What’s With Martha’s Meatballs?
What is really going on with the Beyond Meat trend?
Subway Canada recently released a new ad campaign to promote their partnership with mega plant-based “meat” producer Beyond Meat. The ad features home and garden business personality Martha Stewart, in which Martha promotes Subway’s newest product: Beyond Meat meatballs.
The creators of the video advertisement decided to play on the words “plant-based” by humorously stating that these meatballs are in fact grown from the ground. It is obvious that these food products are indeed not grown on a plant, however, the creators cleverly use hyperbole as a device to convince their viewers that these products contain only plant-based ingredients, and therefore, they are essentially grown in the ground. In other words, the message is: if you have ever considered trying a plant-based product, try the Beyond Meat meatball sub at your local (and already familiar) Subway restaurant.
Despite the positive impact that the increasing amount of plant-based products available in the fast-food industry has (Heller, M. C., Keoleian, G. A., 2018), a cultural studies analysis models, such as the Nesbitt-Larking Model (2009) (Figure 2), reminds us that there is always a relationship between advertisements, corporate profit making and audience manipulation. Beyond Meat and Subway are major corporations that seek profit and therefore, the question becomes: Does Subway and Beyond Meat really care about helping the environment through sustainable food offerings? Or, is this just another corporation seeking to make more money off a growing trend?
Figure 2. Paul Nesbitt-Larking. Politics, Society and the Media: a Model. Broadview Press. 2009.
Subway Canada is far from being the first Canadian fast-food corporation to hop on the Beyond Meat wagon and drive sales through the roof. Beyond Meat, both as a brand and as a business model, is a perfect example of what marketing analysts Kotler and Turner (1981) coined “the marketing concept.” One of the key aspects of the marketing concept, in short, is simply “discovering consumer needs, designing products to meet them and using advertisements to communicate the availability and desirability of the products” (Kotler and Turner, 1981., in Leiss, et al., 2018). In the case of this Subway advertisement, Subway has identified that there is an increasing demand, in the Canadian market, for plant-based food products and has thus implemented the very basic marketing concept by supplying this demand. Subway is then the fourth “P” in the “four Ps” of Kotler and Turner's marketing concept, which is place (placing products in appropriate retail outlets).
Some Canadian corporations have wrongfully positioned themselves in the plant-based retailer market, such as Tim Hortons, which has recently pulled all Beyond Meat products from its menu (excluding the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia). This is precisely what Kutler and Turner mean by “placing products in appropriate retail outlets.” The consumer reaction to Tim Hortons offering Beyond Meat products is a point of assessment that challenges the marketing concept due to the fact that, although Tim Hortons employed the concept correctly, the profit results were not as expected because Tim Hortons is not the appropriate place.
Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax gives us a very obvious answer as to why Tim Hortons failed and the reason, simply put, is that Timmies is all about coffee, doughnuts and muffins. However, Beyond Meat may have “struck gold” with its recent partnership with Subway. Cristina Wells, a Subway's executive said during an interview “[During the test,] a lot of guests came in expecting a great experience of us because we’re known for veggies and those kinds of options.” In other words, Subway has solidified themselves as a fast-food chain that emphasizes “fresh” ingredients and therefore, does not necessarily focus on their meat offerings. With that being said, these corporations are cleverly utilizing what Packard (1959) called “the subconscious level”, to the receiving audience of Canadian consumers by offering these consumers the change in their life that they desire, which is a slow transition to a plant-based diet, however, it is offered by a familiarity: Subway (the appropriate place).
The choice that Subway made to advertise their new Beyond Meat meatballs as a “meatball tree” promoted by Martha Stewart is a hyperbolic method that (Leiss, et al., 2018) refer to in Table 1.1 of their book as a “product symbols” advertising strategy. The pairing of the tree and Martha Stewart (being an internationally recognized icon of home and gardening) connotes freshness and by-extension good health. Good health, I argue, is the conscious level message that audiences take away from this advertisement: it is not about food, nor plant-based meatballs, but about how these fresh products will improve your health.
Subway Canada has cleverly paired with established plant-based food producer Beyond Meat as a means of shared-profit-advantage for both corporations. Both of these brands compliment each other and thus supply a demand for the product, which is the foundational aspect of Kotler and Turner’s marketing concept. Although Graça, J. et al. (2015) found, through their data, that “large segments of consumers in western societies do not seem willing to eat a plant-based diet or reduce meat consumption,” we must keep in mind that this study was published in 2015 and does not necessarily reflect the current discourse on plant-based diets. If the tests that Subway performed are any indication, then we can conclude that there is an increasing amount of consumers who are in fact looking to reduce their meat consumption and thus, Subway has finally found the perfect corporate partner to help North Americans take on this new “healthier,” plant-based lifestyle and greenwash their brand while the money pours in.
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Nesbitt-Larking, P. (2009). Politics, Society and the Media (2nd Edition). Broadview Press.
Leiss, W., Kline, S., Jhally, S., Botterill, J., Asquith, K. (2018). Social Communication in Advertising (4th Edition). Routledge.
Kotler, P., Turner, R. E. (1981) in Social Communication in Advertising (4th Edition). Routledge. (2018)
Packard, V. (1959) in Social Communication in Advertising (4th Edition). Routledge. (2018)
Graça, J., Oliveira, A., Calheiros, M. M. (2015). Meat, beyond the plate. Data-driven hypotheses for understanding consumer willingness to adopt a more plant-based diet. Appetite Journal, Elsevier.
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Buckner, D. (2019). Business gets on board the plant-based protein train. CBC Online. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/meat-free-alternatives-go-mainstream-1.5126079