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Vegan Brand Strategy Plant Based

The secret to selling more plant-based products? Don’t say ‘vegan’

By Meg Rhys-Challis, Account manager

Media Bounty


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November 22, 2023 | 6 min read

As vegan diets increase in popularity, the term ‘vegan’ (for some at least) decreases in popularity. Media Bounty’s Meg Rhys-Challis looks at why, and what it means for vegan – sorry, plant-based – brands.

A number of cows, looking straight at the camera

Has 'vegan' become a dirty word for marketers? / Robert Bye via Unsplash

We’ve all been there: your vegan friend is insisting once again that the meat-free chicken they’re tucking into “tastes just like the real thing” and that you would “never know it was vegan… no, really!” You believe them, you do. But for some reason, the mere mention of the word ‘vegan’ puts you off ever giving it a go. Well, you’re not alone.

According to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), consumers are “significantly less likely” to choose plant-based food if it’s labeled vegan. So, if you’re a brand looking to sell more facon (that’s fake bacon for the uninitiated), the answer is simple: don’t say “vegan”.

Veganism has come a long way in the last few years, with 2% of the UK population now following a plant-based diet, and the trend doesn’t seem to be going anywhere - so why are so many people still put off by that word?

Identity, eco-gender gaps, and dirty words

For some, veganism is seen as a dirty word. Vegans are perceived as extremists; they judge you for wearing your favorite skin-tight leather trousers or for enjoying a peri-peri wrap at a certain high street chicken shop. They’re lefty, environmentalist types who probably spend their weekends glued to the pavement or calling anyone who disagrees with them ‘problematic’.

Others view veganism as feminine, and they might be right - the vegan demographic is currently largely female. Research firm Mintel has coined this the ‘eco gender gap’, hypothesizing that because women still tend to manage the household, many eco-friendly products are marketed at them, perpetuating the idea that saving the world is women’s work.

So maybe the ‘vegan identity’ just doesn’t align with most people’s personal identity. As The Vegan Society states, “food [is] a fundamental expression of what people believe in and who we are”. Could this identity dissonance be part of our aversion to foods labeled vegan? And if so, what can brands do about it?

The persuadables

Gen Z is well documented as being an environmentally conscious generation. They love thrifting (that’s second-hand shopping to us), rocking a tote bag, and oat milk in their iced lattes. So, it’s not surprising that research shows that zoomers are more likely to ditch meat and dairy compared with other generations (but not entirely). Interestingly, diet labels such as ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ have fallen out of fashion with the younger generation, with ‘flexitarian’ favored over an all-or-nothing mindset.

This flexible approach adopted by trend-setting gen Z might just be the key to getting more people to choose vegan products. According to Media Bounty’s research, 69% of the UK population are ‘persuadables’. These people are open to making more sustainable choices and are generally in agreement that these will benefit them in the long term – but right now, hardly any brands are speaking to them.

This 69% could be persuaded to make more ethical choices such as occasionally switching to meat- and dairy-free products. They don’t, however, respond well to typical green advertising, which often uses language like ‘heroes’ and ‘warrior’ to appeal to consumers. It’s likely that this audience doesn’t buy into the stereotypical vegan identity either. So how do we speak to this segment?

Our research suggests that we need to normalize new choices to appeal to these persuadables, and this extends to food choices too. One way to do this is to remove the barriers which prevent or make it difficult for consumers to change their behavior. Research from the IGD suggests that something as simple as moving plant-based products to the meat and dairy aisles would make it easier for people to choose vegan alternatives. This small change allows people to flex their diets without having to think too much or deviate from their usual supermarket route.

Another way to connect with the Persuadables is to “lead with product benefits”. As discovered in MIT’s research, explicitly labeling your product as vegan is a turn off for many. So, leading with product benefits (whether that’s taste, convenience or health) is the way forward. Focussing on what the product is going to add to consumers’ lives rather than what it’s missing is more likely to get people to make the switch.

Flex sells

The evidence is clear: if brands want to sell more plant-based products to more people, they’ve got to tap into audiences who are reluctant to commit to veganism and aren’t interested in buying into a lifestyle. How? By ditching the labels, leading with benefits, and embracing flexibility.

To learn more about how to speak to Persuadables, sign up for the latest Media Bounty webinar, Mastering Sustainability Messaging: How to engage ‘Persuadables’ on Climate.

Vegan Brand Strategy Plant Based

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