When Meatless Monday founder Sid Lerner wanted to expand the program’s reach, he knew what industry to take his cues from. As a former ad man, Lerner understood the need for smart marketing. In 2008 he tapped Peggy Neu, a fellow advertising executive, to head Meatless Monday’s parent organization The Monday Campaigns. Under her direction the movement has flourished, extending to 29 countries and innumerable participants. Next week Neu will deliver a TEDx talk on Meatless Monday’s place in the rapidly changing landscape of health and nutrition. We sat down with her to ask a few questions.
The subject of your talk is how a simple idea—Meatless Monday—sparked a global movement. Public health campaigns don’t often enjoy such rapid growth. What makes Meatless Monday different?
I think it’s absolutely due in part to how simple it is. But the other aspect of Meatless Monday that makes it relevant around the world is the “Monday” aspect: the rhythm of the week, and the idea of incorporating an action that’s healthy and good for you into that natural rhythm. That’s something that resonates across cultures. Our research shows that in many different countries Monday is the day that people are most open to trying new healthy behaviors. People start diets and exercise regimens, and of course that’s the overall goal of The Monday Campaigns. So having a “meatless” day at the beginning of the week is something that makes sense to people all over the world.
One of the foundational principles of the Meatless Monday approach is that it’s essentially an “open source” model: your team basically just creates resources and gives them away for free. What’s the logic behind that?
That was the brilliance of Sid’s early vision. The idea with Meatless Monday was to encourage people to use it to accomplish their goals. And I think that’s one of the reasons it has spread so rapidly in such different settings, because people feel they can just take the idea of giving up meat in whatever language and make it their own. So it’s not a question of “signing on” to what we’re doing, but rather having an idea that people can own.
So it’s a very decentralized, almost grassroots approach.
Right. It helps to remember that Meatless Monday is often referred to as a movement, and the definition of a movement is a collective action undertaken by loosely organized groups. And that’s exactly what we’ve done: we have a collective action—going meatless on Monday—and there is this huge variety of groups that are interested in that: vegetarians, animal welfare activists, climate change organizations, and of course the public health community. Given the issues surrounding both meat production and meat consumption, there are so many interests groups that have a stake in reducing our reliance on meat. So when they ask themselves, “What can we do, specifically?” Meatless Monday is there as a simple idea that can be adopted, whether by an individual or an organizer.
And it’s not just advocacy groups: encouragingly, businesses are adopting the program as well. What has Meatless Monday done to foster those relationships?
One of the things that we’ve done well is to talk to participants about what’s in it for them. If you’re a restaurant, you can get more business on a Monday night. If you’re a media outlet, you can increase your audience at the beginning of the week. If you’re a corporation, you can achieve your wellness and sustainability objectives. So because of our business background, we know how to walk into a room with a potential participant and tailor our pitch to meet their goals.
Do you think that business savvy has been lacking in public health?
My observation in public health is that professionals don’t boil their research down to an understandable, memorable idea. And that needs to happen, because people don’t have enough time or attention to devote to lengthy articles, and they can also be overwhelmed by all of the things that we have to do to stay healthy. One of the things that’s unique about The Monday Campaigns is that it’s a marriage between marketing and public health.
The larger theme of next week’s TEDx event is “Changing the Way We Eat.” Has your diet changed at all since taking the helm of Meatless Monday?
Oh definitely. The more you learn about how your food is produced and prepared, the more you change. So I eat less meat and more plant-based options, and when I do eat meat I check to make sure it’s locally and sustainably raised. Mostly it’s just about enjoying meat as a special occasion instead of an everyday staple.