Has Vegan got an image problem?

John Lennon famously claimed that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus”. Now I have a soft spot for Lennon, dating back to my student days learning the chord structures for my semi acoustic guitar and playing passable renditions of Yellow Submarine to friends at college.

I’ve been thinking a lot in recent weeks about the rise of the Vegan category, wandering the supermarket shelves and thinking through the rapid rise of Vegan products and brands.

Vegan has clearly been the retail focus of the last six months with many UK supermarkets launching ranges across chilled grocery and food to go fixtures. Sandwiches, ready meals, pizza, meal centres etc. – there has never been a wider range on offer and the talents of dedicated retail chefs and development teams have been brought to bear on some really innovative own label ranges such as Wicked Kitchen.

However there is an unspoken question mark over the emerging category – whisper it quietly – why aren’t these new ranges badged loud and proud as Vegan?

I remember launching the first major own label Fair Trade range at Tesco and I wanted it shouted from the rooftops that here was the UK’s leading supermarket developing a range comprised entirely of Fairly Traded products. Fair Trade own label – loud and proud.

Not so with Vegan. If I was a conspiracy theorist I’d say the retailers wanted the sales and margin that Vegans bring but weren’t especially keen on getting too close to the wider Vegan ‘brand’.  Luckily I am not a conspiracy theorist. But it does make you wonder why the multiples aren’t as keen on just calling these ranges which conform to all the characteristics of a Vegan diet…… well, Vegan?

Perhaps they are trying to modernise the Vegan brand, move it on from the stereotypes of old? Trying to bring in groups of more well-heeled, and genteel Vegans for whom avoiding meat, fish, dairy and eggs is more of a lifestyle choice? Even those who make this lifestyle choice just on a Tuesday evening?

Look closely and you see everything in this (Vegan) space badged as ‘plant protein’, not Vegan. That’s an inoffensive turn of phrase, after all who could object to plant protein? This feels like a dog whistle to gym goers, wellness seekers, food experimenters and organic orientated shoppers, rather than a full throated pitch to existing Vegans.

In any event, I think these Vegan ranges have a long way to run and the category is on a significant growth trajectory.

At its heart the Vegan critique of the food chain argues against our overdependence on meat protein in particular, against intensification of agriculture in general and for the benefits that come from eating a diversity of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds as well as plant proteins.

You don’t have to be a card carrying Vegan to agree – many reasonable folk in the food industry would agree with these sentiments, at least in private, including many who would never dream of defining themselves as Vegan.

So, I think its reasonable to conclude that some retailers feel there is a certain amount of baggage with the word ‘Vegan’. Perhaps they feel it conjures up certain images and attitudes they feel is at odds with the rest of their offer? Perhaps they feel it jars with key parts of their food offer?

Whatever it is, I think we are seeing the birth and development of a move to reposition vegan as a ‘safer’ and more conventional play – one that can be incorporated within the food industry as just another lifestyle choice, or a different route to take to pursue health and wellness.  Ghandi was fond of saying ‘first they ignore you, then then laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win’. Are we seeing something of that playing out in the Vegan category at the moment?

For more information or further insight into the Free From industry contact Hamish Renton hamish@hra-global.com 

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