Feature: How Plant-Based Brands are Localising in Asia

NewsNov 03, 2022
  • New York 08:02 AM
  • London 01:02 PM
  • Singapore 09:02 PM
  • Shanghai 09:02 PM

Our CEO, Paul Galesloot, recently spoke to Campaign Asia-Pacific on how plant-based brands are localising in Asia.

This article originally appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific.

Amid the boom of plant-based meat substitutes and drinks in the region, local brands are finding distinctive ways to adapt to diverse palates and needs of regional consumers.

Plant-based eating is not a novelty concept within the diverse cuisines of Asia. Unlike the West, many Asian cuisines don’t traditionally rely on individual protein as the centrepiece of a meal; in fact, Asian cuisines are known to heavily use products made from plant-based foods such as soybean, lentils, or mushrooms. But, like any wave of awareness that originates in the West, conversations eventually trickle down to this part of the world.

So, while the West certainly didn’t invent or popularise plant-based eating, it’s become something of a rebranded “‘lifestyle’ or ‘trend’ in Asia evidenced by global brands such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat penetrating key markets.

Paul Galesloot, CEO of Elmwood Brand Consultancy, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that the objective of plant-based brands in the West is focused on household penetration and inculcating a broader sense of awareness. In Asia, however, because of a higher penetration and an increased level of awareness, brands tend to focus more so on differentiation and relevance.

The problem is hat burgers and sausages are not staple foods among many Asian consumers, and plant-based versions of those items only make a small dent in the market beyond Asia’s Western expat population.

“Right now, there’s a lot of Western investment coming into Asian markets,” says Galesloot. “But if you’re launching chicken nuggets as your starting point, what’s the relevance for a number of the Asian cuisine in that context? There are three billion people is Asia, but burgers are really not a highly relevant stake.”

Asian plant-based brands on the rise

To connect this divide, many homegrown plant-based brands have developed in this region – some that offer more universal products beyond burger patties. One of them is Anew, a Singaporean brand of soy-based luncheon meat launched this June by manufacturing company OTS Holdings.

In the conceptualising stage for Anew, the brand conducted focus groups to understand consumer doubts and needs. Shiya Ong, marketing manager of OTS Holdings, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that those focus groups showed that Asian consumers were looking for plant-based products with more of a local context, products that feel relevant to them, and something with clearer Asian representation.

OTS Holdings landed on luncheon meat as its product of choice given that it spans both Asian and Western cultures. In Anew’s marketing messaging, consumers are encouraged to use its product across a range of dishes – from spam fries to luncheon meat fried rice.

Despite Asian households being used to plant-based products such as tofu being incorporated into daily eating, one thing Asian consumers haven’t been used to is the modernisation and branding of meat substitutes in the market. And because meat substitutes are often priced higher than actual meat products, Asian consumers have appeared to shy away from them.

Galesloot argues that this is part of a cycle of initial pioneering, one where any new product type of sector might face.

“In general, it’s a factor of time. In the initial trial, brands will always focus on a niche and there will be a group of more progressive or experimental [users] before it rolls out to the middle class,” he says. “After that, brands will get more of an absorption”.

“Anyone in Singapore can walk into a hawker centre and buy a plant-based food or drink they’ve been eating for 15 years. But that attitude is not associated with a cool lifestyle or wellbeing; it’s more to do with the aunties and uncles selling relatively low-cost products. And therefore, it’s must more of a brand job than category household penetration to actually get people to try these new brands,” explains Galesloot.

The competition for local brands like Anew, in this case, is as much from hawker centres as it is from brands like Impossible Foods. This means that local brands face the challenge of making their products culturally relevant – or even fashionable – next to a plethora of low-cost options.

What’s your flavour?

It’s an indisputable fact that flavour is king in Asia. Regardless of what food products are made of, flavour must be memorable for users to even consider transitioning to different brands or lifestyles.

This is the basis of the launch of First Pride, a brand of plant-based nuggets by Tyson Foods. Pimphika Rungarpajaratkul, regional brand manager for First Pride, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that tastiness is the utmost important factor for consumers trying plant-based meat substitutes for the first time.

Unlike products from Western counterparts such as Quorn, First Pride produces heavily seasoned or spiced versions of nuggets and meat strips – and they tend to emulate or reflect local dishes.

The ultimate challenge for First Pride, according to Rungarpajaratkul, is consumer scepticism around plant-based meat substitutes. They might not want to try a plant-based nugget in the first place because there tends to be a pre-conceived perception that it’s not going to be as tasty as the real thing, she says.

But interestingly, once that initial mental block is shattered, consumers are more likely to go back to plant-based product. Anew’s Ong says that repeat purchase percentages are high after consumers try a product for the first time – this is because they are surprised by a product’s likeness to meat and this removes the illusion that plant-based products don’t taste as good.

Another motivation among Asian consumers is the notion that plant-based foods are healthier. When Ong and her team conducted consumer focus groups, health was a primary motivation – after flavour – to transition to plant-based meat substitutes.

In the West, meanwhile, a primary motivation for switching to a plant-based diet is a sense of social responsibility for the planet. In Asia, that’s less likely to be the case.

“Eco-friendliness is not high in the ranking of motivations,” says Ong. “That’s exactly why we tailored our message the way we did. We focus more on being nutritionally superior than our animal luncheon meat counterparts versus going very heavily into the climate and sustainability piece.”

Galesloot says that priorities are different in the West and therefore, plant-based brands in Asia have to be more realistic about how they’re messaging their products.

“We have to be careful about who we’re communicating to about the purpose-driven stuff,” he says. “If your main market is people who can afford a Tesla, eat organic, and have a gym membership, then we can talk about the [climate] package altogether. But if you’re talking to people who are riding a motorbike, who have little time to exercise, we have to be mindful that we don’t end up having a higher-purpose societal message there. It’s a little but harder to worry about the environment when you’re a Gojek driver in Indonesia trying to make a living.”

It’s important to note that not all plant-based products be put on a pedestal on the virtue of sustainability or health. As Galesloot points out, a carton of free-range eggs that’s been produced in a healthy and humane local environment that’s been brought into a local marketplace cannot be unfairly chastised as ‘less healthy or sustainable’ next to a plant-based product that gets manufactured in a large factory and is widely distributed.

Creativity as a differentiator

To play into the aforementioned lifestyle of wellbeing and relevance, Asian plant-based brands are leveraging creativity to elevate reach. One example of that is Singaporean oat milk brand Oatside, which launched early this year with a catchy bear mascot who sings tunes. The irreverent look and feel of the brand – conceptualised by TSLA – is distinctively different from that of low-cost competitors who might retail soybean milk.

“As a brand that started in the midst of the pandemic, we wanted to keep things light-hearted to brighten up chaotic times,” Cindy Lin, marketing director at Oatside, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific. “After some trials and errors, the authentic, adult, humorous tone of voice just felt right for Oatside.”

Lin adds that the plant-based milk category is growing very quickly in this part of the world and credits Oatly for its “pioneering role” in growing this awareness. Incidentally, Oatly is known for its irreverant, highly creative campaigns that have gone on to feature at Cannes.

“It’s an exciting time for brands in this space to grow and stimulate the category in Asia,” Lin adds.

First Pride, meanwhile, eschewed bears for another species as its mascot: the T-Rex. The rationale behind this, says Rungarpajaratkul, is to liken its nuggets to actual meat so much so that even a T-Rex would enjoy them.

And of course, creative marketing partnerships between plant-based start-ups and established food brands are a smart way to gain clout speedily. Anew’s Ong points to a 2020 campaign by Hong Kong-based company Green Monday in collaboration with McDonalds to incorporate it’s plant-based luncheon meat product called Omnipork – on restaurant menus.

This partnership seemed to tick all the boxes: a likening of plant-based menu items smaller to dishes found in Hong Kong’s cha chaan teng; plant-based alternatives for popular McDonald’s menu items such as its breakfast sandwich; and an opportunity for consumers to support a local brand. The campaign proved so successful, a second wave was launched early this year. Green Monday also gathered consumer feedback from the first wave and reduced Omnipork’s sodium levels in response. Plus, it’s currently testing a similar roll-out in China.

“I admire this level of collaboration between Omnipork and McDonald’s,” says Ong. “It’s the [goal of many] manufacturers and brands to be working with global QSR brands.”