Recently, the New York Times ran a piece it referred to as the “existential debate” that rages over what plant-based beverages should legally be called. The definition of “milk” is at the heart of the issue, and while the dairy milk industry continues to drive a separation of a category by product defining language, other plant-based categories and brands embrace their unique difference through normalization. The fervor over whether or not plant-based beverages can indeed be called “milk” aside, one thing is clear — plant-based products and brands are their own animal.
Meatless. Dairy Free. Alternative _____.
The advent of plant-based anything started as “the other,” denoting absence of the animal-based ingredient to establish meaning. Forty or fifty years ago, brands not only incorporated category based nomenclature like “dairy, milk or meat,” but the understanding of their product, and its survival, relied on that meaning. Over time, as more plant-based brands launched and established themselves, the category alt language became essential. Think tofu or tempe — what brands come to mind? It took the eponymous “veggie burger” and the first big mainstream brand success of Boca Burger to really break the category. Veggie brands were understood as imitations of an animal-based prototype.
Contrast that to today, when 90% of homes have both plant-based milks AND dairy milks, language like “plant-based” champions the strength of a broad based ingredient category that needs no explanation.
A culture Embraces Plant-Based Strengths
The success of plant-based categories (almond milk is forecasted to reach 3.3 billion by 2022), and the saturation of products and brands within these categories, is proof that a sizable consumer appetite and future growth potential exists.
The growth is based on a culture of consumers who are re-discovering their humanity and their effect on the planet and who love the options that science and technology have provided them. They are driven to plant-based food and beverage categories for a unique experience, particularly in taste, more than to merely replicate what they know. Consumers that were born with soy milk always in the fridge normalize options as being a taste alternative, not a dairy alternative.
Brands Making A Choice To Be Different
With nearly every food category now promoting a non-animal option, from yogurt to pasta to spirits, we are witnessing an evolution of brands in those categories that mirrors the journey niche cultural ideas take from margins to masses. While the non-diary movement started with an unmet functional need (I can’t drink milk!) and broke through to mass as a “dairy alternative,” its growth lies in the normalization and mainstream adoption of plant-based foods.
The evolution of plant-based milks offers a crystal ball view into other category watershed moments. Brands that go beyond a functional point of view (Silk, So Delicious, Daiya) and champion a purpose and reason for being (Forager Project, Good Karma, Califia) are riding a cultural wave that puts brand first.
How brands name and define their reason for being helps set the stage for growth. We’re seeing brands that opt for unique and more meaningful names. Abstract or suggestive brand names are on the rise and poised for broader category growth and expansion. And while we still see suggestively descriptive names like “Oatly” hitting the shelves, this ingredient-focused strategy feels far more limiting (even risky?) today with the potential to handcuff future growth and innovation for the brand.
Through this massive explosion of opportunity, as some brands build whole portfolios on plants and others extend offerings to options with plant-based ingredients, we only see the world expanding further. We look forward to the day when ownable plant-based terms like tempe or tofu are the norm, when brands devise and invent their own unique category terminology, where products we can’t imagine are inside our fridges, all driven by a brand purpose with aspirations beyond deprivation or imitation.
The seeds have been planted and the climate has never been more ideal. The time is ripe to cultivate this category with copious amounts of inspired creativity.