In a recent article, I wrote about some of my recent research on plant-based food products available in Thailand. In this follow-up article I explore the implications of the findings for the marketing of plant-based foods and the promotion of more sustainable diets and reduced meat consumption.
The evidence is that many people are willing to change their habits and consume more plant-based foods and this is particularly true in Thailand where a recent PWC survey showed that more than 80% of Thai consumers are eating more plant-based foods. In another survey, by Marketbuzzz, the main reasons given for plant-based food consumption are nutritional ingredients, healthiness and following current trends, while the barriers to consumption are accessibility, cost and lack of motivation.
The behavioural sciences have been focusing research on this area, with two “nudges” that seem to be most effective in shifting menu choices. Defaults can be very effective when introducing more choices of plant-based options onto menus alongside meat-based alternatives. And although descriptive social norms are often less effective when the outcome is a minority behaviour, dynamic norms (communicating trends in behaviour) are more effective in encouraging people to “follow the crowd”.
However, simple visual approaches sometimes work too. A recent experiment compared a social nudge (identifying the vegetable option as “most popular” compared with beef and chicken options) with the use of a simple visual eco-label which rated the beef option as least sustainable and the vegetable option as most sustainable.
The social nudge shifted a few people from beef to vegetable and so did the eco-label. However, the use of an eco-label shifted a much larger number of people from choosing beef to choosing chicken. This reflects other studies that show that it might be more effective to target incremental changes in behaviour than complete changes in diet.
Our research on plant-based products in Thailand shows that nature was not being strongly communicated (i.e., through nature scenes rather than more superficial cues such as leaves and green colour) and also that use of labelling and quality marks was inconsistent and probably confusing.
Focusing on dietary preferences may not be a good strategy as dietary “labels” are often counter-productive. They help specific groups find the right products but for other consumers they are off-putting, signifying healthy and low taste options. The majority of the population classify themselves as omnivore or carnivore (the “normal diet” of 68% in Thailand according to Marketbuzzz). Added to this, plant-based products tend to be located together in the supermarket aisles and refrigerators, rather than being located next to their meat-based alternatives.
Overall, the research shows that the most common sustainability-related messages are the promotion of healthy diets, with very few brands speaking to other sustainable development goals such as responsible consumption or climate action. Only two brands focus on issues of environmental sustainability.
Finally, there is very little reference to nature in brand communications beyond the superficial use of green colours and symbolic leaves. However, behavioural and other psychological research shows that when people feel more connected to nature, they are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours.
Thinking through a marketing lens, but not just for marketers, this leads to three recommendations for shifting dietary choices.
Firstly, there should be an effort to target people beyond those with a healthy lifestyle or specific dietary preference, by using more inclusive identities and making specific dietary preferences less prominent. One immediate way to do this is to end the exclusivity of plant-based products in-store location.
Secondly, in line with this inclusivity, product positioning should broaden its appeal by using more vivid sensory language (to communicate taste) and moving away from functional/ingredient-based language. Appeals to nature (e.g., through more use of natural scenes would widen appeal and trigger more pro-environmental choices.
Thirdly, and most importantly, let’s not forget that the objective is for more people to eat plant-based foods more often. It should not be to get people to switch their dietary preferences as this will not work. Commercial imperatives may mean that brands want to focus on targeting their existing customer base, but society needs to broaden the appeal of the category and shift choices over time.
Introducing simpler and more consistent environmental labelling schemes will help with this, although that may need the intervention of governments and industry organisations. Such changes can be combined with the use of nudges such as defaults, dynamic norms and others that help trigger pro-environmental food choices.
To address the challenges of climate change needs coordinated action and thinking about these challenges using behavioural science and marketing strategy mindsets can help.