In response to the hugely popular plant-based eating movement, more restaurants, even ones that traditionally cater to carnivores, are including plant-based offerings on their menus. However, it’s important for restaurants to understand that featuring plant-based dishes is one thing, but knowing how to market them is another. While many of today’s consumers are eager to try new plant-based options, others may take a little more convincing. To help boost the appeal—and the sales figures—of plant-based menu items, the World Resource Institute’s Better Buying Lab recommends the following do’s and don’ts when it comes to plant-based marketing language.
Don’t use the term “meat-free.”
When meat eaters see the term “meat-free,” they will likely assume that the product doesn’t contain anything they’ll enjoy (this is consistent with research indicating that emphasizing elements that are not present in a dish makes people feel like they are missing out on something). In other words, if the goal is to appeal to meat eaters, it’s counterproductive to highlight the fact that a dish doesn’t contain any meat. Customers might also have a harder time positively envisioning what a food will taste like if the only information they have is about what it doesn’t taste like. Online trials performed by the Better Buying Lab have confirmed this theory: across the board, dishes that feature the term “meat-free” perform worse than just about any other alternative name.
Don’t use the term “vegan.”
According to a 2017 social media study commissioned by the Better Buying Lab and conducted by analytics company Brandwatch, the term “vegan” was used in a negative context more than twice as often as the term “plant-based.” In another US study, when consumers were asked to rank the relative appeal of 21 different food and beverage labels, not only was the “vegan” label ranked as the least appealing of all the options, but 35% of consumers in the study said the use of that term would make them less likely to purchase a product. This kind of research shows that, as a descriptor, “vegan” may simply have too much baggage associated with it to make it a useful contemporary marketing term.
Don’t use the term “vegetarian”.
Like “vegan,” “vegetarian” is another term that may be too indelibly associated with food that is healthy, but ultimately unsatisfying. When the Better Buying Lab advised a study on the subject in 2016, they discovered that meat eaters were 56% less likely to order a plant-forward dish if it was featured within a “vegetarian” box on a restaurant’s menu. In addition, consumers today may still perceive vegetarian diets as not being nutritionally balanced (a lack of protein and iron are the biggest concerns), which could drive them away from dishes marketed in this way.
Do highlight the food’s “origin story.”
Consumers today want to know more about where their food comes from. This creates a unique opportunity for restaurants to use food “origin stories” to create evocative descriptions of their plant-based menu offerings. For example, an LA-based Panera Bread changed the name of one of its soups from “low-fat vegetarian black bean soup” to “Cuban black bean soup.” Over the course of one month, sales of the soup grew by 13% as a result of the name change. Evoking the food’s origins can also involve references to how it was grown or produced. For example, in the UK, a Sainsbury’s supermarket café stopped using the term “meat-free breakfast” and started using the terms “garden breakfast” and “field-grown breakfast,” which caused sales to increase by 12% and 17%, respectively.
Do focus on flavor.
Plant-based eaters and carnivores alike want to eat food that tastes great, so focusing on flavor rather than on specific ingredients is a useful way to make dishes sound more appealing to both groups. Allplants, a plant-based meal delivery service, discovered this when it made the switch from using ingredient-focused names for its dishes (such as “black bean chili” and “beets bourguignon”) to using names that highlighted the dishes’ flavor and character (such as “smoky soul chili” and “fiery jerk jackfruit”). Similarly, a 2018 study from Stanford University found that dishes with flavor-focused labels (including descriptors like “zesty ginger turmeric sweet potatoes”) were 41% more likely to be chosen by diners than dishes which were prepared identically, but featured more basic or health-focused labels.
Do emphasize look and feel.
Terms that reference how a food looks and how it feels in your mouth can make all the difference in attracting plant-curious customers. Not surprisingly, color is one of the biggest cues that drives consumer expectations of how a particular food will taste, so terms that emphasize color variety, such as “rainbow salad,” can help to make dishes more appealing. Likewise, language associated with an indulgent mouthfeel—including “creamy,” “crunchy,” “smooth,” “warming,” or “melt in the mouth”—can help to overcome consumer perceptions that plant-based food is bland or boring.