Vegan or Plant-Based Labels? Not Just for Veganuary…

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» Vegan or Plant-Based Labels? Not Just for Veganuary…

Research Advisory Committee member, Dr Jack Waverley, discusses the findings from his latest research into the use of vegan and plant-based labels; a collaborative project with The Vegan Society.

New Year, New Me? Many may be trialling changes to their diet and lifestyle this
January, perhaps inspired by Veganuary or by spending time with vegan friends and family members over the winter break. Whether inspired by health, the environment, or animal ethics, you may be turning to products labelled 'vegan' or 'plant-based' in order to reduce your consumption of animal products for a month, year, or even longer.

Our earlier research suggested that many consumers were confused about the differences between product labels. Are vegan and plant-based products the same? What about plant-forward, plant-curious, or vegan-friendly? Last year we set out to develop a better understanding of branding practices by interviewing entrepreneurs, brand managers, and consultants. We found that brands have adopted different approaches to the 'vegan or plant-based?' question, with more diversity and change expected in 2024.

This blog post is not about what to buy, however. There are no sponsored links below or hidden ads within. Instead, we are here to share the findings of our research with 20 brands (and counting) about how they label their offerings. Rather than what to buy this year, this blog is about how buying is changing, and why. Our research began with the observation that many brands (not to mention celebrities and influencers) are beginning to move away from the word ‘vegan’ in favour of describing themselves as ‘plant-based’. But what does plant-based mean? Why does it matter to brands? How might it matter to you?

Motivation for the Research

Veganism is gaining popularity but the term ‘plant-based’ is also on the rise. Vegans may be defined as people who avoid animal products, but also anything else that may contribute to animal suffering or exploitation. Often this involves products entirely made from plants, so one might assume that plant-based brands are always suitable for vegans. However, there is no legal definition for plant-based, so products with this label can be entirely free from animal-derived ingredients, but may include eggs, dairy and even meat.

Earlier research found that consumers were confused about the term plant-based. While this label was positively associated with health, nature and the environment, consumers were unclear what plant-based ingredients might involve. Many assumed that plant-based and vegan brands were synonymous and the labels were interchangeable, but there was still a degree of uncertainty.

So, we interviewed over 20 different brands to understand how they used the terms vegan and plant-based, whether they used any other terms, and why they made the decisions that they did. The brands interviewed were big and small, ranging from conglomerates with multiple brands and product categories to start-ups with innovative new offerings. Many were based in the UK, but some had overseas operations or were expanding into multiple countries. This provided a wide range of perspectives and helped to paint a fuller picture of the vegan / plant-based landscape.

Main Findings

The research identified three key approaches adopted by brands:

  1. Most brands assume, or worry, that the word vegan can be off-putting. Thus, they ask themselves whether they should use this label or plant-based.
  2. Some brands argue that both terms can be used in combination, with vegan and plant-based working well when used carefully together.
  3. Some brands argue that plant-based is also a problematic or potentially problematic term, and therefore look for alternative labels (or alternatives to using labels at all).

Vegan or Plant-Based?

Almost all participants shared a concern that veganism was, or at least could be, perceived negatively. This included those who identified themselves as vegan. Interviewees identified certain public figures and media outlets as those promoting a negative view of vegans as loud, countercultural types who ‘push’ their unreasonable views onto others in ‘annoying’ ways. These representations were important because they changed public perceptions, consciously or otherwise.

Many brands saw themselves as solving practical issues by creating products that make veganism easier for vegans and the non-vegans who had vegan friends, family members or employees. As discussed below, only a couple of the brands wanted to try and tackle cultural stereotypes head-on through their marketing activities. Most wanted to focus on making veganism easier at a practical level.

This is where plant-based labelling could come in. In contrast to ‘vegan’, the term ‘plant-based’ was seen as a relatively neutral description of products, diets or lifestyles, rather than people or beliefs. So, plant-based labelling was a way to sell vegan products without putting non-vegans off.

However, plant-based was not entirely neutral – it could be ‘boring', lacking in emotional connection, and confusing. In contrast, vegan was understood more clearly in relation to animal-related issues and products entirely free from dairy, eggs and other animal derivatives.

The most common theme in the data was that vegan was potentially negative, or at least more likely to be negative than plant-based, but brands also acknowledged that there was limited evidence in this area. Plant-based was seen as a ‘safer bet’ for brands, but not entirely risk-free.

For many participants it was simply a matter of numbers. With vegans representing anywhere from one to three percent of the population (depending on country and research method adopted), the market was  simply not big enough to support most brands. Plant-based would be bought by vegans and non-vegans, whereas non-vegans might think that vegan products are ‘not for me’.  

Vegan and Plant-Based?

Some brands said why not use both terms, vegan and plant-based?

For instance, some products featured ‘plant-based’ language prominently on their website or packaging, but also included phrases like ‘suitable for vegans’ in a smaller font on the side of the packaging, or somewhere else inconspicuous. This approach was adopted when brands assumed that vegans would be more willing to search packaging or websites for a vegan label or accreditation.

Although the term vegan was seen as potentially off-putting, this seemed to only be the case if vegan was used front and centre. If the word vegan featured alongside plant-based, especially if it was in a less prominent position (e.g. smaller or on the back), its potentially negative effects were diminished. This was because it was taken as more of a product description, rather than an identity position or political message.

For this reason, many brands also valued official certification, such as that provided by The Vegan Society. Although some participants expressed a view that consumers were trusting enough to believe a brand that used the word vegan without certification, an external organisation was still seen as a powerful tool, with The Vegan Society’s trademark being referred to as ‘the gold standard’ for vegan consumers. One participant who worked with several brands summarised this line of thinking as follows: “From a certification standpoint, I think it’s really important to have vegan because for vegan consumers, that’s a marker of trust and quality. But in everything else, so our marketing copy, on social media, that’s where we don’t hone in on vegan. Vegan is a controversial term and it’s loaded for a lot of consumers.”

A mixed or dual approach was therefore seen as a useful strategy to appeal to vegans and non-vegans at the same time. This is especially true for brands that have a business-to-consumer and a business-to-business or retail/wholesale market because the latter tend to prefer clearer labelling. Using plant-based without the term vegan could alienate vegan customers, but including both was the real win-win. Or was it?

Neither Vegan nor Plant-Based?

There were concerns that the term plant-based could become more negatively charged in consumers’ minds over time – seen as synonymous with vegan but less clear and more of a fad. While it is too early to tell what the future of plant-based labelling might be, some of the brands interviewed were already looking for alternatives. Common suggestions included plant-curious, plant-forward, flexitarian, meat-free or free-from.

On the last point, participants compared vegan products to free-from products for two reasons. Firstly, many vegan products were free from dairy, eggs and other allergens, and so may be appealing to consumers who were not vegan for animal-related or environmental reasons, but still found vegan labelling a useful shortcut for health and safety reasons. Secondly, the success of the free-from market in raising awareness (amongst consumers) and securing buy-in (from retailers creating a dedicated space) was something that many brands wanted to emulate.

However, not all participants wanted to emulate the free-from market. For instance, one feature of free-from retailing is that it is often located in a separate part of the store or website. For many brands this could have the unintended consequence of making their products appear niche, therefore preventing the market from becoming mainstream and veganism becoming more widely accepted.

Brands seeking to become mainstream found that even the label ‘plant-based’ could be too distinctive or restrictive. Instead, several brands were looking to find ways to describe their products without using the term vegan or plant-based, or any obvious label at all. This could be described as a ‘no label’ or ‘labelless’ approach. This could work for brands centred around a particular ingredient (e.g. tofu or mushroom) but was also a consideration for those experimenting with ‘lab-grown’ innovations (e.g. cultured meat), as it was unclear whether these would be considered vegan or plant-based.

This blog post does not have the space to wade into the philosophical or ethical debates around laboratory-grown meat, especially as others are already doing excellent work in this area. What is relevant here is how, for most brands, the ideal label would be one with no negative connotations, one that signalled a product was suitable for vegans without alienating other groups. However, this perfect label (or 'labeless' product strategy) was elusive. 

Indeed, for this reason many were considering a return to the term vegan, or had considered alternatives before deciding to stick with a vegan label. This was particularly common amongst brands looking to expand internationally, where other labels might not translate but the phrase ‘vegan’ was directly exported and widely understood.

Conclusion: More Research Needed!

As a consumer researcher you might expect me to say this, but all of the brands agreed that the best next step would be more rigorous research. The question of labelling seems so simple, boring even. Yet here it was fraught with risk, ever-changing, open to debate, and based largely on anecdotal evidence or assumptions.

So, what does this all mean for you? If you are a brand manager or entrepreneur, reach out to us as we would love to work collaboratively to navigate this unclear and shifting landscape. If you are a researcher or organisation with some data or insights, please reach out also! We would love to learn with and alongside you. Finally, if you are a consumer (and we all are), perhaps the best advice for now is to read the ingredients list very carefully! You never know what you may find…

The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.
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