The colour conundrum: Red or green packaging for plant-based meat?

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Colour is a massive influence on how consumers perceive plant-based meat. Image Source: Getty Images/ChayTee
Colour is a massive influence on how consumers perceive plant-based meat. Image Source: Getty Images/ChayTee

Related tags Packaging Colours consumer behavior consumer perception plant-based meat plant-based

Colour plays a key role in how consumers see products. Should plant-based companies use red to evoke flavour, or green to evoke sustainability, with their offerings?

A recent study​ by ‘food awareness’ non-profit ProVeg International revealed that meat eaters are more willing to try plant-based meat alternatives if they are clad in red packaging.

The study found that 56% of consumers in the UK, and 54% in the US, mentally connect the colour red with superior taste when it comes to plant-based meat.

This is despite the fact that, according to ProVeg, most plant-based meat alternatives actually have green packaging, including prominent brands such as Beyond Meat.

The packaging of any product has a lot of influence how a consumer will perceive said product before they buy it. According to ProVeg’s research, 65% of consumers admitted that colour has a significant affect on what they buy.

The colour of packaging is an extremely important way to demarcate which type of consumer a brand is targeting. It can completely change how a consumer perceives a product, and in turn affect whether said consumer will buy it.

Which consumers want red packaging?

According to ProVeg’s research, orange packaging was the most likely to provoke consumers to purchase plant-based meat regularly, and use it as a replacement for conventional meat; and it was blue that prompted consumers to pay a higher price. Yet it is red that appeals the most to meat eaters. Why?

“Consumers often associate the colour red with tastiness due to its strong visual and psychological impact. Red is a stimulating colour that evokes excitement and passion, closely linked to the sensory experience of eating flavourful foods. Historically, red has been associated with ripeness and freshness in foods such as berries, tomatoes, and meat, reinforcing the perception of tastiness,” Ajsa Spahic, Project Coordinator at ProVeg International, and the report’s research lead, told FoodNavigator.

Has the plant-based meat trend peaked?

Despite a plethora of plant-based start-ups, some evidence suggests that the plant-based trend may be tapering off.​ Several key plant-based companies have recently gone into administration.

However, it has been suggested that this reflects a backlash over the ultra-processed​ nature of some plant-based products, rather than plant-based eating itself. The cost-of-living crisis, coupled with the often-higher cost of plant-based products compared with meat, is also a factor.

“Additionally, marketing and branding practices have frequently used red to highlight deliciousness and quality, further ingraining this association in consumer minds.”

Red appeals to all consumers, Spahic suggested, although not necessarily in the same way. “The association of red with tastiness is generally strong among all consumer groups, including vegetarians and vegans. However, the impact might be slightly different. While meat-eaters may associate red with the traditional colour of meat, vegetarians and vegans might perceive red as a signal of bold flavours and satisfying taste in plant-based products.”

US-based plant-based meat brand Impossible Foods also recently announced that it will change its packaging from green to red. The change reflects not only a shift in its colour, but in its message.  

“Our green aesthetic didn’t exactly match how craveable our products are,” Leslie Sims, chief marketing and creative officer at Impossible Foods, told FoodNavigator.

“We pretty quickly understood if we want to appeal to meat eaters, we can't show up like a plant. We need to show up like meat. So we designed our entire rebrand effort around this new, bold red colour to visually mirror our superior taste. It reads much more ‘meaty’ and stands out on the shelf in a way that more closely aligns with other meat products.

“We’ve always said that we belong in the meat aisle, and now our packaging and overall brand identity reflects that.”

Impossible is aiming to change its brand identity: rather than being something aimed just at vegetarians and vegans, it wants to appeal to meat eaters as well.

“We love our plant-based fans and will never take their support for granted, but the reality is that 90% of our consumers eat animal meat too and they're growing more flexible on how often and when they consume animal protein.

“We don't want to shame them for loving meat nor should they feel like they have to completely change their lifestyles in order to make better food choices. They can keep eating meat – just make it meat from plants.”

The company’s green packaging, while conveying sustainability well, ‘didn’t resonate’ as much when it came to conveying taste. The brand thus wants to put taste first and foremost.

“Sustainability is absolutely still important, but we’ve seen that at the outset, it’s not enough of a motivator on its own to convince meat eaters to forego their tried-and-true animal meat options.”

Which consumers want green packaging?

While red drove consumers to want to eat plant-based meat more reliably, green was overwhelmingly the colour most associated with it, according to ProVeg’s research. While 72% of UK consumers and 62% of US consumers associated green with plant-based meat, 13% of US consumers and just 6% of consumers in the UK associated red with it.

In both countries, green was also most strongly associated with eco-friendliness and with safety compared with other colours tested.

Green has strong positive associations, but not necessarily with taste. “Green is commonly used to indicate that a product is healthy, eco-friendly, or organic, which, while positive, does not necessarily convey the sensory satisfaction associated with taste,” ProVeg’s Spaphic told us.

Plant proteins

In order for plant-based meat and dairy to provide consumers with the protein they would get from traditional animal products, plant proteins must be used. Plant proteins that are widely used in meat and dairy substitutes include fava bean​, pea​, and soybean​. More unconventional choices, such as pinto beans​, have also been used.  

“Additionally, many green foods, like leafy vegetables, are perceived as less flavourful compared to the richer taste profiles of red foods like tomatoes or meats. As a result, green is more associated with health benefits and sustainability rather than the immediate sensory appeal of tastiness.”

US brand Beyond Meat, however, still believes that green packaging is the way to go. “We selected Beyond’s bright and dark green colours as a reflection of [its] brand mission and pillars. Our commitment to the planet, animal welfare and human health is intertwined with the balance of the natural world where green is a dominant and primary colour,” Bram Meijer, Marketing Director for EMEA at Beyond Meat, told FoodNavigator.

Beyond Meat maintains the importance of being linked to environmentalism and sustainability. “Our core consumer is a vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian who is open to swapping in plant-based for some of [their] 21 meals [a week]. Beyond green represents goodness from plants, where we see the future of protein.

“We believe our brand colours are recognised and associated with natural, plant-based ingredients - which all of our products are - and in turn, building trust and brand loyalty with our consumers.”

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