7 ways to boost sales of plant-based food

A two-year research project has revealed how to get more Brits buying vegan meals.

7 March 2019
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image credit: Getty Images

What are the best ways to sell a plant-based meal to broad swathes of Brits? The World Resources Institute’s Better Buying Lab spent two years investigating the answer to that question, in hopes of increasing vegetable-rich dietsin both the UK and US.

While the number of people embracing plant-based diets, even for just a couple of days a week, has been increasing, the fact is that meat is still very popular. Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania told the Better Buying Lab: "Meat is one of people's most favoured foods. In terms of taste, it ranks at or near the top of human foods, and is often the centre of the main meal."

This prompted researchers to look into the power of language to attract consumers to plant-based options. Here are their dos and don’ts.

1. Don’t use ‘meat free’

At a Sainsbury's supermarket cafe in the seaside town of Truro, bangers and mash are a best-selling traditional comfort food at lunchtime. The dish’s success was something Sainsbury's was eager to replicate with a plant-based version.

From August to October 2017, the UK’s second largest retailer tested its meat alternative under various names to see if sales would change. The winner? Cumberland-spiced veggie sausage and mash performed the best, increasing sales by 76%. The supermarket later took these findings and applied them to its own-brand food.

The data from the Sainsbury's experiment was backed by results from online trials undertaken by the Better Buying Lab. Across the board, ‘meat free’ dishes performed poorly, with virtually every alternative name doing better.This, the report noted, is probably because emphasising what is missing from a dish triggers fear of missing out.

“Leading with information about what something will not be like also limits the brain's ability to positively imagine how it might taste,” it concluded.

2. Don’t lean on veganism

Research from Brandwatch, a social media analytics company, scanned 15.4m posts across Twitter, Instagram, blogs and forums from Britain and the US that included references to plant-based, vegan and vegetarian food. The term ‘vegan’ was more than twice as likely to be used in negative contexts as plant-based in 2017.

Edward Crook, Global Research vice president at Brandwatch, said that vegan may be alienating consumers: "Our analysis found the vegan lexicon to be quite divisive online, and it may prevent some people from experimenting with the growing range of plant-based proteins available. To broaden mainstream appeal, new language is needed that avoids an ‘us-them' mentality.”

One study in the US asked consumers to rank the appeal of 21 different labels used to describe food and beverages, with the vegan label emerging as the least appealing of all the options – 35% of consumers said it would make them less likely to buy a product.

Instead of the word vegan, the report advises using a symbol, such as a leaf, on menus or packaging to indicate a dish is suitable for vegans.

3. Don’t segregate vegetarian dishes

If you're a meat eater, you are 56% less likely to order a plant-rich dish if it's contained within a vegetarian box on a menu, a study from the London School of Economics found.

This was principally due to diners’ concerns about a perceived lack of protein and/or iron. More generally, there is the belief that a vegetarian diet may be nutritionally unbalanced.

Veggie lifestyles are also seen by many as boring and bland. Counteracting this is especially important since research shows that taste is a primary driver of consumer decisions on what food to buy.

image credit: Getty Images

4. Don’t use health-restrictive language

When two groups were given exactly the same food – cookies, milkshakes, soups and even a mango lassi – the people told they were eating healthy items rated the dishes worse than those told they were eating unhealthy items.

Why? People just don't see healthy foods as all that enjoyable.

"Healthy doesn't sell," said Erica Holland-Toll, executive chef of Stanford University's Flavor Lab. "People don't want to eat dishes that are marketed as good for them. If you have a delicious roasted zucchini with mint and feta cheese, don't talk about how good the zucchini is for you."

5. Do highlight provenance

Leveraging a food's provenance is a powerful tactic to create positive associations with a product.

Online research in the UK found that renaming a chickpea and potato curry to Indian Summer resulted in a 15% bump in consumers likely to order it. In a test the Better Buying Lab did with Sainsbury's, changing the name of its meat-free breakfast to garden breakfast and field-grown breakfast increased sales by 12% and 17% respectively.

A number of plant-rich brands, including Field Roast, Garden Gourmet and Sweet Earth, also make good use of highlighting the link between their foods and the natural environment.

image credit: Getty Images

6. Do spotlight flavour

London’s Allplants, the plant-rich meal delivery service, which recently received £7.5m in funding, was founded by brothers Jonathan and Alex Petrides in 2017. The company has used flavour-based naming to drive growth.

"When we started out, we were using more ingredient-specific names likeBlack Bean Chilli and Beets Bourguignon, but we've learned that names highlighting the delicious, distinctive flavours we use, such as Smoky Soul Chilli and Fiery Jerk Jackfruit, are much more successful,” Alex said.

A study from Stanford last year found flavour-focused labels such as ‘rich buttery roasted sweetcorn’ and ‘zesty ginger turmeric sweet potatoes’ were chosen by diners 41% more often over identically prepared vegetables with health-restrictive labels and 25% more often than those with basic labels.

In the UK, renaming chickpea and potato curry to mild and sweet chickpea and potato curry increased orders by 108%.

7. Do emphasise food’s look and feel

Colour and mouthfeel can also be sold through language. Using ‘melt in the mouth’ to describe gnocchi with mushroom, fresh spinach and creamy parmesan sauce generated a 14 % increase in appeal to consumers, the report found. Phrases like this can help overcome prejudices that plant-rich food is not tasty by conjuring up images of luxuriant texture.

Other words that could be incorporated into dish names include creamy, warming, crunchy, smooth and sticky.

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