October 30, 2020

Why the semiotics of meat might be the biggest barrier to people switching to meat-free products

Over the past two years, the number of Brits who have eaten meat-free foods, or dishes made using meat substitutes, shot up from 50% to 65% in 2019. Meanwhile, sales of meat-free foods have grown an impressive 40% from £582m in 2014 to an estimated £816m in 2019 (according to Mintel). Although the value of meat free food sales is predicted to grow rapidly, there is little evidence yet that people are reducing the amount to meat they eat in the UK. Could the biggest problem be how meat-free products are presented to people and the incredibly strong visual heritage of meat? Here, Mark Lemon, Project Director at Sign Salad, looks at whether food and supermarket brands are struggling to get the marketing of meat-free products right and look at how they might develop packaging and advertising that will entice us, transforming the category from niche to mainstream.

Plant-based and meat-free might be the food buzzwords of the past few years, with start-ups and new products appearing thick and fast. But can these products break through to the mainstream or are they destined to remain a niche mainly for vegetarian and vegan consumers?

At first glance, the data looks promising but these figures disguise the fact that most British households still consume meat products daily. Given the scale of the challenge, it is worth asking whether a key aspect to achieving consumer engagement and consumption is the way in which meat-free brands can successfully replicate the cultural connotations of meat.

For new consumers who have previously been unaccustomed to meat-less products, their first point of contact with a new proposition is its name, the look and feel of the packaging, and the marketing that surrounds it. The impression formed by the visual messages and language surrounding the product can be critical. After all, the taste and texture of meat are no longer a challenge to replicate. Its meaning however is a different question.

Cultural heritage 
Like it or not, the consumption of meat is deeply rooted in our cultural consciousness. It is tied to narratives of masculinity, community, indulgence, and sacrifice. Meat serves as the traditional ‘centrepiece’ of the meal. As such, it embodies cultural codes of heartiness and substance, and we often buy the product expressly by weight (e.g. the ‘Oz’ listing of a steak on a menu) or in formats that emphasize its size (e.g. the KFC ‘bucket’, ‘Meat Feast’ pizza). 

Burgers are also frequently framed as double or even triple decker in size highlighting our cultural understanding of meat as hearty reinforcement. Packaging imagery and language referencing meat’s integrity and purity (e.g. ‘Prime’) are frequently employed to reinforce the role of meat as fulfilling substance. Aligned with this role as a centre piece, there is a great deal of ceremony and symbolism associated with the proper preparation of meat. 

Therefore, meat-free brands need to similarly communicate a sense of integrity when promoting their competing products. Beans, mushrooms, and root vegetables are legitimate sources of nutritional enrichment, but they find themselves out of context when meat-free products present them as alternative ingredients, or when brands mix them with ‘unknown’ or simply unfamiliar ingredients. 

Similarly, it is essential to draw on the sense of craft, joy, and ceremony associated with meat, in the way meat-free products are presented symbolically. Getting this mix of messages right to create positive emotion, will help to convert meat eaters who still hold on to the importance of the symbolic heritage of meat.   

The consumer uptake
There are several factors driving consumer uptake of meat-free alternatives. One growing factor is the transition of issues such as climate crisis, sustainability and pollution from a fringe concerns to a mainstream cultural narrative. 

The idea of an interconnected biosphere, where our dietary decisions have a broader impact on global wellbeing, is increasingly understood by people at an unconscious level. Covid-19 and the lockdown have further helped to embed acceptance that our actions have broader impacts beyond our immediate sphere. 

We are already seeing some brands move on from framing their products as meat ‘alternatives’ to celebrating their own inherent flavour and nutritional benefits. Culturally, selecting a meat-free product is becoming an expression of legitimate personal taste, not simply alternative politics.

Brand positioning

Being positive about the taste, texture, and product enjoyment should be a key principle across the category, but there are many ways of framing this benefit and several opportunities for distinctiveness.

For example, a combination of indulgence and craft is communicated by Wicked Kitchen’s branding. Craft is shown through the logo featuring a knife, the colourful swirls of sauce depicted on the pack resemble the manner of a restaurant’s plated dish, and the reference to “kitchen” in brand name emphasizes the practices of cooking and creating. Indulgence comes from the sense of sinfulness within the “wicked” name, devil horns detailing on the logo, and the use of the language of connoisseurship (e.g. charred, spiced). Combined, we get a brand that successfully incorporates two deeply embedded meanings of the meat category, into meat-free products.

In addition, Gosh! does a great job of communicating the sense of shared celebration that has long been associated with meat eating (e.g. the roast chicken as a centrepiece to a family meal). Additionally, its positioning as “naturally meat-free” tackles many of the fears of unknown additives and aggressive laboratory processing associated with plant-based products. These unknown elements are one of the few remaining cultural barriers to the category for current meat eaters. By dialling up a sense of natural purity alongside pleasurable taste, Gosh! has hit on a particularly powerful combination of cultural levers to entice new consumers.   

There are many other cultural narratives associated with meat out there, just waiting for meat-free brands to leverage, such as tradition, rural life, or shared celebration. 

The meat-free sector finds itself in a complex negotiation between forging its own cultural identity and building on the narratives of the past. With societal context increasingly aligned with the category, meat-free brands have a huge opportunity to communicate with confidence in a differentiated, yet culturally resonant way.