The Hollywood Effect on Plant-Based Food Brands

Plant-based food brands, once considered niche products for yogis and hippies, have officially gone mainstream. Plant-based options are prominently displayed alongside the ground beef of your local supermarket and are popping up at Wendy’s (a Ketchum client), which just introduced the Spicy Black Bean Burger to its Made to Crave menu in three test markets. Plant-based food retail sales experienced a 27% growth from 2019 to 2020, and the category is valued at $7 billion in the U.S. alone (albeit still a fraction of the $82.5 billion meat industry). According to a recent survey from Instacart, the online grocery delivery service tracked a 42% increase in plant-based meat purchases on their platform in 2020 compared to 2019.

The Hollywood Effect on Plant-Based Food Brands - photo of two young celebrities eating burgers in the back of a limo

It should be noted that meat sales in the U.S. reached a record high in 2020, and nearly 99% of American households purchased meat in 2020. However, consumers are increasingly comfortable flexing between both meat and plant-based foods. There are varying opinions about what caused the transformation of an entire generation of consumers into flexitarians seemingly overnight. Plant-based foods (which have transcended their erstwhile “vegetarian” label) have a myriad of health, animal welfare and sustainability benefits, so either or all of these could certainly be factors. Product innovations are creating better-tasting plant-based foods that are more comparable to their meat counterparts, which also doesn’t hurt. However, there’s one reason that we haven’t seen cited yet, but will argue is driving popularity: celebrity investments.

The power of a celebrity endorsement has been well documented and argued, but research shows that a brand with a celebrity endorser generates 4% more sales on average than their competitors. The reason for this is actually based in science. Given our exposure to celebrities, our brains register them as someone familiar. When we encounter a celebrity endorsement, it’s as credible as a recommendation from other familiar people in our lives, such as friends or family members. According to our brains, familiarity equals trust.

In the food and consumer products industries, we’ve seen a trend towards celebrity “ownership” of brands (with some insanely lucrative results) that expands beyond the traditional celebrity endorsement. Ryan Reynolds’s Aviation Gin, George Clooney’s Casamigos, Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company and basically anything that Kylie Jenner touches have either been bought up by larger companies or have gone public, creating an urgency (and perhaps even some envy) among other celebrities to find their next big thing. And for a group of celebrities who are coming off a year of downtime from filming and touring, they’ve had time to consider where to direct their money and passions. Which may explain why we’ve seen an influx of celebrity investors, particularly among startups. The plant-based food brand category, in particular, has been attracting droves of A-list celebrity investors —  from Snoop Dogg and Leonardo DiCaprio’s investment in Beyond Meat and Serena Williams and Katy Perry’s support of Impossible Foods, to Oprah Winfrey and Natalie Portman championing Oatly, Drake’s investment in Daring Foods vegan chicken and, most recently, Jay-Z’s backing of NUGGS plant-based chicken nuggets. An investor meeting of most plant-based food brands is becoming more star-studded than the Golden Globes.

While a celebrity endorsement may be cost-prohibitive for many food brands, there are also more nimble ways to apply these learnings:

  • Start small. While you may not be able to attract a celebrity investor today, you can create engagement with consumers through influencer marketing. Data available through social media enables effective targeting, so you can be confident that your investment will reach potential consumers and drive familiarity.
  • Tap into the cultural zeitgeist. An effective way of driving brand relevance is through social listening. Identify the conversations about your brand or category, and find creative ways to engage. You don’t need big dollars, just a little moxie and creativity.
  • Take a balanced approach. Your product may have a litany of sustainability, health and functional benefits, but remember that effective marketing is a combination of left brain (linearity, logic and facts) and right brain (intuition, imagination and feelings). Balance a benefits-led approach with activations that have all the feels. This can be as simple as consumer storytelling about how a product has improved lives or supporting a cause that resonates with your brand and consumer.
  • Celebrity negotiations. Leave this one to the experts. Ketchum Sports & Entertainment has extensive experience negotiating endorsement and equity deals for clients and knows the many pitfalls to avoid. We’re available to consult, advise and help you navigate through the process.

While we can’t isolate a single reason why plant-based food brands are experiencing rapid growth, it appears that our hard-wired brains may be subconsciously contributing to it. So, if you want to feel like a Hollywood insider, turn to some Ketchum clients: Sip your Ripple milk latte, bite into your meat-free Quorn nuggets, shmear on some Kite Hill cream cheese… and open your checkbook.

Jimmy Szczepanek is a communications nerd, amateur baker and flexitarian who leads Ketchum’s Food, Beverage and Cultivate industry group. He lives in Los Angeles where he enjoys the California lifestyle and exploring the diverse food scene. He has a rich history in consumer and food marketing and leads a dynamic team who find out-of-the-box solutions to communications challenges.

Tommy has 17 years of experience working with talent and their representatives in the brand space. He plays a crucial role leading Ketchum’s celebrity talent procurement division and also heads Ketchum Sounds, Ketchum’s in-house music marketing, division. He is responsible for negotiating and managing brand partnerships from endorsements and original content creation to sponsorships and live events.  Tommy has spearheaded programs for brands including Absolut Vodka, Avocados From Mexico, Clorox, Jameson Irish Whiskey, Kleenex, Maytag, Michelin and Yoplait, and aligned them with talent such as Lizzo, Tim Tebow, Darren Criss, Travis Kelce, Anderson, Paak, NSYNC and Jennifer Lopez.