How to Label a Plant-Based Product

Words matter. When it comes to marketing your product, words are important. Should you label your meat or dairy alternative as “vegan” or “plant-based?” What terms resonate most with people who eat traditional meat and dairy products? Should you focus on words that emphasize taste or health? There are lots of opinions on both sides of these questions; let’s take a look at some recent data to get a clearer picture.

Indulge Yourself

Probably more important than any specific term you use is how you describe your product. A growing body of research shows that the use of “indulgent” and aspirational terms lead to more consumption of vegetables and vegetarian meals. These are findings that have been confirm in real-world settings in schools and restaurants. Do you want 25% more customers? The words you choose just might help you get there.

In 2017, a trio of researchers studied indulgent labels and found that they had a significant impact on not only what products people chose, but also how much they consumed. They tested terms including “Twisted Carrots” and “Dynamite Beets” with college students. Their results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed a 25% increase in people choosing vegetables when indulgent labels were used.

More recently, the Better Buying Lab (in the UK) worked with Sainsbury’s to test a variety of terms and found that indulgent and aspirational words yielded positive results. For instance, calling a “meat-free breakfast” a “feel good fry-up” instead resulted in a 7% increase in sales. Calling it a “field-grown breakfast” led to a 18% increase. Some terms showed as much as a 71% lift in sales over the basic descriptions.

“Feel-good” was also the clearly preferred term in a recent study by the nonprofit Faunalytics,* which included “vegan” and “plant-based” and other labels. In this research, the term “feel-good” was significantly more appealing to younger people and those who had previous experience with meat and dairy alternatives. (Disclosure: Faunalytics was founded by Che Green, the principal of Cultivate Insights and the author of this post.)

The opposite of indulgence is restriction. For most products, it’s probably best not to emphasize such restrictions (e.g., “low fat”) too much in your naming and descriptions. In the JAMA article mentioned above, the indulgent labels were compared to a basic label and two types of healthy labels. Unlike the indulgent labels, neither of the healthy labels (“restrictive” or “positive”) showed a significant increase in consumption relative to the basic label.

The Better Buying Lab agrees: “Like others, you probably want an enjoyable, tasty and filling experience when you eat. If plant-rich foods are already thought of as ‘boring and bland,’ highlighting these foods’ health benefits can throw ‘not tasty’ into the mix of potential negative perceptions. For this reason, we recommend avoiding healthy-restrictive language.”

The V-Words

The BBL researchers suggest that food companies avoid using the words “vegetarian” and “vegan” in their product labels. They argue that the perception of vegetarian food is bland and unsatisfying while veganism presumes and identity that most consumers don’t share. They note that listing dishes in a separate section of a menu and labeling the section “vegetarian” made meat-eaters 56% less likely to order vegetarian meals.

At the same time, there has been a dramatic rise in new products using the term “plant-based” on their labels. In the US, Mintel found that the number of new food and drink products that used the term “plant-based” grew by 268% from 2012 and 2018. The term has become so common that the Plant-Based Foods Association has concerns about “plant-washing” and abuse of the term by companies that don’t adhere to the principles.

So is plant-based better than vegan or vegetarian? In the end, the evidence against using “v-words” is pretty weak. The menu study cited by the BBL is quite context-specific and may be more about the location of dishes rather than the vegetarian label. The arguments against the word “vegan” are based on its negative stereotypes for meat-eaters, which is a valid concern that would benefit from research.

The Faunalytics study, which did head-to-head comparisons of pairs of terms, found that the average consumer chose a “vegan” burger over most other terms, including a “plant-based” burger. But here’s the deal: the same study found that term preferences are very audience-specific. Men preferred the term “direct protein,” older adults liked “zero cholesterol,” and almost everyone liked the term “feel-good.”

No Magic Bullet

So what should you name your meat or dairy alternative? Sadly, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. In the end, the terms that will be most effective for your brand or product depend on the audience you seek to serve. The ideal approach would be to conduct some original research to confirm what works best for your target customer. However, we can distill the existing research into some overall takeaways.

  1. Use indulgent words for product names. By making taste the focus, you can overcome some of the negative associations with plant-based foods. There is strong evidence that indulgent names drive food sales.

  2. Don’t shun the v-words. It isn’t necessary to avoid the terms “vegan” and “vegetarian” but it may be advisable to use them in product descriptions, not names.

  3. Keep an eye on “plant-based.” There’s no question that the term is hot and probably here to stay. But “plant-based” performed worse than others in head-to-head comparisons, so make sure it’s right for your customers.

What to call your brand or product is one of the most important decisions you make. Keep these guidelines in mind, but also know that your situation might be unique. If your company has the resources, consider investing in some original research to see how the terms you’re considering work for your product and for your ideal customer.

Cultivate Insights can help! Let’s talk about branding and naming research.  

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