Five years ago, very few Americans woke up Monday mornings with the intention of not eating meat that day. Today, going meatless on Mondays is a national phenomenon, with 50% of all adults saying they're aware of the Meatless Monday campaign, and 27.5% of those saying they're actively cutting back on meat consumption, particularly on Mondays.
And the amazing part is that all this happened with zero advertising, no fancy PR firm and a shoestring staff. Launched in 2003 as a joint effort between the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Columbia University School of Public Health, the Meatless Monday campaign consists of just a handful of full-time staffers and several others at John Hopkins working part time. Just the sort of low-budget, wildly-effective, meteoric rise into the cultural lexicon most companies would kill for.
The survey showing that half of Americans know about Meatless Mondays was conducted by FGI Research and paid for by Meatless Mondays. But even the meat industry -- which would undoubtedly just like the concept of meatless days of the week to go away -- acknowledges the campaign has had an impact. A November 2010 survey sponsored by the American Meat Institute and Food Marketing Institute found that 18% of Americans were "implementing meatless Mondays."
How cows got the day off
So how did they pull this off? Chris Elam, program director at Meatless Mondays, says it was a combination of a smart, carefully-selected strategy, the right message, good timing and some heaping spoonfuls of luck. Here are some lessons from Meatless Mondays' success:
- Build a presence online: Although this concept is obvious these days, it's still not easy to do. In January 2009, there was just one blogger who was regularly touting meatless recipes on Mondays. Today there are more than 150, including the Food Network's Dish blog. Elam, who -- full disclosure -- is a friend, says he engaged bloggers by highlighting them on Meatless Monday's site with a wall of fame.
- Find influencers who will spread your message: After Elam approached Kathy Freston, an outspoken vegan and self-help author, about Meatless Monday, she promoted the idea on HuffPo and Alternet, and she talked it up among her many friends in the media world, including Oprah and Rupert Murdoch's wife, who is implementing MM at her home. One of the people working on MM at John Hopkins spoke to Michael Pollan and shortly thereafter he went on Oprah and advised people to "cut back on meat once a week."
- Let other people use you for their agenda: Kathy Freston and other power vegans support MM because they feel Americans should eat a lot less meat. Same with PETA, which is now talking up the movement. Web sites that focus on environmental issues picked up on it because meat is the most polluting and resource-consuming food you can eat. For mommy budget bloggers, cutting back on steak and chicken breasts is a way to stretch those supermarket dollars. And Sodexo, the catering giant, adopted the program because, at a time when Americans are hearing oodles of messages about the benefits of eating more vegetables and other plants, it seemed like a good marketing move. The same goes for celebrity chefs like Mario Batali.
- Have a simple, accessible, empowering message: Meatless Mondays never, ever uses the V word. Less than 3% of Americans are vegetarian and the concept is scary to most people. "We've always strived to be accessible. That's been crucial to our success," says Elam. And instead of talking about cutting back on meat, Meatless Mondays emphasizes that it's all about trying new, fun ways to eat vegetables, something that can appeal even to devoted carnivores. "We don't tell people to take meat of the plate. Our message is a positive one, that it's really all about choice."