With a focus both on being a helping hand for retailers and giving members a collective advocacy voice, the Plant Based Foods Association is in the midst of an industry upswing. Here’s how they did it.
Processed plant-based foods, such as meat analogues and nut-based milks, were very much already a thing by the time the Plant Based Foods Association came about in early 2016.
But the field is certainly having a moment going into 2020, and you can give PBFA credit for helping the industry make the most of the opportunity.
The association launched after Executive Director Michele Simon, an attorney by trade, discovered that companies selling vegetarian food faced significant regulatory challenges.
“There was an opportunity to put together this burgeoning sector of the food industry that was, you know, really trying to do the right thing,” she said. “And we were in line with consumer trends and so forth.”
While individual companies such as Beyond Meat and JUST have gained attention among consumers, the industry is a full ecosystem, with companies large and small. And PBFA, which focuses on all of these brands, is well-suited to help the field’s growth.
Here are a few strategies the organization has focused on to deliver wins:
Create a collective voice at retail. While big companies certainly are well-positioned to get a spot in the grocery aisle, often it comes at the expense of another brand. PBFA has made an effort to counteract that tendency when working with retailers. At first, that meant reaching out to the stores themselves—but now, many stores are knocking on the association’s door.
“Retailers need a lot of support, and brands, on an individual basis, really can only do so much. And they have a bias toward their brand,” she said. “Retailers are coming to us as experts in the entire category, to educate them about what’s going on, and how to better merchandise the products on the shelf.”
She added that PBFA has worked to help build shelf space for vegan and vegetarian brands, emphasizing marketing for the whole sector, rather than just for the most popular products.
Step up to the advocacy plate. In recent months, PBFA has upped its advocacy game as plant-based foods using terms associated with meat and dairy, such as “milk” or “burger,” have faced challenges from industries focused on protecting their brands.
PBFA has put a strong focus on defense, hiring lobbyists to make a case for its industry at state houses nationwide and fighting against questionable regulations in court. This has led to some big wins—particularly in Mississippi, where the association sued over a proposed regulation that would have prevented plant-based foods from using terms like “bacon.” The state’s department of agriculture ultimately backed down.
“Now, that can be a model for other states, something we can hold up for other states to follow,” she said.
Expand the industry’s distribution base. Beyond the grocery store, PBFA has worked to build inroads for plant-based products in new markets, such as food service. Earlier this year, for example, the association created a retail concept that took advantage of the interest in plant-based foods at colleges, but combined it with students’ desire for products that were ready to eat and could be easily microwaved.
Simon explained that the idea was intended to help give brands a place to shine beyond retail. “It really is always meant to be a vehicle and to kind of get introduced into college campuses or, you know, perhaps other institutions as well,” she said.
Partner with big retailers. One of PBFA’s biggest wins in recent months, according to Simon, has been an agreement with Kroger to study new ways to merchandise meat alternatives inside of the meat department, which is an opportunity that, again, encourages a halo effect.
“That’s the most exciting thing that we’re engaged with right now on the retail side—because it has the potential to transform not just the 2,700 stores at Kroger, but every other retailer that tends to follow closely,” she said.
The goal of PBFA’s approach, ultimately, is protect its industry’s growth and find new avenues for members to succeed.
“Whether it’s defense in policy or offense in the marketplace, there’s just so much opportunity to support this growing industry, and it’s really an exciting time,” Simon said.