Consumers are more likely to choose a plant-based meat substitute when the restaurant’s advertising highlights the social benefits of doing so rather than its taste, according to recently published research I conducted with a colleague. We also found that showcasing the social costs of meat consumption also leads to a preference for plant-based “meats.”
To reach this conclusion, we conducted two online experiments to examine the advertising of plant-based burgers and meatballs. Participants were recruited via the crowdsourcing website Amazon Mechanical Turk.
In the first one, 156 participants were shown one of three commercials for a plant-based burger. They saw either a social appeal (“good for the environment and animal welfare”), a health appeal (“good for your health – no cholesterol and more fiber”) or a taste appeal (“tasty and delicious – just like a beef burger”). In all three commercials, we presented nutritional information that showed plant-based burgers had similar levels of calories and protein as that of beef—which is generally true in the real world.
They were then asked to record their burger preference on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 indicated they definitely wanted a conventional beef burger and 7 meant they definitely wanted the plant-based version.
Participants exposed to the advertising that appealed to their social conscience were more likely to select the plant-based burger than those who saw the health or taste-based ads. Our research found that the social appeals worked because they induced positive feelings of doing something good for society.
The health appeal was ineffective because the nutritional value of the two burgers is so similar. Appealing to taste didn’t work because American consumers believe the taste of beef is superior to that of plant-based meat.
Our research suggests that highlighting the social benefits of plant-based menu items would convince more consumers to choose them over meat-based options, thus reducing overall meat consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
We plan to examine if the effectiveness of social appeals carries over to healthier plant-based menu items such as Hawaiian poke bowls with fake fish.
Also, it would be interesting to conduct cross-cultural comparisons. Impossible Foods’ offerings are now available in Asian markets, including Singapore, Hong Kong and mainland China. We want to investigate how Asian consumers respond to meat-like products given different regional traditions and habits of meat consumption.