Desperately seeking vegans

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Vegetarianism and veganism are set to become the biggest trends of 2019.  Once a token on restaurant menus and retailers’ shelves, plant-based and dairy-free are no longer ‘alternative’ options but a mainstream expectation. However, can food and drinks brands that did not come out of this movement maintain relevance for consumers and be competitive in this space? asks Vanessa Lea.   

 First, expect them to innovate line-extensions around plant-based in a desperate attempt to catch up with challengers and their core vegetarian and vegan ethos. Mainstream brands will also invest in pack re-designs and clean-labelling, as well as acquire ‘healthy’ products for their portfolios. However, consumers will rightly question what right they have to stretch into vegan and will want them to back up claims. This is especially true for younger audiences for whom authenticity is key when deciding which products to buy. Those brands able to leverage what already makes them uniquely well-placed to credibly contribute to the conversation will be the real winners. 

Quaker Oats are plotting what could be a best-in-class move. While a whole host of challengers have established the non-dairy milk space, here a very mainstream out-of-category brand is entering the fray. Leaning on their equity in oats, Quaker’s upcoming extension into oat milk is a logical, credible, visionary – and likely profitable – strategy. It’s relevant to current trends, anchored in established equity, and bound to garner far more customer trust than, say, traditional dairy brands creating non-dairy products. It has grown out of what Quaker Oats stand for as a business, and what they are loved for by consumers. 

Innocent have also made the leap into milks. This is a more tenuous stretch given that it’s not a fruit or smoothie proposition. However, it is both an on-brand and unique innovation given that the flavours have a maximum five ‘innocent’ ingredients. These non-dairy milks boast a competitive point of difference given the majority of other pre-made packaged brands contain stabilisers. Veganism is promoted as the biggest way to reduce our impact on the planet, and Innocent commits to environmentalism with its milk proposition – the range is packaged in recyclable material made from a minimum of 30% recycled PET plastic. As well as being visually sleeker the bottles are greener than the Tetra packs of competitors.

And there are currently massive communications opportunities for established vegan-friendly brands, or brands that have been inherently plant-based since before the tag became so sought-after. Veganuary, a UK charity promoting veganism, lists on its website a number of ‘surprisingly vegan’ brands whose heritage may not lie in ‘healthy’ ‘alternative’ or ‘plant-based’ but just happen to be vegan-friendly (though maybe not that healthy!). These include the likes of Bird’s custard, Oreos, Mr Kipling, and Co-op Jam, all of which can now position themselves as go-to vegan snacks.

Mainstream non-vegan brands with a heritage in meat or dairy will question whether they can even attempt to keep up with a major food trend that fundamentally contradicts their propositions. Others, such as those making products such as marshmallows, Worcestershire sauce, many vitamin supplements and some apple juices and alcohols – all made with non-vegan ingredients such a gelatine and fish bladder extracts - will have to revisit their recipes, capabilities and supply chain if they are to keep those loyal consumers now making the switch to veganism.

Vanessa Lea is Senior Research Manager at Thinktank International Research