Roll Call for Plant-Based Meat and Milk

Can plant-based products be 'meats' and 'milks'?

Dec 03, 2019

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  What’s your definition of a “burger” or “milk”? If it includes plant-based alternatives, meat and dairy industry executives want to change that.

Across the country, plant-based meat and dairy alternatives have found themselves in the crosshairs of companies for their more-traditional counterparts. This legal beef involves a push for more narrow definitions of meat and milk products, as well as restrictions on plant and veggie-based options from bearing labels or packaging that’s similar to that of animal meat and dairy milk.

Recently, Dean Foods, the largest U.S. milk producer, filed for bankruptcy, blaming in part rising consumer demand for healthier, more sustainable plant-based alternatives. The trend has been leaving a sour taste in the mouths of meat and dairy industry executives alike, says Maryland Smith marketing professor Henry C. Boyd III.

“Many people are making the switch to vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian diets. People are starting to recognize the obesity problem in this country, and that our quality of life is starting to fall off and we need to address it,” says Boyd, a clinical professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “So now we have more options because people want to do the right thing, and they’re proving it by going to the store and buying alternative products and elevating brands that weren’t there before.”

Boyd sees this branding battle as a turf war with meat and dairy companies attempting to stifle increased demand for plant-based products. They’ve been arguing that their alternative rivals are misleading consumers and creating confusion by marketing themselves as meat or milk.

“A few years ago, meat and dairy companies assumed taste would win the day and that people were already used to traditional products, but when they started to see inroads being made, they started getting nervous and decided to fight these new trends,” Boyd says. “Now meat and dairy companies are saying, ‘You’re not really meat and you’re not really milk – you’re something else,’ and they are trying to spin that as being lesser than their own products.”

Despite the efforts of the meat and dairy industries, Boyd believes that alternative options should not be afraid to meet their competitors head on. Even pointing out to consumers how traditional meat and dairy companies are trying to discourage plant and veggie-based alternative purchases could aid them in their defense, Boyd says.

“Alternatives have to be willing to engage and it seems like they are already doing it. Take a look at Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods – they are raising the bar and creating a whole new space in the food industry,” Boyd says. “Newness attracts demographics and audiences, so this is smart branding. If they can get this cachet where they are seen as trendy or the new way of going about daily consumption, then they can win the day.”

That changing of the guard is what the meat and dairy industries are worried about, Boyd says. Currently, Boyd sees a stark contrast between baby boomers, generation X, millennials and generation Z in terms of their purchasing habits, especially when it comes to food.

“We currently have a generational divide. Boomers grew up on meat and real milk, while gen X might be more split between traditional and alternative options,” Boyd says. “When you look at millennials and gen Z, though, they are thinking more about what they consume, how it affects the planet and their carbon footprint, and the health benefits they would receive. Meat and dairy companies either have to move in the direction of consumer demand or risk losing out.”

Boyd likens the current position of the meat and dairy companies to that of Kodak during the beginning of the digital age. Kodak doubled down on film, while consumer demand shifted toward picture quality and digital sharing. Boyd believes that meat and dairy companies are quickly approaching the “If we can’t beat them, join them” moment when it comes to alternative options.

“The bigger entities of the world are going to have to jump on the bandwagon pretty soon before they get left behind. I don’t think this is a fad. This is something very generational and will have big implications going forward,” Boyd says.

“No one wants to become obsolete, but it happens. You don’t want to be in a position looking back and wishing you had taken that step earlier.”



About the Expert(s)

Henry C. Boyd is a Clinical Professor in the Marketing Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is also a managing director and principal at Ombudsman LLC, a diversified consultancy. He is licensed to practice law in Maryland, Wisconsin, and the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin.

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