In May 1998, a Portland-based veggie burger brand took a risk. The earnestly named Gardenburger spent $1.5 million dollars on a 30 second ad that aired in the middle of the series finale of Seinfeld. It was narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, and featured animated characters named Vern and Edna. It was part of a brand repositioning driven by Lyle Hubbard, Gardenburger’s then-new CEO who believed that the company’s longtime sales pitch — “eat meatless and help save the planet, along with its cattle,” championed by founder Paul Wenner, “was not the message consumers wanted to hear.” Instead, Hubbard thought, the aging baby boomer audience would be more interested in what a product could do for them personally.
Twenty years later, consumers get to have it both ways: meat alternatives that serve both the ego and the environment. Young brands like Juicy Marbles, Prime Roots, Meati, Daring are designed to appeal to a broad, trend-seeking audience that expresses its values and interests through that most passive form of action: buying stuff. In a sense, meat alternatives have become like any other alt-product (like Banza for pasta or Oatly for milk), which are positioned as a better for you, better for the planet twofers. Fake meats have adopted an approach — popularized across product categories like staples, snacks, and desserts — that’s less holier-than-thou and more cooler-than-you.
Though many of their names (Impossible, Beyond, Daring) exude boldness, these brands appeal not to our sense of adventure, but to our tendency towards habit. The meatless meats of today are designed to not just look like things we know and like, but taste like them, too. Certain meat products (chicken nuggets, beef patties, strips of bacon) are a bit like existing intellectual property. Framing products as substitutes for those familiar forms — through construction, messaging and packaging — makes them an easier sell.
Though many of their names exude boldness, these brands appeal not to our sense of adventure, but to our tendency towards habit.
Despite this pointed effort to normalize the new and present meat alternatives as attractive in their own right, our collective environmental anxiety is surfacing in the way these products are packaged and positioned. The kind of righteousness that Gardenburger felt like it had to distance itself from in order to have mainstream appeal has cycled around. The pitch for meat alternatives is no longer about personal health, but the larger costs of industrial meat production. Take, for example, Daring’s multi-page “Chicken is Broken” ad, in the New York Times earlier this year. Or legacy brand Tofurky’s recent packaging for its plant-based burgers, which features messages like: “Elect leaders who will fight climate change,” and “Can a burger save the world? It can try.” (There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Brands like Simulate, maker of Nuggs, lean into the absurdity of making soybeans into something that could pass for chicken. If they stand for anything, it’s novelty.)
Alongside Tofurky’s overtly political plant-based patties (one variant lists the central phone number for the U.S. Senate) are the comparatively centrist bags of chicken pieces from Daring, a startup based out of Scotland. “We want to have a lot of people feel like they have permission to try the product,” says creative director Griffin Creech, whose eponymous New York and Los Angeles-based brand studio designed the packaging as part of a rebrand. The bags feature rich, natural colors, detailed photography, custom typography and lettering, and a chicken-shaped mark. The uncluttered, matte packs look more like they belong in a snack aisle than a freezer.
The aim of the rebrand, ahead of a major expansion into the U.S. market, was to make Daring look as good as it tastes. “Our biggest goal with art direction,” says Ashley Jones, also a creative director at Creech, “was just elevating all the photography to the level of any other food out there, like Bon Appétit — anything that’s super beautiful and textural and delicious. Why can’t that be how plant chicken is shot?” (Creech worked with Peden+Munk, along with a number of food stylists in studio and on location for video and still photography.)
Prime Roots, a koji meats company based in Berkeley, California, strikes a similar note of familiarity. It, too, recently rebranded, trading a futuristic visual identity for one inspired by old-fashioned delis. Alex Ostroff, creative director at New York branding and advertising agency St. Urbain, who worked with Prime Roots on the project, says that the most challenging part of the design was creating illustrations of roots and koji that weren’t “too creepy.” They ended up working with a textbook illustrator to create the craft meets science effect. Finding room for interesting visuals was tricky, too, because extra large blocks needed to be set aside for copy explaining how fungus is transformed into faux deli meat.
Like seemingly every other food brand today (or you know, brand brand) meat alternatives are not just merely selling something. Instead, they’re on a mission to better the world. And they offer a tempting proposition. Maybe substitution, rather than radical change, is the surest solution to issues that overwhelm us. This isn’t inherently bad. But it has a tendency to create conscious consumers instead of conscious citizens.