Vegan: The product label which shall not be named

In Harry Potter, invoking Lord Voldemort’s name is a sure way to cause real trouble for yourself. In animal-free food product marketing, is it the same for invoking the “v-word”?

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We already know that consumers think “plant-based food” tastes a lot better than “vegan food.” Innumerable past studies suggest that “vegan” may as well be a four-letter word on consumer product packaging, as I’ve written before.

Study after study (after study after study) finds that a good way to depress your animal-free food sales with mainstream consumers is to label your food “vegan.” In fact, one 2018 study found that just by segregating plant-based entrees into a “vegetarian section” on a restaurant menu is a great way to get fewer diners to order them.

Some vegans have argued that as times progress and people become more familiar with the term “vegan” they’ll be more accepting of the word. However, another new study affirms what the others have found in the past: if you want to be popular with vegans, label your product vegan. But if you want to be popular with the vastly larger group of consumers who still eat animal products, try something else.

There’s no doubt that vegans are a passionate consumer block. I should know—I’ve been one for the past 30 years and counting. Unfortunately, there’s just not that many of us, and newly released Gallup polling shows that in the US at least, the percent of people self-identifying as “vegan” has at best not budged for decades, and may even be decreasing. (The number is so small—1 percent—it’s hard to know with the margin of error.)

New Study Sheds Same Light

A new study, just published in the journal Appetite suggests that the times, they aren’t a changing, at least not on this issue.

Conducted at MIT, the study focused on menu item labeling, not CPG products, but the results were predictable. The MIT researchers concluded from their randomized trial, “We found that vegan and vegetarian labels commonly found on menu items have a significantly negative impact on consumer’s likelihood to choose these menu items.”

This is similar to what hospitals are finding, as NPR reported this summer: if you want patients to choose the meat-free options, don’t call them “vegan.” In fact, the New York Times just reported that its hospital system succeeded in a patient take-rate of plant-based meals with a whopping 90 percent of in-patients, not by touting the v-word, but just by making the “v” silent and simply having those options as the default choice. This type of “choice architecture” seems to be a far more effective way to increase the selection of meat-free options than by advertising their “vegan-ness.”

Selling Plant-Based to the Masses

Part of the problem may just be that, for whatever reason, a lot of people simply think “vegan” food won’t taste good. After all, it’s well-established that taste is by far the biggest motivator of food purchasing, as Food Dive recently reported.

But whatever the cause, those of us who’d like to build a food system less reliant on animals should do not what may appeal to us, but rather what will be the most effective in actually achieving mainstream consumer behavior change. This new MIT study is additive to the many that have come before, showing once again that “vegan,” while perhaps not quite as pernicious as invoking the Dark Lord’s name, isn’t exactly the way to the muggle heart.

If you care about reducing the number of animals raised for food—and there’s ample reason to harbor such a desire—the studies continue to be clear: “vegan” still appears to be the marketing term that shall not be named.

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