The words we use can make or break a product, a company, or even an industry. Effective language and messaging are essential for sustainable brands to succeed in the marketplace. In this blog, we explore some research-driven best practices for messaging alternative meat and dairy, cruelty-free products, and other sustainable, animal-friendly goods.
You might also be interested in our previous blog, “How to Label a Plant-Based Product.”
Motive and Opportunity
Why do people make better buying decisions? Why do a growing number of consumers seek out animal-friendly products like plant-based foods and cruelty-free cosmetics?
To be sure, altruism plays an important role. A small percentage of consumers make their purchase decisions based on purely selfless reasons. From the extensive Cultivate Insights report, we know that about 15% of plant-based buyers are driven solely by concerns about animals or the environment. But the vast majority of plant-based buyers cite a personal reason — improving their health — as at least one of their motivations.
Research shows that motivations focused on helping other groups (or the environment) can be powerful for initiating behavior change and getting consumers to try new things. But to successfully sustain that behavior change and get people to keep buying your plant-based or cruelty-free products, most consumers need to benefit personally.
No, that doesn’t mean you have to focus exclusively on health benefits when developing your packaging and advertising. But it does mean that you need to find creative ways to message the far-reaching benefits of your product in ways that will continue to drive purchase behavior for the long-term. In other words, you need to tell consumers what’s in it for them and you need to reinforce that messaging on a consistent basis.
What’s In It For Me?
Improving our health is a personal benefit. Protecting the environment for ourselves and future generations is arguably also a personal benefit. So let’s take a look at animal welfare, where the motivation is not as clearly connected to benefitting personally.
“Marketing managers should not merely emphasize product’s animal-friendliness through a (certified) label, because this is unlikely to attract consumers who prioritize their self-interest. Instead, they should communicate that animal-friendliness also provides individual benefits, such as taste, healthiness, good feeling, social acceptance etc.”
This advice comes from “Marketing Animal-Friendly Products,” an in-depth and open-access article published by MDPI. The authors go on to describe a set of six core consumer values and how they relate to animal welfare messaging. The values are: functional; sensory; emotional; social; epistemic; and situational. The article’s examples focus on “higher welfare” animal products, but we have adapted their suggestions to plant-based and cruelty-free products.
Functional: This refers to the “utility derived from the perceived quality and expected performance of the product.” The goal for marketers is to associate animal welfare with higher functional utility. For example, conveying the implicit health benefit of plant-based products: “No animals in our supply chain means no cholesterol for you.”
Sensory: This is how your product appeals to peoples’ senses. The goal for marketers is to associate animal welfare with a better sensory experience for consumers when it comes to taste, smell, etc. For example, talking about the taste benefits of using natural, plant-based ingredients: “Enjoy all of the taste that nature provides.”
Emotional: This is a reference to how your product makes people feel. The goal for marketers is to associate animal welfare with positive feelings, which is generally an easy connection to make. For example, portraying your cruelty-free skin product as a leader in animal welfare: “Enjoy all of the beauty without any of the cruelty.”
Social: This refers to how your product increases or decreases one’s social acceptance in one or more groups. The goal for marketers is to position animal welfare as socially acceptable and desirable. For example, talking about the strong interest in trying cultivated meat: “7 out of 10 people are excited to try cultivated alternatives to chicken. How about you?”
Epistemic: This is the potential for your product to “arouse curiosity or produce intellectual stimulation.” The goal for marketers is to make animal welfare seem innovative and interesting. For example, discussing your new fermentation technology (in layperson language) in your messaging: “Drink the future! We’re making milk without using animals so you can enjoy your latte without guilt.”
Situational: This refers to a specific circumstance in which your product can be positioned as more valuable. The goal for marketers is to highlight that value for the specific situation. For example, underscoring the benefits of plant-based foods during a pandemic: “Crowded animals on farms are putting the public at risk. Eat plants instead.”
Our friends at the Good Food Institute (GFI) emphasize the focus on personal benefits. In their extensive report on the antecedents to adopting alternative proteins (links to PDF), they wrote, “Appeals to personal benefits, including sensory properties, health, and safety, remain the most compelling marketing points.” They also noted “a desire for products that offer personal benefits, including new eating experiences rooted in familiarity, healthier options as compared to conventional meat, and lower price points that achieve price parity.”
Of course, not all animal-friendly consumers are the same. And not all animal-friendly products or services can tick all of the messaging boxes listed above. In your marketing, you need to target your messages to a specific audience and focus on those that will resonate most with the consumers you’re trying to reach. This usually warrants engaging in some custom research for your company or product, but here are a few tips:
- Animal-friendly (e.g., vegan) food products need to deliver on sensory value because of consumers’ intimate and long-standing associations with conventional foods.
- A functional message may appeal more to older and/or female consumers who are somewhat more motivated by health than others.
- Food neophilia (desire to try new foods) is real and can be an especially appealing message for novel processes like fermentation or cultivated meat.
- Messaging the production process may be more appealing to consumers who care about animals, while focusing on product attributes may appeal more to others.
- Social value and norm messaging may be more effective with younger people who have strong social networks and may feel more pressure to live their values.
Building Trust is Key
Lastly, a word about trust and marketing animal-friendly products and services. According to the MDPI article linked above, animal welfare is described by marketing theorists as a “credence attribute.” This means that “consumers lack the ability to assess whether the product meets the claimed animal welfare criteria or not (like they can with size, color or price).”
The unfortunate result is that animal-friendly products are easily “greenwashed” and animal welfare claims have become less meaningful over time. However, there is still an opportunity for truly animal-friendly businesses and products to differentiate themselves and win the trust of consumers. Of course, this can be easier said than done.
There are a number of messaging strategies to build trust with animal-friendly buyers. These include increasing transparency about your sourcing and production, third-party verification and/or endorsements from other stakeholders, making meaningful contributions to or investments in animal welfare causes, and partnering with retailers or others already considered to be trustworthy by animal-friendly consumers.
For vegan and vegetarian foods specifically, GFI recommends focusing in part on better production practices: “Highlighting the production process differences (more transparent, cleaner, and controlled) is also an opportunity to positively differentiate alternatives from conventional products.” Factory farms are a messy business and messages that focus on providing a clean and more ethical alternative are likely to resonate.