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Soy food renaissance offers lessons for dairy protein

Thanks to the recent decision by the UN FAO to change the test methodology for proteins, dairy protein will be able to market itself as being of higher quality – more available to the body – than other proteins. But to make the most of their new advantage, producers of dairy protein will need to up their marketing game – and they can learn the most relevant lessons on protein marketing best-practice from their rivals, the soy protein industry. The soy industry got its marketing act together many years ago – and as a result it still presents formidable competition.

CONSUMER research by the major dairy companies shows that despite recent growth, consumer knowledge about protein – and particularly dairy protein – is still very limited. The only way to change that will be through educating the consumer – but their rival the soy protein industry is already well ahead and has been running a coherent communications effort and a market-building campaign since the mid-1990s.

The dairy industry is today faced with the same kind of one-off “launch-pad” opportunity for communications that the soy industry had in 1999, when the US FDA approved a heart health claim for soy protein. The effect of the claim – and the communications that the industry built on it – was to prompt sales growth of an average 15% per year in the early years of the millennium, according to Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Soy Foods Association of North America (SANA).

Part of that was “media attention for soy,” she said, “plus all of a sudden health professionals, physicians and dietitians began suggesting that soy was an important element in the diet. There were huge numbers of new products, and it was a very exciting time.”

But opportunities like that only typically happen once for an industry. Today, while the heart health platforms are still a part of the mix, the focus of consumer messaging from industry is on wider health benefits and easy ways to integrate soy into the everyday diet.

New product formats, new packaging and positioning in new places in the store have also been key to soy’s growth – more important than the heart health claim. In fact the rapid growth of the soy milk market in the West from 1998 onwards owes almost everything to the decision to position soy milk in the chiller cabinet, alongside cow’s milk, instead of the open shelf, thus “normalising” an ingredient that was formerly the preserve of hippies, health food stores and people with lactose intolerance.

Looked at from the outside, there appear to be five elements of strategy:

1. Major, long-term, co-ordinated industry communications as well as individual company communications

2. Willingness to tell a strong story and tackle media/consumer concerns head-on

3. Industry focus on improving taste, texture, creating new applications and providing NPD services to branded foods companies.

4. An increasing focus on taking soy into new growth markets.


The fact that the industry was able to capitalise on the heart health claim was a result of the fact that since 1994 soy has been at the forefront of marketing and education efforts, led by industry organisations such as the US United Soybean Board and companies like Dupont (Solae) and ADM.

Trade organizations like the Soy Foods Council and United Soybean Board lead advocacy efforts as well as promotion to consumers. Soy Connection, and other sites, provide videos, podcasts, press tips, newsletter, access to credible nutrition experts and dietitians.

The press – both trade and consumer press – is kept fed a steady stream of story ideas. And if a journalist needs a comment on any aspect of soy and health the industry’s communications team can find them an expert to comment on the subject.

The industry also makes sure that every possible piece of new science about soy – including studies that have no connection to any industry funders – get into the media, thus ensuring a drip-feed of “good news” about science-based benefits for soy.

With such a professional communication campaign, the fact that the soy industry can no longer overtly market soy protein as equivalent to other proteins, such as eggs and dairy, and better than other plant-based proteins, which is the positioning the industry has used for 20 years, is unlikely to make much difference in the short-term.

In fact the positioning of soy has evolved over recent years.

“With so much information and misinformation out there, soy ingredient suppliers and marketers are shying away from specific health-based platforms in favour of plant-based protein content and overall health and wellness,” an industry executive told NNB, adding: “Soy itself is no longer the destination. In the 90s, there was a rush to put soy on everything, but smart companies are no long selling their products on the idea of soy alone.”

Now the driver messages include:

  • protein, especially “vegetarian protein”
  • wellness
  • senior health
  • healthy ageing
  • low glycemic
  • gluten free

Meanwhile companies marketing branded consumer foods that contain soy have in most cases started to emphasise nutrition and convenience, but steer away from emphasis on soy itself, said Sarah Day LaVesque, an analyst for Soyatech.

“Companies need to think of soy as a functional ingredient for products like energy bars. People know it is a source of protein, but they don’t realise they are consuming soy.”


While dairy producers often shy away from bold marketing statements, boldness has served the soy companies well. 

For example, young adults and particularly younger women (20-35) are seen as a key market. They have grown up with the idea of healthy eating and for many young women in particular the idea of plant-based protein sources is appealing. This group is in particular motivated by messages about the environment and sustainability.

“Particularly younger consumers are interested in diversifying their protein intake, while eating something that uses resources efficiently and effectively. Soy is a wonderful sustainable protein and when you eat it you get 100% of the soy protein, versus if it is fed to another animal. So it represents eating further down on the food chain,” according to Nancy Chapman.

The soy industry is forthright about establishing itself as having superior environmental credentials to other sources of soy, using easy-to-understand graphics and PR to drive the message home.

Another example of bold communication is an emphasis in the last one to two years on communicating the value of soy for children, with an emphasis on the benefits of consuming soy in childhood to promote growth and bone health as well as the key nutrients kids need.

The Soyfoods Council has used short web-based videos in which nutrition experts talk about the importance of soy consumption among girls, referencing research that suggests that: “The plant estrogens in soy can prevent breast cancer later in life if consumed by girls in childhood and adolescence”.

In the US the industry has also lobbied with some success for more soy foods in school meals. 

Every industry encounters negatives from time-to-time – in fact there seems to be a sizeable section of the media dedicated to finding things to criticise about the food supply. Soy is no exception – but the soy industry’s communicators tackle criticism head-on.

One example was a media controversy over the use of hexane in soy processing. The chemical has been used for 70 years to extract the vegetable oil from the plant seed. It is an affordable and efficient way of fat separation with no evidence of risk to human health at safe limits of consumption.

The use of hexane was reported in “shock-horror” terms by some media outlets. The soy industry’s response was to boldly lay out the facts and refute the errors.

This stands in sharp contrast to the dairy protein producers. In 2012, for example, the BBC ran in the UK and in its global news service several reports questioning the need for increased protein in the diet and the “safety” of consuming high levels of dairy proteins. The science to refute these stories existed, but the dairy industry remained mute and so the stories stand – leaving the door open to more negative media reports in the future.