GFI Associate Director of Corporate Engagement Caroline Bushnell has a long-standing love of all things plant-based. Caroline is using that passion to help leading retailers and manufacturers expand their market for plant-based foods beyond vegans and vegetarians to include flexitarians and meat-eaters.
Caroline joined GFI from Celestial Seasonings where she served as Director of Marketing. With a background in brand management, finance, and consulting, she is intimately familiar with the challenges and opportunities of the food business. She brings this expertise to GFI where she’s ushering in a new era of plant-based business opportunity, assisting companies in bringing plant-based products to a broader consumer base.
We caught up with her for a crash course on how to sell plant-based products—and eventually clean meat—to the mainstream consumer.
What’s your specialty at GFI?
Everything plant-based! Specifically, marketing plant-based foods (and soon clean meat) to a wide range of consumers. I work with manufacturers, retailers, and startups to increase the quality and availability of plant-based products. Using GFI’s wealth of consumer research and category insights along with my experience in food and beverage marketing, I advise companies on innovating, marketing, and merchandising plant-based products. As clean meat gets closer to coming to market, I’ll be looking at how to successfully introduce it at retail too.
What led you to the field of marketing plant-based products?
It’s been nearly 20 years in the making. As a teenager, I’d beg my Mom to let us do our grocery shopping at the natural foods store across town—passing several traditional grocery stores on the way—so I could find the most interesting plant-based products. There weren’t that many options back then, but that didn’t stop me from seeking them out. (I remember loading our cart up with Rice Dream—this was long before almond milk was a thing.) Years later, after some time in finance and consulting, I found my way to a career in food through consumer packaged goods (CPG) brand marketing. I loved the work, and as a longtime believer in the many benefits of plant-based eating, I ultimately turned my attention fully to the plant-based food industry.
What are some tips for marketing plant-based products?
GFI’s consumer research has turned up some surprising insights. For instance, most of the time, you don’t actually want to prominently use the word “vegan” on the package. Most of the growth in plant-based foods is not coming from vegan consumers—who make up a very small percent of the population—but rather from flexitarian consumers, who are looking to make healthier choices. According to IPSOS, a leading market research firm, 54% of U.S. consumers say they are currently trying to consume less animal-based foods and more plant-based foods. Using the term “plant-based” instead means these products can appeal to more consumers, many of whom don’t identify with the term “vegan.”
In the best-case scenario, what does the grocery store of 10 years in the future look like?
There will probably be a lot of interesting changes in that time, but most exciting to me is the transformation of the meat case to a “protein counter” where plant-based meats and clean meat are displayed right alongside conventional meat. Consumers will no longer have to locate the obscure section of plant-based meat alternatives: any protein they want will be conveniently located in one easy-to-find place. This follows the shift we’re currently seeing with several large meat companies repositioning themselves as “protein companies.”
Give me your pitch: why should grocery stores be displaying and marketing plant-based products alongside animal-based products?
Just picture the dairy case. You can now find any type of milk you want all in one place — from almond to soy to cow’s. You no longer have to go searching the aisles to uncover the buried selection of plant-based milks like you did ten years ago.
Just like how plant-based milks are used on many occasions as a direct substitute for cow’s milk, plant-based meats are being used in similar ways to conventional meat. We know 90% of plant-based milk consumers also purchase cow’s milk, so it’s the same consumer buying both of these categories. And research shows a similar overlap for plant-based meats. Beyond Meat, for example, has found that 70% of the consumers who purchase the Beyond Burger also purchase conventional meat.
By merchandising plant-based meat next to conventional meat, retailers will increase sales for plant-based products because it will be easier for consumers to discover them.
But doesn’t it make sense to group all plant-based products together so people can find everything in one spot? (she asked, playing Devil’s advocate.)
It is convenient for vegan and vegetarian consumers like me. However, vegans and vegetarians aren’t actually the largest market for plant-based products. Flexitarians and meat-reducers are a much larger market, so the more accessible these products are to these consumers, the more they will sell. Retailers can easily make plant-based products more accessible by placing them in the meat aisle where these consumers are already shopping and using clear signage to identify them.
Is there a success story you can point to?
Absolutely. The Beyond Burger, which the company requires to be placed in the meat section of the store, is now outselling all packaged meat at a major supermarket in Southern California. It’s not just on the coasts where they are seeing success though, the Beyond Burger is selling extremely well at grocery stores throughout the country. So much so, in fact, that they are rapidly expanding production to keep up with the overwhelming demand.
I understand that you’re an outdoors enthusiast. What’s your go-to post-hike or bike ride (or scuba diving) recovery food?
Do I have to pick just one? There are so many indulgent plant-based foods that are satisfying after a long workout. If I’m playing favorites, it would have to be a protein-packed strawberry and almond butter smoothie with coconut milk. It’s milkshake-meets-PB-and-J-next-level delicious!