In 2017, the U.K. supermarket Sainsbury’s tried an experiment. The retailer had recently rolled out a vegetarian version of the classic English meal, sausage and mash, labeled “meat-free sausages and mash,” but it wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves. Suspecting the uninspired name might have to do with the lackluster sales, Sainsbury’s tried out a few different labels: “field-grown sausages and mash,” Cumberland-spiced veggie sausages and mash,” and “better sausages and mash.” Every alternative name sold better, but “Cumberland-spiced” brought sales up 76% in two months.
That’s because it follows a set of principles outlined by the Better Buying Lab, a division of the World Resources institute that focuses on breaking down barriers people and businesses face in shifting to a plant-based diet. There are two things to keep in mind when marketing vegetarian options, says Daniel Vennard, director of BBL. One: You don’t want to focus on taking away meat–the vast majority of people in the world like how it tastes and don’t want to be reminded that it’s not in what they’re about to eat. And two: If something doesn’t have meat, it better still sound delicious.
BBL has researched how food naming impacts whether people opt for plant-based options for the past two years; they’ve worked with companies like Panera Bread and Google (in their cafeteria) to strategize around how to get more people to opt for plant-based foods. In a new report, the lab spells out four types of language restaurants and the food industry should avoid if trying to get people to eat meat-free, and three tactics they should embrace.
Let’s start with the bad. The Sainsbury’s experiment covered the first step: Avoid “meat free” language. Along with that, Vennard says, brands should avoid the label “vegan,” as people tend to think of vegan options as exclusionary, and intended for a small subgroup to which most people don’t belong (less than 1% of the global population is vegan). While not as exclusionary, BBL also recommends brands avoid the “vegetarian” label, as people interpret that to mean food that is healthy but unsatisfying, and maybe even boring. Going off of that, labeling plant-based options “healthy” or “low-fat” often leads people to believe that they’re sacrificing taste or punishing themselves by choosing them. None of these labels, BBL found, encourage people to opt for plant-based foods.
What does work, again, is well-illustrated by the Sainsbury’s example. Highlighting the provenance of the food or flavor (“Cumberland-spiced”) makes people feel more emotionally connected to what they’re purchasing. Also, focusing on flavor over health benefits draws more sales: BBL cited a study that found people vastly prefer “zesty ginger turmeric” sweet potatoes over “health conscious” ones. (I wonder why?) And adding descriptions like creamy or spicy encourage people to see plant-based options as equally appealing to those made with meat. “Research has shown that before we consume food, our brain constructs a mental simulation of how it might taste, and what the experience of eating will be like,” Vennard says, so more details build up positive associations with plant-based dishes.
None of the dos or don’ts in labeling plant-based foods specifically touch on the environmental benefits of making that choice. But to Vennard, that’s key. “Food choices are typically driven by current desires and impulses, rather than by sustainability concerns,” he says.
WRI has done a good deal of research into the benefits of shifting to a more plant-based diet. They found that if people swapped out 30% of their meat intake for vegetarian options like legumes and peas by 2050, the agriculture sector would be able to reduce its emissions and keep the possibility of holding global warming below 2 degrees Celsius in sight. But to get people to opt away from meat, they need to believe that what they’re switching to won’t disappoint them–and the name is the first thing they see.