What To Call Plant-Based Meat Alternatives: A Labeling Study
Over the past few years, describing products as vegan has increasingly been considered a bad idea. For example, industry leaders have recommended that companies avoid using “v-words” on their meat-free products (Food Navigator, 2018).
This perception is based on studies showing that, for instance:
- Putting meat-free options in a separate “vegetarian” section of your menu reduces sales (Bacon & Krpan, 2018);
- The word “vegan” reduces foods’ appeal for more consumers than other common labels like “diet,” “sugar-free,” or “gluten-free” (Newsweek, 2018).
The term “plant-based” has been widely adopted as an alternative to “vegan” and “vegetarian” (Christian Science Monitor, 2018). There are good theoretical reasons for this move: The term focuses on what a product contains rather than what it lacks, and it doesn’t have the baggage associated with veganism. However, not much research has examined the relative merits of the terms “plant-based” and “vegan.”
A poll of 1,163 social media users suggested that plant-based might be perceived more positively and as more of a dietary choice than a lifestyle choice (Food Navigator, 2018), which provided encouragement for the adoption of the term.
However, to our knowledge, Faunalytics’ current project is the first to rigorously compare these terms and others using validated scientific methodology and a nationally representative sample of consumers.
In this three-phase project, we started off by crowd-sourcing a list of potential terms for meat alternatives. We then narrowed the list of suggestions down to 20 and tested them for appeal with meat consumers on Mechanical Turk. The terms included options like direct protein, harmless, and eco. We also included vegan and plant-based. Participants rated how good each product label sounded to them and indicated how likely they were to buy it.
In the third and final phase of this project, a large, nationally representative sample of participants made direct, head-to-head comparisons between the eight best performers from the second phase of the study.
Together, these three phases of research give us a strong idea of people’s preferences for the different labels.
- The average person preferred the label vegan over plant-based (and most other options!): Counter to commonly held assumptions, consumers said that a vegan burger sounded better than a plant-based burger in a head-to-head comparison. In fact, only feel-good outperformed vegan as a label.
- All labels were rated similarly and neutrally on measures of sound and likelihood of purchase. When considered individually, the eight labels were rated neutrally on average. In a head-to-head comparison, the term plant-based rated lower than all other descriptors we tested, including vegan. Given the increasing adoption of plant-based as the term of choice, we hope that this finding will inspire careful review of when and how it should be used in marketing. That said, some of the other terms (e.g., feel-good) are more general and less objectively descriptive than plant-based. More research with other methodologies and target products is needed, but this study suggests that labeling a product simply as plant-based may appeal to a smaller segment of consumers than many other options, notably including vegan.
- Feel-good was the most positively rated term. The success of this broadly positive label suggests playing up the ability of meat-free eating to make a person feel good. In a domain steeped with health and morality messaging, adding a broader, positivity-based approach may be successful with a large number of people.
- To appeal to men, avoid vegan and plant-based. Products targeting men—especially young men—should avoid these standard terms. By contrast, the label direct protein showed more promise with men. Using terms like that—or avoiding labels altogether (as some companies have been choosing to do recently)—may be the most successful approach for appealing to young men.
- Older adults like zero cholesterol. Although it didn’t perform well across the full sample, zero cholesterol held significant appeal for older adults. This suggests that messaging targeting this group could benefit from focusing on this very specific benefit of eating food free of animal products.
- We need a range of strategies to appeal to a range of consumers. As the findings above suggest, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to labeling. For advocates, this means targeting your messages to specific groups. For marketers, as more and more companies manufacture animal product alternatives, they can target different niches. A wide range of strategies may be the best strategy.
Faunalytics gratefully acknowledges an anonymous donor for funding this project.
This report covers a lot of results, but it is not exhaustive. Over the next few months, Faunalytics will be conducting a few additional analyses. These will include a more detailed look at how taste ratings differ by label, as well as an examination of the animal product alternatives eaten by people with different diets.