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044 - Is it time to ditch 'plant-based'?

Should we stop using the term ‘plant-based’ when talking about our businesses and products?  Many vegan companies avoid using ‘the V word’ to describe themselves in fear it might put off non-vegan customers.  But recently, Matthew Glover of Vegan Fried Chicken said VFC were banning the phrase ‘plant-based’ in their marketing because they are “vegan activists first and food producers second”.  

Many consumers are now actively looking for ‘vegan’ products even though they may not fully understand the term.  In this episode, David looks at how the Covid pandemic and the very visible impact of climate change has turned more people towards choosing vegan alternatives even if they are not vegan themselves.  So is the time now right for our businesses to ditch ‘plant-based’ and all the other euphemisms and finally embrace the term ‘vegan’?

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Full episode transcript

Hello and welcome to episode forty-four of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe.  And if you have a vegan business, or are thinking of starting one, then Vegan Business Tribe is here to support and inspire you not just to build a vegan business, but to build a SUCCESSFUL vegan business.

And I just want to start this week with some shout outs to our Vegan Business Tribe members, and first Amanda from thriveforlife.com.au in Queensland, who sent me a message to say she’d binged listened to our podcast for a full weekend and now she thinks she might be developing an English accent!  And also I know that Amanda has just been able to start running her in-person vegan cooking classes again on Australia’s Sunshine Coast, so I know that’s been a great win for her business to be able to start those up again.  And the same with Anya from Living Vegi By Ania who was able to give a live cooking demonstration as part of the Singapore Vegan Festival last week and sent through the photos of her delivering that – might I add looking very professional wearing her chef whites – and it’s just so great seeing people back in front of people again spreading the vegan word.  And while we’re talking about some of our foodie members, I’ll also give a shout out to Annette and Graham from Henry & Henry who moved from the UK to Germany to educate more people about the benefits of a whole-food plant-based diet. And they have just launched their new free and paid membership site for people wanting to get better information and support about plant-based nutrition.  And Annette and Graham, or ‘The Henrys’ as we collectively call them, are really great Vegan Business Tribe members and are always really active in the conversation in our Community Hub – so you can also go find out more about them at henryandhenryeu.com.

And that’s just a shout-out to a couple of our hundreds of Vegan Business Tribe members, so if you want to join them and get support from an amazing community of vegan business owners who are on the exact same mission that you are on – then go check out the website at veganbusinesstribe.com – and we are always indebted to people who join Vegan Business Tribe, because not only do you get to access a lot as a member (our online courses, all our events, content and community) by signing up as a member, but your £12.99 a month means that we can keep creating this podcast every week, keep putting out the free content for all those vegan businesses who need that extra help getting started and just doing everything we can to keep championing the vegan business cause worldwide.

And our paid members also get access to the member-only content, including the one-hour live masterclass I did a couple of weeks back on how to find more customers for your vegan business.  The recording of that with the full Q&A afterwards is now live in the member events archive – so if you submitted a question for that then you can go sign-up to the website and watch back the session in the events archive.

So let’s get started on this week’s topic, and we’re going to re-open an old conversation here about the terminology we use when talking about our businesses and products.  Because we know some people ARE put off by the word vegan.  Just mentioning some of our members, in one of our networking sessions this week, Katie from DoItBroccoli.co.uk was talking about taking a stall at her local non-vegan village fair, and although she did well selling her vegan treats and gifts at a non-vegan event, her friend running a vegan cake stall didn’t tell people the cakes were vegan and completely sold out.  And had you come to me 24 months ago, or maybe even just a year ago and asked if you should call your product or service ‘vegan’ or should you refer to it as ‘plant-based’ I would have given you a very simple piece of advice:  If you are selling to vegans, call your company or product vegan.  If you are selling to everyone, including non-vegans, go with ‘plant-based’, ‘cruelty-free’, or maybe like the cake stand, simply don’t mention it at all.

But, just over this last year perhaps – things are starting to change. 

Now, there’s a whole raft of reasons that are contributing to it, but ‘vegan’ is starting to become cool.  People who a year or so ago might have been put off from trying vegan food, have now probably already had a good experience of eating vegan and are so open to trying more.  More and more celebrities have ‘come out’ as vegan, and it’s not just young influencers and musicians like Billie Eilish and Lizzo, but celebs who a wider range of people and ages connect with, such as actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt promoting a vegan diet.  Whatever your age and background, there are people just like you now in the public eye talking about the benefits of being vegan. And this is a significant change.

We also can’t ignore the Covid pandemic.  Research from Viva!, The Vegan Society and a number of other organisations (including ourselves) have all indicated that the pandemic has moved the vegan market forwards by at least a couple of years, if not more. Three in four of the world’s new or emerging infectious diseases come from animals and us using them as a commodity – and nothing hits that message home than us all being locked up at home through a global pandemic.

But it’s the food companies themselves that have also been driving this acceptance of the V word. Many high-street brands and chain-restaurants are on their second generation of plant-based offerings now, and whereas they may not have embraced the ‘vegan’ label the first time around because they were not sure how their customers would react to it, this time around they are bringing out proudly vegan pizzas and burgers that they know (from their own customer research) that as many non-vegan customers are eating them as vegans and vegetarians are, if not more.  The takeaway ordering app Deliveroo released their ‘vegan playbook’ earlier in the year showing that the ‘vegan’ takeaway category was growing by 115% year on year.  Again, in their playbook they cite research saying that 25% of millennials have said that the covid pandemic has made vegan more appealing.  They also revealed that the word ‘vegan’ is one of the most searched for words on the Deliveroo app.  And that’s important:  not ‘plant-based’, or ‘meat-free’ but ‘vegan’.  So if the consumer is now accepting, and actually going out and looking for ‘vegan’ products and services, is it time to drop the alternative phrases?

It is true that vegan products have really entered the mainstream this last year, with high-profile vegan launches from the biggest companies in almost every sector.  And we mustn’t forget that a vast amount of people buying these products are not actually vegan themselves. If you are a regular listener to this podcast, you will have heard me quote research from Beyond Meat showing that 93% of the people buying their meat-replacement Beyond Burger are meat-eaters.  Vegans and vegetarians make up a really small percentage of their customer base.  And if we’re going to accept that the big market for vegan products are people who are not yet vegan, then perhaps it’s time to start making it simple for them to understand what they are buying.  They are not going out looking for a ‘plant-based’ meal option, they are not trying to find a ‘cruelty-free’ lipstick, they are looking for a ‘vegan’ one.  The term ‘plant-based’ CAN confuse people.  I’ve known plenty of people ask if cheese or seafood can be part of a plant-based meal.  But the term ‘vegan’, even if that consumer couldn’t actually explain exactly what a vegan does and doesn’t buy, they understand that ‘choosing vegan’ is a way to improve their health and lessen their impact on the planet.

And one company who is embracing the V word is vegan fried chicken brand VFC, started by Veganuary founder Matthew Glover and chef Adam Lyons.  VFC recently announced that they had banned the use of the phrase ‘plant-based’ in their marketing. In a recent interview with vegan news site Green Queen, Matthew said they had banned the term because they are “activists first and food producers second”. ‘Plant-based’ doesn’t cover how they feel or what they want to achieve as a company.  And I think that’s something we can all identify with.

Now, we have to accept that there’s probably a bit of compromise needed from us here.  To us, ‘vegan’ means so much more than the food we eat or the products we put on our bodies, and you only have to spend a little bit of time in a vegan Facebook group to see that vegan means a whole lot of different things to different people.  But if letting non-vegans start to associate with the term makes it easier to get them to start their vegan journey, then that can only be a good thing.  As I always say, if you’re a vegan company and you are only selling to vegans, then you are kind of missing the point of having a vegan company. 

And VFC have gone one step further.  They are taking these non-vegans who are now more accepting of the term and actively looking for vegan alternatives, and they are using the VFC product and brand to introduce them to the wider meaning of vegan ethics.   Again, in the same Green Queen interview, Matthew Glover is quoted as saying that ‘vegan’ describes the mission and responsibility they feel to save as many animals as possible. ‘Plant-based’ may be an accurate description of what they sell but they don’t just want to describe how their food is made – and this is what separates a vegan company from a non-vegan one promoting their vegan options.

And it’s working. 

Now, I think we all recognise that the VFC name is a play on global fried chicken brand KFC, I know they must have had their lawyers look into that before launching so I reckon I’m probably OK to mention that here, but what is interesting is the research that VFC did when launching the brand. They surveyed the general public asking how they felt about a brand leading with an ethical vegan message.  In fact, the line they tested was: ‘food that doesn’t cost a wing and a leg’.  62% of the people they interviewed were positive to this, and 10% were neutral.  So 72% of the general public were not put off by leading with an animal-rights message, in fact when they looked at the responses from just the flexitarians and people reducing their meat intake, that percentage figure didn’t go up by a huge amount.  So they established that ONLY 28% of the people they asked, the public in general, didn’t connect with the brand leading with an ethical, animal-rights brand message.

And that is a huge take-away, if you’ll excuse the pun. We’re always questioning if we should lead with the term vegan in case we put off our customers, but VFC went one step further to find out how people would connect with the strapline: food that doesn’t cost a wing and a leg.  And that’s quite an aggressive animal-rights message – and the majority were not put off by that.  And that’s what’s changing.  People who do not usually follow a vegan diet are now making a connection between the food on their plates and the animal it came from and are very open to being lead towards making a change.

Because, no consumer wants to change their buying habits.  Before now, someone going ‘vegan’ meant making very significant changes to the food they bought, where they went out to eat and the products they consumed. And if you haven’t yet connected with the ethical message as a consumer, then that’s a lot to ask.  Now people can make these ethical changes without actually changing their consumer behaviours.  They can still go out to Pizza Hit with their mates and just order from the vegan menu.  They can buy the same brands that they trust and have grown up with but just buy the vegan version.  They don’t have to give up fried chicken, they can just choose the option that isn’t resulting in animals being killed.  And, as we see at Vegan Business Tribe, it’s not just about food products.  You can have your website designed and built by vegan web designers who share your ethics.  You can use Vegan Accountants.  You can even buy vegan dog food – and if you’re wondering, yes we’ve got all those as members at Vegan Business Tribe if you’re trying to find any!

So there has never been the interest and acceptance in vegan products and services as there is right now, and it’s only going to grow as climate change makes a real impact as well as protecting against future pandemics. We were amazed at Vegan Camp Out, one of the UK’s biggest vegan events, how many non-vegans we were talking to.  Lisa and I have friends who run vegan bed and breakfasts, such as Peasholm Park Vegan B&B in Scarborough or Stonewater B&B on the Isle of Arran in Scotland, and they tell us how many non-vegans they have staying with them.  In fact, the last time Lisa and I stayed at Peasholm Park we got talking to a couple at the table next to us who had retired from their butcher’s business and had come to a vegan B&B as a way to learn more about being vegan.

So maybe that example alone is a perfect reflection of why it’s time to now embrace the word ‘vegan’ in our products, companies and services.  But is it time to be more un-apologetically vegan in our businesses too, knowing that more non-vegans will connect with those ethics.  At Vegan Business Tribe, Lisa and I don’t shy away from telling people why we do this.  If you come to one of our networking meet-ups you will understand that we’re on the same vegan mission that you are, you’re not going to get business advice with some ‘vegan-lite’ sprinkled over the top.  This is our activism, we started with the skills we already had in helping people build businesses and worked out how to use those skills to further the vegan cause. And to do that might need a change in mindset.  Recently in one of the vegan Facebook groups, someone had posted asking if people thought we were on track for a vegan world in our lifetime.  And looking through the responses from my fellow vegans, they were almost all negative.  People were giving all the reasons why this wouldn’t happen, how it couldn’t happen, how they would love it to happen but it wasn’t going to.  We’re beating ourselves before we even begin!  I think I was one of the only people to jump on those comments with a ‘Hell yeah, if I’ve got anything to do about it!’ kind of response.  Because… will we actually see a vegan world in our lifetimes?  Well, who knows, but what the last couple of years has shown us is how quickly things CAN change on a global scale.  In 2018 – so only three years ago – Waterstones (one of the biggest book retailers here in the UK) had 944 books listed with vegan in the title. Today, three years later, they list over 10,000. 

So, IS it time to ditch plant-based, cruelty-free, meat-alternative and all the other euphemisms we’ve been using for our vegan products and services?  Let’s run back over some of the points we’ve just spoken about to find out:

  1. There are still some people who are put off by the word vegan, but as VFC’s research has suggested, that group of people is shrinking considerably and to be honest,m they are probably not your clients anyway.
  2. The combination of the global Covid pandemic causing us all to examine our relationship with animals, and the number of celebrities of all ages and audiences now talking about vegan diets, means that more and more people have been exposed to veganism.  And probably have had a positive experience of it.
  3. In their ‘vegan playbook’, the takeaway ordering app Deliveroo showed that the ‘vegan’ takeaway category was growing by 115% year on year and that ‘vegan’ was one of the most searched for terms on the platform.
  4. Non-vegans, or as Lisa likes to call them, people who are not vegan YET, are actively searching out vegan options on a huge scale.  And to these people, alternative phrases such as ‘plant-based’ or ‘free-from’ might cause confusion.  To them, ‘vegan’ has more positive connotations than negative.
  5. The research by vegan fried chicken brand, VFC, showed that the majority of non-vegan customers connected with their animal rights message.  Even though they would not identify as vegan themselves.
  6. If people can change what they buy without having to change their buying behaviour, then they are happy to choose, or at least try, the vegan option.  So maybe it is time to call it just that.

So what’s my final recommendation in this argument for ditching the phrase plant-based?  Well, again if you had asked me a couple of years ago (or maybe even just 12 months ago) I’d still be making a strong case for calling a vegan product aimed at non-vegans ‘plant-based’.  But for those of us who are very active in the sector, you can feel the change.  Not just from consumers but also from companies.  Vegan companies have found out they CAN embrace their veganism and consumers come with them and support that mission, even if they are not living a vegan lifestyle themselves.  And I guess this actually comes back to the aspirational part of marketing.  Plenty of non-active people buy sportswear brands promoted by athletes saying it gives them better performance.  Plenty of people buy the same brand of sunglasses and watches as favoured by airline pilots without ever having the nerve to try and fly an aeroplane.  So why wouldn’t people who aspire to lessen their impact on the world buy vegan products from vegan companies – even if they are not yet vegan?

OK, so that’s pretty much it for this episode, and this has been a really thought-provoking one – but before you go, I’m just going to give an extra push to invite you to join Vegan Business Tribe if you are not already signed up with us over on the website.  And that’s because I’m recording this in September, and there’s something about September for people getting serious about growing their businesses or even starting one.  Maybe it’s the kids going back to school, or maybe it’s just the end of summer holiday season here in the UK at least, but we’ve seen a big uptick in people signing up with us this month.  So I’ve got a special offer for you if you’ve been sitting on the fence about joining us and getting serious about your vegan business.  First, if you email me on hello@veganbusinesstribe.com saying that you listened to this podcast and you’d like to try out being a member of Vegan Business Tribe then I will send you a link with a coupon code to get a first-month-free trial.  Once you’ve used that coupon, then you’ll get a link to mine and Lisa’s diary to book in a welcome 1-2-1 so that you can tell us all about your vegan business, or just your idea for one, and we can work out how we can help you with it.  After that, with your free month you will be able to book onto any of our upcoming events, which includes our networking meet-ups with other members, our business clinics with myself and Lisa or our goal-setting and accountability workshops to make sure you actually hit those goals you keep setting yourself.  And as a bonus to all that, we’ll also add you into the Vegan Business Tribe community hub on Slack where you can introduce yourself and get support from all our other members (including myself and Lisa),  And also, as a final reason to try us out, you’ll also get full access to our vegan marketing course for your free month.  And some dedicated people have managed to get through the entire course in a month so let’s see how you get on.

As I said, Vegan Business Tribe is our vegan advocacy, this is our activism.  Using our skills and experience to help YOU have a bigger impact with your vegan business is how we CAN move towards this vegan world. So, if now is the time to get serious about your vegan business, just email me on hello@veganbusinesstribe.com, say you’re a podcast listener and I’ll send you that free-month coupon.  And not only will we be able to see how we can help you, but if you then go on to become a paid member after your free month, you will know that your £12.99 is helping us to keep putting out this podcast every week, do all our events and produce all our content, and that you are helping to support all the work we do – way beyond just this podcast – to help champion the vegan business scene.

So, that really is it now.  And if you have enjoyed this podcast then please do leave us a 5-star review on iTunes, or consider sharing this podcast with your own followers and network so that we can reach even more vegan businesses owners and move towards that vegan world.  Thank you for listening, we really do appreciate you giving up your time every week to listen, and I’ll see you on the next one!

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