Expert interview: How to succeed in plant-based and break the mass market barrier?

Voices from Europe & Asia. With Aurore de Monclin, Peter Wennstrom, Brigitte Zeller and Maria Pavlidou

At the HMT we believe that brands can change the world and as the leading international brand- building agency in food & health, we LOVE enabling these brands to do just so. This is especially true for plant-based brands on a mission to change the way we eat by addressing sustainability and climate among other issues. This was the case with Oatly who we helped with their repositioning back in 2012, from a functional food brand for people with milk intolerance to a sustainability brand for the growing group of people who shared Oatly’s purpose to replace cow’s milk. Today Oatly together with many other plant-based brands in both dairy and meat are knocking on the mass market door. But will they be able to open it? The debate on different platforms is on! Has the plant-based been just a fad? Is it only an industry and investor push? Why is it not spreading to mass market yet? How to break the barriers for mass market entry and long-term growth? We interview our experts and bring you their insights followed by our checklist: How to succeed in plant-based and break the (elusive) mass market barrier?

HMT: How have things changed since we helped Oatly with their repositioning 10 years ago?  

Peter: Well, to understand the marker today you need to understand that there are two basic strategies represented in the market – New Segment and Category Substitution. When we worked with Oatly 10 years ago plant-based was at the start, a trend that was very much emerging. At the time it was starting to connect to the vegans and lifestyle stakeholders who saw it as a preferred alternative to cow’s milk. It was a new segment in the milk category but these consumers wanted a total substitution. That was the driver behind the early brands that connected to the vegan movement and that accelerated with more and more people understanding that we need to change the way we eat. Oatly’s timing back then was perfect. But there have been many many more brands since then who are addressing these belief-driven consumers, the ethical consumers. For this target audience, ethics is the motivation to buy. What happened is that a very belief-driven niche has now evolved into a new segment in dairy and in meat. And this is exactly how companies like Danone have captured it. As new segment integrated in their portfolio of dairy and non-dairy brands. So as a segment it can stay a segment – and ideally a premium priced segment that not necessarily has to grow into mass-market with lower price and margins.

HMT: And how about those companies, like Oatly, who only have a plant- based portfolio?

Peter: These companies have a different strategy: they are in a new segment but they aim to substitute all dairy or all meat, then of course that’s another game. Then you want to move into the mass market – to replace you must move. In this case, you are also moving from a belief-driven consumer to a very rational audience which looks at the price, taste, convenience of the product as the motivation to buy and then the planetary aspects will be the permission to buy. But the qualifiers are still the taste, price etc. and they need to be even better than the alternative.

The risk for a lifestyle brand is that you will loose twice: if you move from being a belief-driven brand to becoming a mass market brand, you risk losing the ethical consumers. And if you are too ethical you risk losing the mass market consumers. One of the barriers for mass market consumers is politics: “don’t push politics down my throat”. We see Oatly is trying to become more playful and humorous and less political in order to move to the mass market. So they are walking a thin line. But they are supported by the sad fact that the awareness, among mass market consumers, that we need to change our consumption habits is not there yet.

HMT: Any tricks how to accelerate the market acceptance?

Peter: It’s always easier to accept dairy alternative when presented as an ingredient: oat milk for example as part of your coffee. It’s a tougher game to win as a drinking milk, stand alone. For the meat, it’s easier to win as minced meat for example in your Bolognese sauce. As a stand-alone meat replacement, it’s much tougher. You need to understand your category and how to win in it.

HMT: Talking about ingredients, how easy is for consumers to accept the ingredient in meat alternatives specifically?

Maria: Actually, recently I asked my mother-in-law in Spain, a very traditional Spanish mum of a certain age, if she knows of meat alternatives and if she would buy them. The reaction was: “Meat alternatives? God only knows what they put in there!” So my advice to the industry is very simple: please let consumers know what’s in there as well! When I explained to my scandalized mother-in-law for example that often a meat alternative can be made of pea proteins, she seemed to like this idea: “Bueno, peas are good for you”. So, please put the ingredients where we can see them and help consumers understand.

Aurore: For mass market, ingredient transparency for sure is key. But it is not enough. To achieve repeat consumers in meat alternatives, the taste but also the nutritional values are very important. You would never give to your family something that you suspect it is not nutritious and wholesome. That’s where the future is: looking what can be taken from lifestyle and infused into mass market while making sure that taste and fun is always there.

HMT: How about these very realistic meat alternative products? Surely these deliver on the experience.

Aurore: Actually, it depends on the audience. For example, vegan consumers are not looking for products that are too realistic. They don’t want something that’s too much like an animal product because they simply don’t like the idea of eating animal products or a mimic of it. What they want, is the enjoyment and a new flavor experience. The risk with many brands is that they say “we are as good as” but this is overpromising. To ensure repeat purchases, this approach is not going to work. They will try once, but in order to come back they need to have multiple benefits. They need to know it’s not going to replace meat, but it will be a different and even better experience all together.

HMT: And is it realistic to expect that consumers will drop meat all together? If meat alternative brands want to grow in mass market, it means that a significant number of consumers should embrace a vegetarian or vegan diet?

Aurore: We see veganism on the rise but it’s not easy at all. Data suggest that growth comes mostly from flexitarians, so people who are willing not to eliminate meat and dairy completely, but at least reduce it. It would be a good brand strategy to give these type of consumers realistic targets to aspire to. For example, “Replace once a week with our meat free product”. And if they love it, they will consume it more. Even small changes can add up to make a big difference. Brands can make consumers feel accomplished and good about their choices.

HMT: And how are things in Asia Brigitte? Is plant- based relevant in the same way as we see in Europe?

Brigitte: Plant- based in Asia is actually a staple with tofu and soya milk as super established products. This is working and it is already a big market, popular with mass market consumers. People consume these products because of tradition , acceptable taste as well as well health specifically if dairy intolerance.  Health means  bringing variety and dairy is parallely growing , pulled more by  middle class   as perceived bringing more nutrition. So East has started before West. But now West follows East with growing popularity of Oat. Oat milk  is very much a western concept that we just see taking off in Asia with new generation consumers. But for oatmilk brands to be successful in Asia is not just about ethics they need to understand and respect the local preferences and tastes. For example Oatly and others local followers approach so far has been to partner with coffeeshop chains like Starbucks and talk about improved taste, not politics to anchor the consumption into habits beyond health perception.

HMT: How about the meat alternatives in Asia?

Brigitte: Again, everything is about localization: brands need to adapt to Asia’s preference for pork for example or even offer fish alternatives, not “boring burgers” as some might say. One opportunity for the industry players who want to reach mass market consumers in Asia and beyond is to work on “Plant- Based 2.0” which is focused on taste and nutrition and clean label and hero natural ingredient.

HMT: Thank you team! For all those brilliant plant- based entrepreneurs out there, here is our advice:

The HMT list for succeeding in plant-based and breaking the mass market barrier

  1. 1.  Understand the barriers for mass market entry: it is not about politics with this consumer. Taste taste and taste! And nutrition! And clean label! Remember Maria’s mother-in-law: tell them what your product is made of (we are sure it’s only the good stuff). Be transparent and let’s demystify meat alternatives. And as Peter said: don’t push politics down the mass market consumer’s throat.
  2. 2.  Every little change matters: The plant-based category grows thanks to the flexitarians. Be nice and give them realistic targets to achieve. We can create positive change, one small action at a time.
  3. 3.  Adapt to local preferences as much as possible to win in Asia and other local markets. One size never fitted all.

The need for plant-based products is there, we need to change the way that we are eating for a better future for all. Now let’s make sure we help brands and consumers to find each other. Need help? Get in touch with us by reaching out to Maria at and up your game in plant-based!


The HMT – Healthy Marketing Team is the international specialist agency for innovation, marketing and branding in food & health.

We offer strategy consulting, training and creative services, to create brands that drive change and lead the movement in their categories. We bring our clients the benefit of getting better targeted brands and innovations, faster to market.

We make this happen by using our proprietary FourFactors® methodology together with our international expert team and our global experience in food & health marketing both in B2B and B2C.