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061 - Why your business shouldn't sell to vegans

Why vegans may not actually be your target market. We know that the biggest consumers of vegan products are not vegan, so if you are just looking to sell to vegans then you might be missing out on potentially your biggest marketplace.

But when you have a vegan business it’s not just about what you sell.  If you started your business as a way to move the vegan cause forward then where will your company have the biggest impact?  Amongst vegans who have already converted or by influencing those who have yet to start their vegan journey?

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Episode transcript

Hello and welcome to episode sixty-one 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 we’re well into the new year now and we have so many exciting things in the pipeline for Vegan Business Tribe – some of which we can’t announce yet but we’re really excited by them including what we’re hoping will be our first live, in-person Vegan Business event. I know we had a bit of an informal member’s meet-up at Vegan Camp Out last year where we got to meet some of our members but we’re hoping that this is the year when we can actually get on the road as Vegan Business Tribe and you’ll be able to buy tickets to come and be with us. That’s as much as I can say for now because it’s going to be reliant on a few moving parts all coming together, including Covid not locking us all up again, but live events were always intended to play a big part of Vegan Business Tribe. In fact, we actually launched Vegan Business Tribe with an event in Bristol and had about 70 people booked-on, but the afternoon of the event was on the same day when UK Prime Minister Johnson came onto all our TVs and told us that although the government weren’t going to close venues, we shouldn’t go to them. So we’ve been itching to actually be able to bring our members together for an in-person business event ever since and we’re hoping that 2022 is the year. So all I can say for now is, keep your fingers crossed and watch this space.

So this week I’m going to be quite controversial because today we’re talking about why your business shouldn’t sell to vegans. Now, I know, I know – this is the VEGAN Business Tribe podcast so it may sound a bit dumb to tell you that you shouldn’t be selling to vegans, but I am purposely trying to be a bit controversial in saying that. Of course, some companies will always sell TO vegans – you have companies like our favourite clothing company Viva La Vegan whose whole remit is to make ethical ‘statement-wear’ to help you become a walking billboard for the vegan movement, but even Viva La Vegan have their non-vegan customers.

And this is a conversation we keep having. Some people are not sure about launching a vegan business because they don’t know if there are enough vegans to sell to. But for most of us, having a vegan business is a form of activism and if you ask yourself “where are you going to have the most impact?”, then that’s with non-vegans. Just this last week, I was in a conversation in a Facebook group with someone who was planning to open a cafe but she didn’t know if it was a good idea to open it as a vegan cafe because she didn’t think there were enough vegans in her town. Now, straight away I jumped on giving her a link to listen to one of our podcasts talking about this but as I was typing someone else added a comment saying that they were a vegan cafe owner and the majority of their customers were not vegan. In our local vegan cafe I had a long conversation with the owner about this – she told me that, and especially after the first pandemic lock-down lifted, she had people politely knocking on her door, putting their head around and asking if they were allowed to come in and eat in her vegan cafe because they were not actually vegan themselves. They were just wanting to try vegan food because they were trying to cut down on the amount of animals they were eating or they believed it was healthier.

And this is something we’re seeing a lot of now. Many vegan companies that sell vegan products or services will tell you that a big proportion of their customers, or even the majority of their customers, are not vegan. We know that 93% of the people who buy the plant-based Beyond Burger are meat-eaters and we know that because of Beyond’s own customer research. Do you think that McDonald’s launched the McPlant Burger for vegans? Do you think that Burger King committed to having a 50% plant-based menu by 2030 because they are concerned that not enough vegans were coming through their door? These companies KNOW their customers – and of course many vegans miss the convenience of being able to drop in for fast food, but these companies know that the majority of the people buying their vegan options are not vegan. They are people who are looking to cut down on their consumption of animals for their health or the environment but have no plans on giving it up entirely. They are mainly sold to people who think eating plant-based food is cool and exciting but don’t identify as vegan. They are for the people who view eating meat alternatives as the same as putting out the recycling every week or having a reusable shopping bag instead of paying for plastic ones each time they shop – choosing vegan food is just the same as all the other little steps they take to help reduce the environmental impact they have.

And the truth is, if you have a vegan product (or even service) then these people will likely make up your biggest potential audience. For example, if you are a vegan nutritionist (and we’ve got some great ones as members over on Vegan Business Tribe if you are looking) then let me tell you from their experience that finding vegan customers is going to be hard. That’s because most people who turn vegan have, by necessity, ended up educating themselves on nutrition. It’s something we’re largely quite good at, knowing where to get our B12 from. The far bigger marketplace for a vegan nutritionist is meat-eaters who are not vegan but are looking to cut down on their meat intake. These are the people who are terrified and absolutely clueless and will pay someone to guide them. Take long-standing Vegan Business Tribe member Amanda Nathanial from Thrive for Life who you can find at thriveforlife.com.au – Amanda is a nutritionist who also sells cooking class experiences on the balcony of her Queensland home that overlooks a rainforest. Amanda is vegan, very ethically so, and she wanted to teach more people how to create better vegan food – so she launched a cooking experience aimed at vegans and no one was interested. So she rethought her messaging and instead launched her ‘Ultimate Plant-Based Feast’ cooking experience (not aimed at vegans) and it sells out every time. And the interesting thing is that ALL her cooking experiences that she runs are vegan but most of the people who book on them are not and likely don’t realise. If you look at what you’ll be creating on Amanda’s Mexicana cooking class experience, the menu tells you that you’ll be making Jackfruit Enchiladas, Mango and Peach Salsa, Charred Corn Cobs and Sweet Potato Nachos with Cashew Cheese. There it is, vegan food hiding in plain sight and no-one complaining.

And the reason this is so great is that Amanda could spend all her time teaching vegans to cook, but how much impact would she be having if she did that? By selling her vegan cooking experiences to non-vegans, how many seeds is she planting in people’s heads when they realise they have just created and eaten an amazing four-course meal without using products made from animals? How much good work is she doing on moving the vegan cause forwards whilst also being paid to do it? How many new vegans do you think Amanda has been responsible for creating? Isn’t THAT why we all set up a vegan business in the first place? I often say that if you have a vegan company but you only sell to vegans, then you have kind of missed the point of having a vegan company.

Heather Mills is a long-time vegan activist who owns the hugely successful VBites company has come under criticism from some vegans for focussing on creating food like Smokey Cheezly Beans in a can or like-for-like vegan products that mimic animal-based ones, but she says she ignores those comments because she’s not making food for vegans – they have already converted. She’s aiming her food at those who are not yet vegan and have preconceptions of what plant-based food is to get them to change.

And it’s not just about selling food, in fact the companies who always approached myself and Lisa to consult with them on the vegan market were all non-vegan companies. The high-street brands and the big food manufacturers who were getting a demand from their customers for vegan products but didn’t know why or how to respond. To them, our knowledge of the market was invaluable and we were happy to take their money and use it to fund Vegan Business Tribe – which is why Lisa used to call it our Robin Hood exercise!

This is also what the Vegan Society do with their Vegan Trademark. The Vegan Society have the highest standards of any of the vegan certification marks – but the vast majority of the companies who apply for the Vegan Society Vegan Trademark are not vegan companies. But – and I’ve worked closely with the Vegan Society so I’ve seen it happen – you know that just connecting with The Vegan Society’s trademark team will have a real impact on those non-vegan businesses. The Vegan Society view everything as an opportunity for education. And at the same time, the Vegan Society put all the money they earn from their trademark scheme into the campaigning and lobbying they do to help create more vegans.

People who run vegan events and holiday companies tell me how non-vegans make up a large part of their customer base. When Lisa and I took a stall at our local vegan market we found that less than half of the other people who had stalls were vegan – and a large part of the people visiting the market were not either. The last time we stayed at a vegan B&B in Scarborough, half the people joining us for breakfast in the morning were not vegan but had actively chosen to stay at an openly vegan B&B. And these customers ranged from people who had come to stay because they were interested in learning more about veganism (so they were already somewhere on that journey) through to people who had no interest in being vegan but assumed a vegan B&B would be a nice place to spend a weekend. And you will likely find that you too have a large marketplace available to you of non-vegans who have no problems buying services from a vegan company. As I said earlier, many people now see veganism as a shorthand for being environmentally sustainable and ethical and no-one is going to have a problem with a supplier that is both those things. In fact, larger companies often put pressure on their supply chain to be more sustainable and environmentally conscious and as a vegan company you have that already baked in.

However, some companies just want to sell to vegans – and I get this, I really do. It’s why we came back to the idea of Vegan Business Tribe because we wanted to spend more time in the company of other people who had the same ethics as us. So if this is you, and you understand there’s a huge market for vegan products amongst non-vegans but you just want to deal with vegans, then you can still do that. However, there are few companies that will be able to ONLY do that. Even huge festivals like Vegan Camp Out here in the UK, which is probably the most vegan thing you can imagine, run by vegans for vegans, you will still find a significant amount of non-vegans. But if you are a business-to-business company (so if you sell a product or service to other businesses instead of the general public) then you will find that many of the vegan businesses you want to work with simply don’t have the money – and those that do will already be getting bombarded by vegan suppliers wanting to work with them. And we see this again and again, you find the sort of vegan company that perfectly fits your ethics but they just don’t have the money to buy your services at a cost that is sustainable for you to sell them. So how do you overcome that obstacle? Well, there are a few ways around this. Look at what we built with Vegan Business Tribe, could we make it work by trying to work one on one with vegan companies as consultants? No – and we tried! But could we help hundreds of vegan companies all at the same time in a collective way for a far lower fee to each? Yes – and that’s what we do now. Can you do something similar?

Or can you help companies get the funding to pay for your services? Can you become an expert in winning grants for your customers and then those grants are used to pay for you? There are often local Government grants available to help companies grow, and once you’ve helped one company get awarded from that grant there’s nothing stopping you from helping others apply for the same one. Or you could become an expert in helping these companies fund-raise the cost of a new website for example, from the followers and customers they already have, or teach them how to crowdfund the cost of a new machine that you manufacture?

Another idea I’ve seen is a company setting up what I call a community pot. And I first saw this idea used over twenty years ago by a photographer I used to work with. She would take ten per cent of every invoice she raised and put it in a separate community pot. She would then use this pot to pay for the work that she wanted to do with the companies and organisations that she wanted to help out but couldn’t afford her fees. And in fact, she used this as a bit of a marketing tool because her main customer base was corporate clients like British Airways – and they loved that 10% of the fees they were paying her went back into helping smaller, worthy businesses. And this was a really important point, she wasn’t just offering to work for free or reducing her rates. If a company approached her for photography that she really wanted to work with but they couldn’t afford her, she would still price-up the work and provide a quote as she would British Airways but she would then pay herself for that work out of the community pot. If there wasn’t enough money in the community pot, she would either suggest the company talk to her again in a few months or that they pay the difference to make-up the full cost of the work. And the reason this was important was that these companies then really valued her services. They knew they were getting top-level photography but someone else was picking up the bill. Because if you offer to work for someone for nothing, then that’s also the value they place on that work. If you work for free, or even at reduced cost, then there’s no limit on the amount of hours that company will be expecting from you. That’s why I’ve seen graphic designers who have charged next to nothing for a project ending up sinking hundreds of hours into it through endless rounds of amendments. But this idea of a community pot gets past that, the customer understands that the work has real value and that a cost (and therefore a time limit) has been allotted to the project.

And then finally, if you do want to work with all vegan customers then an idea that I absolutely love is: do everything you can to make your current customers vegan! Feel Good Café are a vegan cafe in Chingford, North London. When they opened, they employed local accountancy company Lesser & Co as their accountants who were based just around the corner. And because they were customers, Keith Lesser started eating lunch at the cafe and chatting with the owners. Six months later, Keith found he had been turned vegan – and not only did he turn vegan himself, he now runs Vegan Accountants which works exclusively with vegan clients. It’s an amazing story, not only because of all the work that Keith has since gone on to do with Vegan Accountants in helping vegan businesses grow but the fact that Idan at the Feel Good Café managed to turn so many of his non-vegan customers (and in Keith’s case also his suppliers) vegan.

You can do the same. Your business can plant those vegan seeds in the minds of your current non-vegan customers. We’ve got the Veganuary challenge every year so why not challenge your customers to go vegan for the month? Think about how your company can put veganism on the agenda when you deal with your customers. If you hold meetings with customers, make sure it’s catered with vegan biscuits and explain you’re a vegan company when people ask why you offer Oat and Soy milk (and not cow milk) for coffee. Put free vegan recipes in with your products or even on the bottom of your invoices. Invite your customers to an annual summer drinks party at your offices where the catering is cruelty-free. Don’t worry about telling people before they come, if they know you are a vegan company they will understand it’s part of the deal – and remember that a lot of people are interested in veganism, or at least becoming accepting of it. So people will try vegan chicken dips or vegan pork pies out of curiosity and be surprised by how good they are. Non-vegans are buying plant-leather products not because they care about the animals or the environment but because they simply think it’s cool and fashionable. Who doesn’t want a bag made from cactus leather or teak leaf? For the first time in history, we’re starting to be able to say – tentatively – that vegan finally seems to be cool.

OK, so I started off slightly controversially with this topic saying that your company shouldn’t sell to vegans. And I was being controversial on purpose, so let’s have a bullet-point round-up of what I actually meant by that:

1. For most of us, having a vegan business is definitely a form of activism and if you ask yourself where is your business going to have the most impact, then it’s with people who are not yet vegan.

2. But fortunately, this fits in with the marketplace too. We know that the biggest marketplace for vegan products are non-vegans. Non-vegans eat at vegan cafes because they are trying to reduce their environmental impact or believe it is healthier. Remember that Burger King and McDonald’s are not releasing vegan products because they are concerned that not enough vegans are coming through their door. They are following the trend of people who view eating meat alternatives on the same level as putting out the recycling every week or using a reusable shopping bag.

3. Often, vegans are not the ones looking for help. With veganism comes a deal of self-education through necessity. It’s those who don’t understand veganism who are terrified and absolutely clueless and will pay someone to guide them. Even a fair bit of The Vegan Society’s income comes from non-vegan companies looking to The Vegan Society to help them make sure they are getting their vegan products right.

4. If you do want to just sell to vegans, then you might have to find a way to make it work that is financially sustainable. Look at what we’ve done with Vegan Business Tribe in serving hundreds of companies collectively. Or instead of planting trees for every sale, consider allocating 10% of what you invoice your non-vegan customers to a community pot that will pay for the work you do with vegan companies.

5. If you want more vegan customers in your life then what can you do to influence the non-vegan companies you currently work with because you never know what seeds you might be planting. Put recipes on the back of your invoices, hold a client and suppler summer party where all the food and drink is vegan. There’s no need to forewarn people, if you’re very active about saying you’re a vegan company then it will all be part of the expected experience!

So that’s it! And I really hope you embrace what we’ve talked about today because so many people are being held back by not realising the full scale of the marketplace for vegan products and services that is open to them. And as I always say, if you are a vegan company and you are only selling to vegans, then you’ve kind of missed the point of having a vegan business!

Now, just before I let you go – I’m going to ask you for a couple of favours, and I know I know, I’m so demanding! But first, if you really engaged with this podcast then please do share it and help us reach as many other vegan businesses with this information as we can. A big part of our mission at Vegan Business Tribe is to help skill-up the vegan business scene. So if you do know other vegan businesses, or even just people thinking about setting up a vegan business, then I would be forever in your debt if you shared this podcast with them. And as well as sharing, please make sure you leave us a 5-star review or a thumbs up if your podcast app lets you do that. If you’re listening on iTunes you can even leave a written review, and that really is one of the biggest things you can do to help our mission that will cost you nothing but a couple of minutes to leave a 5-star review.

The second thing I want to ask you to do is: if you are not yet part of Vegan Business Tribe (so if you just listen to this podcast, or maybe you’re on our mailing list but you’ve not signed up as a full member yet) then please go take a look at the website at veganbusinesstribe.com. If you sign-up as a full member, not only will you get access to all our online events where you can meet other vegan business owners and our community of people who share your ethics (not mentioning all our content and courses and all the other really good stuff that will help you grow your business!) but you’ll also be supporting all the work we do too. Vegan Business Tribe is only a small amount of money monthly to join, we’re talking the same or even less than a Netflix subscription or buying a cup of coffee a week from your local coffee shop. But your support is what means we can keep putting out this podcast every week, it means we can keep creating all our content and supporting hundreds of vegan businesses, but your membership also supports all the work we do to champion the Vegan Business Scene across the world. This week alone the BBC were asking us for information for a report they are doing on the rise of vegan businesses in Scotland, I’m on a panel discussion on sustainable business next week where I will be banging the drum for businesses going vegan, and we do everything we can to help raise the profile of the vegan business sector around the world – and we do that with the support of our members – with the support of you.

OK, so thank you so much for your time, Lisa and I always really appreciate you giving the time to listen every week, and I will see you on the next one.

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