Should you call your business vegan? (revisited!)

If you’re not going to be able to compete with the big plant-based brands on price or quality, does it make sense for you to hide the one thing you can beat them on: your vegan ethics?

We return to the ‘to V or not to V?’ question.

You can watch or listen to this article as a podcast instead.

I have to start by saying we’ve covered this topic podcast at least twice before. ‘Do you call your business or product vegan or not?’ is one of the most common questions we get asked by Vegan Business Tribe members, and my own view on the topic has shifted over the years which is why I keep coming back to it. Because I’ve seen some companies be really successful by embracing the word vegan, but I’ve also seen some brilliant examples of what I would call ‘vegan by stealth’. 

For example, when I’ve talked about this topic before I’ve mentioned Blonde’s Cruelty Free Eatery, a vegan cafe in Humberside which is run by Willow and her mother Meagan. And this isn’t your normal local vegan cafe, it’s also the birthplace of ‘Mummy Meegz’ chocolate, who launched the first vegan creme egg and who you can now find in supermarkets up and down the UK. When I first interviewed Willow a number of years ago, she told me that if she had called her cafe a ‘vegan’ cafe, then no-one would have come in it. But by instead by calling it a cruelty-free cafe, people would come in and sit down, and by the time they realised that they were drinking oat milk and everything on the menu was vegan it was too late! 

I asked Willow how many people she thought she’d turned vegan with this ‘vegan by stealth’ approach and she simply said ‘loads!’ because this strategy had allowed her to have a lot of conversations with people about why they were called a ‘cruelty-free’ cafe, and what is it that makes other cafes not cruelty free. Willow and her mother have developed this really successful vegan chocolate brand that you can buy in the supermarket, but they still work in the cafe because they see that as their form of activism.

To V or not to V?

Deciding whether to call your vegan business vegan is not always an easy decision. Lots of studies have shown that non-vegans are far more likely to pick up a vegan product if it doesn’t have the word ‘vegan’ front and centre, and if you want to have a successful business then there are far more non-vegans in the world to sell to than vegans. But we also have to go with a lot of anecdotal evidence. WIllow from Blondes Cruelty-Free Eatery assumed that she wouldn’t get as many customers is she’s called her cafe vegan, and that might have been the case. 

I’m a huge fan of our Vegan Business Tribe member Kelly Vowles who runs Pixal Rose Hair Design in Swindon. Everyone, even her own mother, said that no-one would come to a vegan hair salon, that her town was just not the right place. But she proudly declares Pixal Rose as a vegan hair salon and she’s packed out. In fact she’s even expanding into a larger premises. So are we too quick to assume that those businesses who didn’t call themselves vegan wouldn’t have had just as much success if they had?

 

And that has been my own view for the last few years: if you’re primarily selling to vegans then call your company or your product vegan. If you’re not, then consider ‘plant-based’, ‘or cruelty-free’ – there’s even people advocating calling your products or business ‘planet-friendly’ instead of vegan to get more people to engage. Because, I don’t know if you heard, but the vegan ‘fad’ is over. Sales at companies like Beyond Meat are in decline. Meatless Farm had to be rescued by Matthew Glover’s VFC, and just this last week VBites, one of the UK’s longest-standing vegan brands owned by vegan entrepreneur Heather Mills, went into administration (although Heather rescued it herself with a £1m buy-out-deal). And so again we’ve seen the media lining up to trumpet the death of veganism and state that people are flocking back to buying meat and dairy.

So there’s a lot going on to try and convince you that the vegan market is in decline but, it’s simply not the case. In fact the opposite is true. These vegan brands are not struggling because of lack of demand, they are struggling because the opposite is true. Studies show that the majority of the public now regularly buy some form of vegan or plant-based alternative in their weekly shop. And when a product goes from something that you buy occasionally to something you buy regularly, then price becomes a real consideration. You’re not going to keep paying more than £2 a litre for branded oat milk when you can pay 69p for a litre of the supermarket own-brand instead.

 

Huge demand has changed the marketplace for vegan & plant-based

And this is the difference. Just a couple of years ago, the supermarkets didn’t have their own-brand vegan alternatives so you had to buy the branded products. But they then saw the huge demand these products were seeing and quickly moved in to make that market their own. So, are we seeing a decline in people buying branded vegan products? Absolutely. Kanta market data showed it declined by 10% over the last twelve months in the UK. But that same report showed that sales of supermarkets’ own-brand vegan and plant-based was up by nearly 15%. However, that’s not something you’re going to hear reported in the news when another vegan brand closes down, because it doesn’t fit the narrative. I guess “People still buying vegan products but buying them from cheaper places” doesn’t make as good a headline!

And you might be asking, well that’s all great to know, but what does it have to do with if I should call my company or product vegan or not? Well, it’s important context. The perceived wisdom of many vegan brands has been to not lead with the term ‘vegan’, because negative misconceptions around vegan food will stop more people trying it. So they have taken the word vegan off the front of their pack and hidden it in small text on the back, or they have gone with plant-based instead. I’ve known ethical, vegan-lead businesses not even state that their products are vegan, the only way you would know is by looking at the ingredients list.

And, yes, those companies might have historically more products by doing that, but what they also did was remove their one point of difference. If veganism and all that stands for has been removed or hidden away to make something more saleable, if you put those two products side by side, then (in the mind of the consumer) there is no difference between a ‘plant-based’ product offered by a meat and dairy company and a ‘plant-based’ product offered by a vegan brand looking to end animal cruelty and slaughter. 

Doing that has allowed the non-vegan companies to take the game onto their own turf where they can fight on price and brand recognition instead of the only place we can beat them: ethics. While we were boasting about how much the plant-based sector was booming, those who stood to lose the most from that happening were quietly slipping around the back and stealing the keys. By convincing us that it was better to call our products and companies plant-based instead of vegan, we allowed them to soundly beat us at our own game. 

As long as the large meat and dairy producers dominate the sector then vegan and plant-based will forever remain an ‘alternative’

What does it matter if the plant-based market is dominated by non-vegan companies?

You might say, “well – that’s OK, as long as more people are trying plant-based products then, as vegans, we’re winning”. But as long as the large meat and dairy producers dominate the sector (and don’t forget, that’s who make all the own-brand products for the supermarkets) then vegan and plant-based will forever remain an ‘alternative’. It will remain a seasonal offering or healthier option in it’s own chiller at the back of the store, while their core animal-based products remain protected, because they have either bought or squeezed-out the companies who are looking to remove those products entirely.

FSo what if the end goal of your business isn’t just to sell a product, but to bring about systemic change? If you don’t want to push the term vegan because you are worried about repelling, or even offending, customers, then could you be accused of putting your sales ahead of the vegan cause? Do we owe it to the animals to take every opportunity to get the ethical vegan message out there regardless, to directly confront people on their own hypocrisies, even if you encounter extra challenges in building a successful business by leading with the ‘vegan’ message? And can not doing that actually be harmful to the vegan cause?

For example, there is an ice cream parlour in a small picturesque Yorkshire village about ten miles away from where I live. This ice cream parlour is open year-round, and whenever I go through the village, it doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of winter or the height of summer, this ice-cream parlour is packed. In tourist season it has people queueing down the road. But everything that this ice cream store sells is vegan. The ice cream, the wafers, the sprinkles, the sources, is all 100% animal-free. But they don’t tell anyone, there’s not a mention of it in the store – it’s only if you go and follow them on social that you will see the words ‘dairy-free’ in their name. They are the ultimate example of ‘vegan by stealth’. They have converted an entire Yorkshire village and all its year-round tourists to vegan ice cream without them even knowing it.

And many people will love that. I love that! But I have to admit, there’s been several times when I’ve driven past and seen the queues and I’ve wanted to run up and down shouting to the people leaving that they are eating vegan ice cream! 

 

Can not calling your product vegan inadvertently promote meat and dairy?

But what if selling vegan ice-cream, and not letting people know it’s vegan, actually does HARM to the vegan cause? You can argue that selling amazing vegan ice cream without making it clear it’s not animal-based is actually promoting the dairy industry. That person goes away with their view cemented that ice-cream is great and those vegans don’t know what they are missing. As our Vegan Business tribe member Steve from Vegan Muscle said: “Give a non-vegan vegan ice cream once and they eat vegan ice cream for a day. But explain to a non-vegan the exploitation and murder attached to dairy ice cream, whilst at the same time they are enjoying vegan ice cream that’s just as good, and they will eat vegan ice cream for the rest of their lives.”

Veganism is a journey, and running a business is a journey. You learn every day. I am happy to admit that I wasn’t the vegan five year ago that I am now, and I suspect I’m not the vegan now that I’ll be in another five years. You learn and you re-evaluate, because veganism is all about facing your own hypocrisies and deciding to do something about them. So what’s the definitive advice? should you use the word ‘vegan’ in your business? Should you call your products vegan?

 

Undoubtedly, the trend of dropping the word ‘vegan’ in favour of ‘plant-based’ has allowed a lot of companies to find more plant-based customers, but at the same time it has removed the single point of difference that we have a chance of winning on as vegan businesses: Put a plant-based product from an ethical vegan company on the shelf, stripped of it’s vegan message, next to a plant-based product from a meat or dairy company, and the average consumer will see no difference. So it then comes down to price and brand recognition, and the larger company is almost always going to be able to simply squeeze out the smaller. 

So those increased sales figures in the short term may just translate to you being priced out of the market in the long-term. And that’s what we’ve seen happen with so many vegan brands this last year. We’ve been soundly beaten at our own game.

And even if you say by not calling products vegan, we’re prompting more people to try a vegan product, well, we’re a bit late to that party now. Tesco supermarket is selling plant-based burgers for 85p a patty. Burger King has an excellent plant-based Whopper for people to try. Some of the best chocolate I’ve had this year has been supermarket own-brand and I had one of the best plant-based pizzas of my life in Pizza Hut. The non-vegan companies have already got that covered. So if you’re not going to be able to compete with the big plant-based brands on price or quality, does it make sense for you to hide the one thing you can beat them on: your vegan ethics?

Now, I’m going to leave that an open question because this is a journey. But when you have people like Veganuary founder Matthew Glover banning the use of the phrase ‘plant-based’ in the marketing of his vegan chicken company VFC because, as he put it, “We are vegan activists first and food producers second” then that gives you a great template to follow. And after all, I guess that’s why we are Vegan Business Tribe, not Plant-Based Business Tribe!

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