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002 - Should you call your company or product 'Vegan'?

Should you call your company or product vegan, plant-based or something else?

In today’s episode we’re going to start with one of the main questions we get asked at Vegan Business Tribe, and it’s all about how you should refer to your business or product.

If you have a vegan business, should you actually CALL it a vegan business – or if you are selling a product that is vegan, will labelling it ‘vegan’ put people off from buying it?

It’s an interesting question because, as you know, us vegans are never shy about letting people know about it! But why do Beyond Meat, Meatless Farm and even Oatly rarely use the term vegan? David looks at when you SHOULD use the term vegan for what you sell, and when you should use plant-based, or even something else entirely.

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Full episode transcript

Hello and welcome to episode two of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe.  If you have a vegan business, or are thinking of starting one, then Vegan Business Tribe is here to support you, inspire you, connect you with other vegan business owners – and give you the knowledge you need, not just to build a vegan business, but to build a SUCCESSFUL vegan business.

And if you want to go beyond the podcast and connect with our community of like-minded vegan entrepreneurs or get support from myself and Lisa, then head over to www.Vegan Business Tribe .com where you can chat with Lisa and I in the mentorship forum, study our courses, join our live events or just tell us all about your vegan business.

So, in today’s episode we’re going to start with one of the main questions we get asked at Vegan Business Tribe, and it’s all about how you should refer to your business.  If you have a vegan business, should you actually CALL it a vegan business – or if you are selling a product that is vegan, will LABELLING it ‘vegan’ put people off from buying it?  Now, it’s an interesting question because, as you know, usually us vegans are never shy about letting people know about it!  But when it comes to selling a service or a product, all those anti-vegan stories we see and hear in the media start to play on our minds.  All those friends and families who said that veganism is a bit extreme when you first started following a plant-based diet yourself, all these things start to make us doubt if we should actually promote the fact that we have a vegan business, or is it just going to put some people off.

It also goes back to the point that for many of us who started a vegan business, and I’m including myself here, we maybe ‘veganised’ a skill set we already had.  So if you’ve been a life-long knitter and seller of woolly hats and gloves, and now you make the same product but use ethical alternatives to wool, then you will want to keep selling to your non-vegan customers.  Or maybe you’re a vegan fitness instructor or personal trainer, and although the diet and nutrition advice you give is always going to be plant-based, you know how hard it is to find customers right now and you’re worried that pinning your vegan colours to your chest could put off a lot of potential new customers for you.

And these concerns ARE valid.  There’s a lot of agendas at play at the moment.  Consumer behaviour is moving away from eating animals and is looking more and more to plant-alternatives instead of cow milk – and it’s harmed some HUGE industries where a lot of fortunes are at stake.  And part of their fight-back has been to fund studies and create news stories that paint veganism in a bad light – they have taken what is a huge act of compassion, you know: “I care so much about what we’re inflicting on animals that I’m going to change what I eat…” and make it seem that doing that is militantly forcing our views onto people.  And, regardless of the truth, we have to accept that some people’s opinions on veganism are being shaped by these kinds of news stories. Think about what your own view of veganism was several years before you became vegan yourself – how much did you understand it?  And part of your own vegan journey was probably re-learning a lifetime of being told that you needed dairy milk to be healthy (no, you need CALCIUM) or that you need to eat meat to get enough protein – well, you could kill and eat an animal, or maybe just get your protein from the same place they do – plants.  But – we’ve been told all this from birth, so it’s understandable that when something challenges this people can have a negative initial reaction.

And we also have to realise that, in sales especially, someone is more likely to buy something if they know is aimed at them.  Would you buy a left-handed spoon from me if you were right-handed?  Even if I pointed out that right-handed people could still use the spoon?  Probably not – you’d want to buy a good old right-handed spoon for right-handed people.  And it’s the same in business.  I’ve known people who were unsure if they were allowed to go to a vegan cafe because they were not vegan.  So, although you should never ever feel you need to hide your veganism, if you lead with veganism for your product or service, you need to be aware that different people will connect with that in different ways.

Lisa and I get asked all the time at Vegan Business Tribe if someone should call their company or product ‘vegan’, or maybe call it ‘plant-based’, or even something else instead.  So we came up with a quick guide to help people decide, and it’s this:  It’s not about you and what you think, it’s about your customers.  If your customers are, primarily, other vegans – then use the word vegan for your company or product.  Embrace it.  Live and breath it.  Put it right at the centre of your message and marketing.  If on the other hand your customers are, in the main, not vegan – then you might consider using another term.  Such as plant-based, cruelty-free, ethical, or something else entirely.  And I’m going to look at some alternative terms you can use in a minute, and when it’s appropriate to use them.

You should also look at where your customers are on their vegan journey right now – and the more you get to know me the more you will hear me banging on about customer research and how important it is to understand the people you are selling to.  But are you selling to vegans looking to buy vegan products from a vegan company, or are you simply trying to provide a replacement to a current animal-based product, regardless of who is buying it?  Remember that more than 90% of the people who buy vegan meals are meat-eaters.  Which is why the Beyond Burger, Meatless Farms and even companies such as Oatly, rarely if ever use the terms vegan – they know that’s not their largest audience.  And that might not sit well with you, because – you know – you’re vegan and you want to sell to vegans. But what if you have the opportunity to MAKE more vegans?  What if choosing to lead with ‘plant-based’ (or some other term) means you get your product in front of more people, or you get more people to engage with you and what you sell as a result?  Can you go, what Lisa likes to call, ‘vegan by stealth?’  Get someone to engage with your product or service first, and then use the relationship you build with them to educate?  And this is something I think is missing from a lot of vegan businesses – striving to actually create more vegans through what you do.

So – let’s take a look at the options of what you can call your product, your business or service, and when it IS right to use the term vegan, and when it’s right to use something else instead:

First – let’s just look at the term ‘vegan’ itself.  We’ve already established that if vegans are your main customers then it’s a really good idea to make it clear that you have a vegan product or company. And that’s because vegans want to connect with and do business with other vegans. It’s as simple as that.  Especially if someone is new to veganism, they might need that extra help in identifying if your product is for them.  If you’re a member of a vegan Facebook group, every day you will see someone new upload a photo of an ingredients list asking if it’s vegan or not, just because the manufacturer hasn’t put it’s suitable for vegans on the pack.  Now, you can get a bit of stick for doing this but I always try and answer in a really supportive way when I see these kinds of Facebook posts, because think back to when you first went vegan yourself, how long did you spend in the supermarket reading through every ingredient and checking them against a list you’d downloaded from the Internet?  So many vegans are in learning mode right now, and just putting the word vegan on your product might mean the difference between them buying it or putting it back because they are not sure.

And giving some customers certainty that your product IS actually vegan is really important.  Because, there’s a lot of confusion at the moment about what makes a product vegan.  I have a little hobby where I collect examples of products that have been labelled vegan that simply are not.  And often, these are from high-street shops.  I’ve found chocolates sold as ‘The Vegan Collection’ that were made with lactose-free milk – so they STILL had dairy milk in them, but they’d taken out the lactose and thought that made them vegan!  Or my favourite was a high-street sofa manufacturer that were advertising their vegan alternatives to leather, such as … wool… yes, because, obviously they didn’t realise that wool isn’t vegan.  So, sometimes, it’s good to actually go beyond just labelling your product as vegan, and make it clear that you’re a fully VEGAN COMPANY.  Not just someone trying to cash in on the hot new trend with a plant-based product without really understanding what vegan means.

So customers know that if they are buying from a vegan company, they know they are buying from a business that knows ‘vegan’ isn’t just a dietary choice, it’s a lifestyle.  For example take clothing company Viva La Vegan – they embrace the term ‘vegan’, they know they are selling to vegans – and the clothes they sell carry strong vegan messages, they use fashion as activism.  They make clothes with slogans to help vegans get their message across.  Walk around wearing their ‘rebel with a cause’ animal activist hoody for a week and see just how many opportunities that opens for you to talk about veganism with random strangers!

So, for these companies where veganism and activism is at the core of what they do, and they know they are selling to other vegans, then they shouldn’t shy away from using the term ‘vegan’.  The downside to this, however, is that you are potentially limiting yourself to a much smaller market.  If you plan to only sell to people who identify as vegan, then you’re selling to one to three per cent of the population.  If you’re selling handmade ‘vegan’ soap for example, you’re really setting out your stall for who is going to be buying from you.  But, that’s why Lisa and I launched ‘VEGAN’ Business Tribe – we knew we wanted to engage with and help other vegan businesses with our skillset, not just build a support community to all businesses, knowing full-well that we’d be narrowing our audience.  But, although you might well only be selling to that much smaller marketplace if you set out your stall as a vegan business, this can be a positive also.  And again, it comes back to people wanting to buy a product that they know is for them.  If you are really specific with your marketing messages and connect better with your audience, then you don’t need to talk to as many people.  You might decide you can connect better with vegans, even if your product can be used by anyone.  It’s that old adage: try to sell to everyone and you’ll sell to no-one.  Be very specific and targeted in who your product is for and you will be much more successful.

But, with a huge marketplace out there for people interested in plant-based at the moment, it’s obvious to see why so many businesses choose to use a different term to vegan, and for many that can be absolutely the right choice.  Especially, as I said before, if the majority of your customers are not vegan or don’t particularly connect with the vegan cause.  And as a quick aside, if you’re trying to decide on just ‘how vegan’ your company should be then we’ve got a section in our marketing course that includes a template to help you decide on what your vegan brand voice should be – it has examples of vegan business plotted on a graph that you can use to work out where you should position yourself, so if you’re struggling with this then you’ll find that a really useful tool.

So, if you’ve decided you want to use a different term to ‘vegan’ to describe what you sell, what other options have you got?  Well, the most obvious one that you will have heard and seen is simply ‘plant-based’.  Now, plant-based is a really useful term to use, because it gets over that your product doesn’t have anything animal in it, but without saying that it’s only for vegans.  This only usually works if you’re selling a physical product though, especially food – because it’s hard to explain why you’re a plant-based plumber for instance!  People will think that you’re plumbing with tulips instead of copper pipes.  But the term ‘plant-based’ is now widely recognised, and it’s become especially popular on alt-meat products.

So, The Meatless Farm Co who are based here in the UK, they use ‘plant-based’, and their strapline is ‘Lovingly made from plants’ because they want to sell to as wide a marketplace as possible. They want to tap into the people who are trying to reduce their meat intake – AS WELL as those who are already vegan.  That’s how people like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are now worth so much money.

And again, remember that someone trying ‘plant-based’ products might be the start of their vegan journey.  So using plant-based can be your way of reaching and converting more future vegans.  But also remember that you’re selling to a moving target with ‘plant-based’.  Think back to your own vegan journey – when you first went vegan, perhaps you were happy to drop in to the local fast-food burger joint to pick up their plant-based option.  A year later, you might refuse to walk in the place because your ethics have evolved and now prefer to buy vegan products from vegan companies, and be a bit wary of companies calling a product plant-based.  So it’s far harder to build up the same kind of brand loyalty using the term ‘plant-based’ than ‘vegan’.  But, if a product says plant-based, most vegans know that although it’s not exclusively for them, they only need to give the ingredients a very quick look-over.  So if you’re wanting to offend no-one and also let vegans know your product is likely also good for them too, then plant-based is a really safe bet right now!

That’s great if you’re selling a food product, or clothes or cosmetics, but there are other terms you might want to think about using if you don’t want to use ‘vegan’.  You could go with something really generic, like ‘ethical’ or ‘green’.  Now these are especially useful if you’re selling a service rather than a physical product.  I’ve seen companies use these terms whilst they are transitioning to vegan especially.  People will say that their company is looking to work with ‘green brands’ or ethical companies rather than saying they exclusively sell services to vegans.  And if you sell yourself as an ‘ethical company’, or a ‘compassionate company’, then no-one is ever going to be put off by that.  Everyone is happy dealing with an ethical company – and if anyone asks what that actually means, you can then talk about how (as part of you being ethical) that means making sure no animals are harmed within your operation or supply chain.  So that’s a really useful way to frame your company and your vegan ethics without leading with vegan, but still creating opportunities to get into conversations about veganism.

Another term I also quite like is ‘cruelty-free’.  This is usually a term you see on cosmetics to say that a product hasn’t been tested on animals, but my favourite example of this is actually a cafe: Blonde’s Cruelty-free Eatery in Hull, UK.   Blondes are a vegan cafe that doesn’t use the word vegan – why?  Because the majority of their customers are not vegan.  Now, the people behind Blondes are long-term animal activists and campaigners and they know they will get far more people through their door by saying they are a cruelty-free cafe rather than if they put up a sign outside saying ‘vegan cafe’.  And with that comes lots more opportunities to engage people about veganism – because new customers will come in and ask, “What do you mean you’re a cruelty-free cafe?  Why are other cafe’s NOT cruelty-free?” which leads into conversations about how food really gets to your plate.  I spoke with Willow who runs Blondes and asked her, “How many people do you think you’ve turned vegan through running the cafe?” and she paused for a moment, and said “… now I think of it, LOADS!”.  So using the term cruelty-free is a bit of a halfway option.  You’re not quite leading with veganism, but you are still leading with compassion and making it easy to open up those vegan conversations.

Another term that’s started to gain traction recently is ‘free-from’.  Now, this one can get a bit more complicated because ‘free-from’ already means different things from different people.  Usually it’s a product that has been made for people with specific allergies – so you might find a ‘free-from’ product is made without milk, but still has egg for instance.  But some companies are now using this term to create products that EVERYONE can have, and that’s why I like the concept.  Take Gü Puds, when they launched their new vegan range of chilled puddings, they called it the ‘Fabulously Free-From’ range.  So not only is it dairy-free and egg-free, but it’s also gluten and allergen-free. It really is a product that everyone can have – and to me, that’s a really good future direction for foods to take.  But it does mean that if you launch a ‘free-from’ product then you’re going to get lumped in with the traditional ‘free-from’ products, which may not all be vegan.  But it’s still something to think about, again, especially if you are selling food.

And then that leads me to the last, and potentially most controversial option, of what to call your product.  And that’s to not call it anything.  Now now, hear me out!  Because I know if you’re making a vegan product or if you’re selling a vegan service, then you want to point out it’s different!  But sometimes, it can work out really well if you simply make no mention of it, and instead just focus on delivering a really good product.  At some point in the future, and we all hope that point is going to be sooner rather than later, but at some point there will be no such thing as a vegan business, or a vegan product.  There will just be businesses and products and using animals will be a thing of the past.  As a vegan, you ARE on the right side of history.  Future generations will look back at the relationships we had with animals the same as we look back on injustices from the past – from women’s rights to slavery – and they will be appalled that it was sanctioned, legal and accepted to use and kill animals like we do now.  And there are some leading vegan and plant-based brands who simply make no mention that they are – they are just trying to create a new normal.

Wicked Kitchen, for example, is Tesco supermarket’s plant-based range, and nowhere on the packaging do they talk about being plant-based food.  When they first launched in Tescos they sold 2.5 million units in their first 20 week period – and to get to those sorts of figures they can’t just have all been bought by vegans.  Instead of labelling the meals as vegan or plant-based, instead they concentrated on just making really INNOVATIVE recipes, that go way beyond the usual veggie-burgers, or falafel and hummus vegan meals that supermarkets tend to sell. Caponata sourdough pizza, Wicked Teriyaki noodles, Carrot pastrami spiced wraps, Turmeric cauliflower and coconut bites… gosh, I’m starting to feel hungry just reciting all those product names – all vegan, all plant-based but you would be pushed to find any mention of it on the packaging.  And this makes sense.  I mean, why do we HAVE to label plant-based food at all?  You wouldn’t buy a chicken from a supermarket and expect to see a sticker saying ‘Made from meat!  Not vegan!’ on it.  Well, not yet anyway…

So that’s something you could learn from yourself, do you have to say anything when you’re a vegan company or product?  Or can we just make it the new normal?  Well, for most of us it’s probably too early for that, but for some it’s not.  And you might reach far more people by not leading with any messages about what you product is made from.

But, if you do choose to use a term other than ‘vegan’ – don’t forget to also signpost.  Remember that a proportion of customers ARE going out looking specifically for VEGAN products, not necessarily for them, but they might be buying for vegan friends and family members.  I know I’ve been to family gatherings in the past where a cousin or aunt knew I was vegan so went out purposely looking for something that said ‘vegan’ on the pack to make sure they were getting something I could eat.  They wouldn’t have had the same confidence coming home with a product that only said ‘plant-based’.  And if you are NOT going to lead with ‘vegan’, then can you make that your secondary message?  Still calling your product plant-based or cruelty-free for instance, but putting ‘suitable for vegans’ on it is actually quite a smart thing to do.  Because you know the vegans will be looking a bit more closely anyway, so even just making sure that’s next to the ingredients, or in the footer of your website will let them know your product is for them.

So, we’ve talked about quite a few different options here, so let’s have a recap:

  1. First rule of thumb: if your customers are, primarily, other vegans – then use the word vegan for your company or product.  Embrace it.  Live and breath it.
  2. If your customers are, in the main, not vegan – then consider using another term.
  3. If you are food, cosmetics or fashion – then ‘plant-based’ is the safe option that will offend no-one and also let vegans know your product is likely good for them too.  And it doesn’t stop you then engaging these customers and helping them take further steps on their plant-based journey – you might actually find out that you help to create more vegans this way.
  4. If you sell a service, then the terms ‘ethical’ or ‘green’ are good alternatives to ‘vegan’ that carry few if any negative connotations.  Someone might not want to initially engage with a vegan service if they are not yet vegan themselves, but no-one will have a problem buying an ‘ethical’ service.  You can even go further and use the term ‘compassionate’ – or use other swap-out terms for vegan, such as cruelty-free, for your business, and all these then set the stage for you to explain to your customers what that actually means.
  5. The term ‘Free-from’ might also be an option for you, but with a note of warning that ‘free-from’ already means different things to different people.  But it might tie in perfectly with what you sell and we’re going to see more and more products being made that are suitable for everyone, and ‘free-from’ may well change it’s meaning to this, rather than just products for allergy sufferers.
  6. And then finally, you could go for the ultimate ‘vegan by stealth’ option and just say nothing at all.  Is what your product is made from significant to people buying it? Or is the fact you are running a vegan company very secondary to what you are selling?  Again, for most of us that’s not going to be the right option NOW, but for others it’s going to be part of creating the new normal.  There will be a future where we don’t have to say we have vegan businesses, we just have ‘businesses’ which, of course, don’t cause harm to animals.

So, that’s it for episode two, and if you found this useful then head over to the website at vegan business where you can find lots more advice and support just like this, or you can also get advice direct from Lisa and I if you sign up to our vegan business community – that might be in the forums, or in our monthly vegan business clinics or networking events… whatever your vegan business is, or even if you only have an idea at the moment, we’d love to hear from you and have you as part of our tribe.

And finally, wherever you listen to this podcast, please subscribe or give us a 5-star rating to make sure you don’t miss the latest episode, and please share us with any other vegan businesses you know – because that’s how you can support us in helping more vegan businesses so this new normal I was just talking about, we can get to it so much sooner.

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