Where’s the Beef? Not in These Packages

Plant-based meat alternatives are gaining traction, but marketing them is tricky. How important are the names and colours that are used?


Would a meat substitute by another name taste any sweeter — or sell any better? Findings from a recent study suggest that this may be the case: the packaging colours and words used to describe plant-based meat alternatives can impact consumer perceptions, convincing non-vegetarian/vegan consumers to give plant-based alternatives a try.

The study was led by researchers from Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business and published in Appetite.

Plant-based meats: gaining popularity, but tough to market

Plant-based meat alternatives represent a growing market, and have seen a particular surge in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet these products remain difficult to market to the large populations of non-vegetarian/vegan consumers, leading to challenges for companies focusing on meat alternatives.

For this reason, the researchers behind the study wanted to learn how the words we use to describe these products might influence consumers’ perceptions. They were particularly interested in how companies might better appeal to so-called flexitarians: consumers who lean towards vegetarianism but still occasionally eat meat-based meals.

To do this, the researchers surveyed non-vegetarian/vegan consumers on their opinions about a pea-protein patty from the Canadian company Lightlife. The patty was described as a “plant-based ground” for half of the consumers and a “meat alternative ground” for the other half, and in both cases, it was placed in brown packaging.

The survey participants were then asked to rate the products in several areas: healthiness, eco-friendliness, ethicality, expected enjoyment, how likely they were to try it, and how much of it they would eat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the survey results showed that consumers were more likely to view plant-based products as environmentally friendly. Consumers also tended to rank these products as healthier than those described as meat alternatives, and were more likely to try them — but would likely eat less of them.

Colour has a surprising effect

The researchers went on to test whether the colours of the products’ packaging would further influence consumers.

In this study, participants were assigned to one of four groups: green packaging that described the product as plant-based, red packaging that described the product as a meat alternative, or the “mis-matched” green meat alternative and red plant-based packaging. Since the colour green is typically associated with plants, while red is associated with meat, the researchers believed that these colours could be used to deepen consumers’ perceptions.

Despite these typical associations, however, the researchers were surprised to find that participants were most likely to consider the red meat alternative packaging as environmentally friendly. The green plant-based packaging, on the other hand, was more likely to be associated with decreased feelings of enjoyment and satiety.

These results differ from the first study, where the plant-based packaging was seen as more environmentally friendly. This indicates that colour may have a larger impact on consumers’ views than the team first thought.

“[W]hen packaging [colours], with perhaps stronger associations than the product descriptors, are used, product descriptors and packaging [colours] may compete for consumers’ attention,” the authors explained.

A possible explanation for the respondents’ preference for the red meat alternative packaging is the fact that the survey was only taken by meat-eaters. Since the colour red is typically associated with meat, the authors suggest that people who eat meat regularly may be biased towards this colour.

Overall, the study shows that a number of factors must be considered when marketing plant-based meat alternatives to non-vegetarian/vegan consumers. These findings will help companies better market their products to different audiences.

“You really got the idea that adding colour adds another layer of complexity to simply using terms like plant-based or meat alternative,” said Caroline Roux, an associate professor of marketing and co-author of the study, in a press release.

“[This] is a category that is still being transformed and trying to find its space in the retail environment, [… and] certain cues can unknowingly sway perceptions of different products.”

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.