In 2018, 52,000 people around the UK committed to a Veganuary online challenge – going vegan for the first calendar month. In 2019, experts predict the number will be much bigger. This driven, in part, by the high-profile conversion of big name stars like racing driver Lewis Hamilton and pop singer Ariana Grande to veganism, as well as popular vegan vloggers and social stars like ‘Oh, She Glows’ and ‘Vegan Yack Attack.’
It looks as though abstaining from both animal products and animal-based food is set to be not so much flavour of the month but the flavour of the year. (And, if projections are accurate, many more years to come.) So, if you are already a food industry Goliath – a Unilever or a Nestlé, say – how do you fend off the attack of the army of Instagram-perfect mindful Morgans and Melissas championing ethically-based consumer companies like coffee maker Califia Farms, plant-based frozen yoghurt Cro Fro and many more?
One obvious counterpunch is a tactical brand extension. Something many food companies have already actioned. A good recent example of best practice comes from, still relatively small, pie-makers Pieminister. In 2018, the award-winning Bristol-based company launched a purely plant-based vegan pie called, slightly bizarrely, Kevin – in honour of footballer Kevin Keegan. Rhyming slang for vegan, so they claim.
This kind of move could pay dividends for food giants like Nomad Foods as heritage brands in their portfolio, such a Birds Eye, can use this tactic to create a halo effect for the entire line – successfully repositioning themselves for a younger Gen Z demographic, whilst still maintaining relevance to their loyal older customers.
But, for many major food companies, ‘wait and see’ still makes a lot of sense. The UK vegan market is very new and, with trends being aggressively stirred via social media, in a constant state of flux. The greater financial muscle of key players means that they can quickly adapt, from a strategic point of view, simply by picking winners. Sitting back and waiting for new brands to prosper – letting their owners take the risk and put in the hard yards, in the first three to four years of building a business – and then simply make them a lucrative Godfather-style offer they “can't refuse.”
This is likely to be the destiny of many much-feted vegan-sector stars like Impossible Foods. Set up in 2009, by Stanford biochemistry professor Patrick O. Brown as a practical solution to a research goal of "eliminating industrial animal agriculture.” Their meat free Impossible Burger has already garnered rave reviews and is available in over 3,000 restaurants.
Impossible’s website proudly bears the legend: “You won’t believe your mouth!”
Given the trend toward plant-based in the market, my hunch is: they won’t believe how fast they’re gobbled up by a food giant. Avoiding that all-too-common commercial fate may, for them and many like them, prove to be a true mission impossible.