With men keen to explore plant-based diets, are FMCG brands ready to change their marketing narratives around protein?
Demand for protein originally coincided with the increasing popularity of bodybuilding during the 1980s, and today it remains the go-to macronutrient among fitness-focused, muscle-chasing crowds. Sports protein powders, for example, make up 70% – around £3.7bn ($4.7bn, €3.7bn) in value – of the current £5.2bn ($6.7bn, €5.8bn) sports nutrition market, which itself is expected to exceed £15bn ($20bn, €17bn) by 2020.
Yet, amid the recent carb revival and increasing popularity of plant-based diets, consumers – and in particular, men – are beginning to rethink their relationship with meat-based protein. Could it be that we will witness a future in which meat and masculinity are no longer synonymous?
Pushing to change the traditional narrative, Louie Psihoyos’ 2018 documentary The Game Changers featured a variety of vegan, professional athletes in a bid to debunk the myth that muscular men need to eat meat in order to uphold their physiques. But with almost half (46%) of Americans believing that plant-based protein sources are healthier than their animal-based counterpart, could it be that it’s not a lack of demand or interest among men, so much as shame that has so far stagnated their interest in plant-based proteins?
It’s something that Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, argues: ‘The sexual politics of meat assumes men need to eat meat in order to be masculine and virile. We have a dominant cultural drive to embarrass, shame, and harass men who [embrace] veganism.’
Comparably, Dr. Emma Roe of the University of Southampton, studied the attitudes of British men and found many are hesitant to choose plant-based options when dining out due to a fear of such social isolation. But there are glimmers of hope. ‘What we discovered is that many men are interested in eating less meat, they just need social permission to do so,’ Roe explains. ‘As more men make vegetarian and vegan choices, that permission is becoming more readily available.’
Environmental charity Hubbub’s recent Meat Your Match campaign also highlights the opportunity that exists around repositioning plant-based proteins. It incentivised male gym-goers to swap half of their animal-based protein with plant alternatives by offering dietary advice and meal suggestions over an eight week period. The number of Meat Your Match participants likely to order a vegetarian meal when eating out with friends increased from an initial 5% to 41%.
Possibly, as performing gender increasingly morphs into the concept of performing identity, the association between protein and meat will begin to shift. Committing to veganism could actually help men to strengthen their sense of identity, and with it their sense of self. It’s something we’ve seen among food CEOs such as Josh Tetrick of JUST, Ethan Brown of Beyond Meat and Derek Sarno of Wicked Healthy – these muscle-bound, plant-based evangelists are each helping to obliterate the notion of meat and manliness as intertwined.
In light of this shifting attitude, there is vast opportunity for brands to adopt a more nuanced approach to using and promoting plant-based proteins, especially when it comes to those gains-driven male consumers. At present, gender stereotyped food packaging and language is helping men to feel more at home with plant-based proteins. But as we look to the future, recent launches such as Nutrition Performance protein powder evoke the clean fonts, intelligent yet restrained imagery and neutral colour palettes that will help to shape a new, future-facing narrative around protein.