Especially, again, when they’re sold alongside pre-scrambled chicken eggs.

Remember: Work hard to tell consumers what your product is and what it offers them.

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