Marketing Products as “Vegan” and “Meat Free” Drives Down Sales, Research Finds

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After two years of research into labels that make plant-based foods more or less appealing to Americans and Brits, researchers found that terms like “vegan,” “vegetarian” and “meat free” are slowing down sales.

World Resources Institute (WRI) found that these terms either place an emphasis on what is lacking from the meal or have a negative connotation, which is detrimental when trying to appeal to meat eaters.

Marketing as Vegan

A US study asked consumers to rank 21 different terms like “gluten free,” “organic,” “grass-fed,” and “ethically sourced.” The label “vegan” was found to be the least appealing (right behind “diet”) with 35% of consumers saying it would make them less likely to purchase the product.

In addition, social media intelligence company Brandwatch scanned through over 15 million posts on social media, blogs and forums that referenced vegan, vegetarian and plant-based food. The research found that the term “vegan” was more than twice as likely to be used negatively when compared to “plant based.”

“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,” said Edward Crook, Global Research vice president at Brandwatch.

Meat Free Label

Research also found that using the term “meat free” can drive away potential customers because it places emphasis on lacking what meat eaters enjoy rather than highlighting why a plant-based product could be enjoyable.

When British supermarket giant Sainsbury’s performed a 2017 test where it renamed its “Meat-Free Sausage and Mash” to “Cumberland Spiced Veggie Sausages and Mash,” sales shot up 76.2%, which helped the corporation better market other plant-based products to consumers.

WRI also pointed out that the term “meat free” has widely been shown to underperform in comparison to just about any other label.


Researchers found similar results with the term “vegetarian,” which, while perceived less negatively than vegan, is still widely viewed as less appetizing and even less nutritious by many consumers.

A study by London School of Economics compared a restaurant menu where vegetarian dishes are put in a separate section versus being spread out all across the menu, and it found that people are 56% less likely to order vegetarian when placed in separate sections.

The research even found the use of the term “healthy” to drive down sales.

Instead, WRI’s research suggests that marketing meat-free dishes using location of origin help increase sales.

Take, for example, this test by US bakery chain Panera Bread, where 18 Los Angeles area locations decided to change the name of a dish from “Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean Soup” to “Cuban Black Bean Soup.”

That simple change resulted in a 13% boost in sales of the product in those locations.

Other Plant-Based Sales Boosters

Research also indicates that highlighting flavors by using terms like “zesty,” “buttery,” “ginger” and “roasted” boosted sales by more than 40%.

In addition, highlighting a food’s texture or sensation makes consumers more likely to purchase plant-based food. This involves using terms like “creamy,” “warming,” “crunchy,” “smooth” and “sticky.”

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Paul Ibirogba

Written by Paul Ibirogba

Paul is a former writing teacher turned writer. He loves to travel the world (the southeast Asia region in particular), meet people from a variety of cultures and learn about various lifestyles. When he's not doing one of those things, he's probably reading non-fiction or watching YouTube videos.

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