Authentic imitation: the new semiotics of alternative protein

5 January 2017 | By Sign Salad
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The alternative protein sector is steadily expanding in response to rising health and environmental concerns of meat production, and accelerated by scientific breakthroughs in substitutes becoming more like real meat. According to Lux Research, alternative proteins will claim a third of the meat market by 2054, and new brands are clamouring to innovate within the expanding space.

Not everyone is aware or comfortable with consuming alternative protein. To reassure and educate consumers, brands have had to take nuanced approaches in expressing their brand identities and their products’ value.

One of the leading brands in this category is Beyond Meat. Having finally cracked how to produce burgers and fillets that taste and bleed just like real meat, its launch in May 2016 ensured that its product would not be overlooked. Rather than relegation to the frozen veg section of US supermarkets, Beyond Meat defiantly launched its products to be displayed in the meat aisle, alongside real beef, chicken and pork. This was to illustrate that the plant-based product had the same value as real meat and should not be perceived as something lesser or any different.

To further reassure customers of the benefits of alternative meat, Beyond Meat hired creative agency Bulletproof to revamp its packaging. Its sachets of fillets, burgers and other products appropriate many of the same semiotic cues often found in the real deal: warm and earthy colours, stylised close-ups of stir fries and subway sandwiches, and pouch format common in the ready-meal category that code alternate meat as an authentic substitute that is no different from real meat.

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Other alternative protein brands – such as Gold&Green and its Pulled Oats, as well as legacy brands like Quorn and Tofurkey – take similar approaches in giving their products a voice in an emerging market.

However, the Chilean start-up The Not Company stands out in this space by rejecting the dominant narrative of disguising or relating protein substitutes to animal-based products.

The Not Company champions a scientific algorithm (named Giuseppe) as its key to analysing the molecular structure of animal-based protein sources. Giuseppe helps create new products to replace these animal products with extra nutritious, plant-based alternatives. As such, The Not Company celebrates its scientific origins through the branding of its supercharged protein products: NotYogurt, NotMilk and NotCheese.

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Implicit in these products’ names, the word “not” connotes opposition and negativity. In doing so, its brand proposition uses the semiotics of cold, hard science to stand out against other products. This brand attitude is supported by its brand’s clinical white/black and neon colour scheme and a confrontational X displayed on its packaging to communicate its extraordinary contents.

In this emergent category, there are two polar approaches happening: brands are either using the existing semiotics of real meat to communicate their offerings, or they are embracing new visual cues to disrupt dominant expressions of provenance and authenticity. Understanding which approach is more culturally relevant and meaningful will be crucial for these brands to stand out in an increasingly populated category.

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