Vegan is a Dirty Word

Vegan is a dirty word
Is vegan a dirty word? It seems so. A quick survey on my Facebook page showed that people equate the word vegan with:
  • Political, possibly radical
  • Preachy
  • Shaming vegetarians
  • Pretentious
  • Cult-like
  • Judgmental of others who aren’t vegan
So how did we vegans, and the word “vegan”, get such a bad rap? There’s a kernel of truth in any criticism so while I’d don’t equate the word “vegan” with these descriptions, I’m sure there are vegans out there who have attributed to this perception.
As a relatively new vegan (as of July 2017), I’m always in awe of people who have been plant-based for a decade or more. With veganism becoming more mainstream, it’s pretty easy for me to pick up vegan foods like tempeh, vegenaise, almond milk, miso, and dairy-free ice cream at my local grocery store. More and more restaurants are including vegan options on their menus, and there are 4 or 5 completely vegan eateries in my home city of Columbia, SC (waiting for my home town of Lugoff, SC to catch up). Ten years ago, these options weren’t available.
Maybe this is part of the reason why vegans have such a bad rap in the US (it’s seems a bit more accepted these days in the UK. Gregg’s vegan sausage roll is about as mainstream as you get!). If you went vegan in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and even the early 2000s, you had to have a strong conviction to change your lifestyle to something many considered extreme.

A Brief History and Explanation of Veganism

Veganism actually started in Britain in 1944 by woodworker Donald Watson. Tuberculosis had been found in 40% of Britain’s dairy cows the year before, and Watson coined the term and started the movement as a way to protect himself from tainted food (as vegans don’t eat eggs or dairy).
Many others joined the vegan lifestyle over the years, mostly due to animal rights issues (as vegans do not use or consume any animal products). The shift that’s happened in the past 5 years has brought many more to the movement. Studies have come out showing the health benefits of veganism (look up The China Study). Professional athletes are going vegan to boost performance (check out Rich Roll, Venus Williams, Lewis Hamilton, and Tom Brady). And as we are deep into an environmental crisis, figures have been released showing that animal agriculture is the number one contributor of greenhouse gases in the world, as well as contributing to deforestation for grazing and food crop growth. This compels many, myself included, to consider the vegan lifestyle as part of the environmental movement.

Marketing “Vegan”

With the plant-based lifestyle becoming more popular and mainstream in the past couple of years, there are businesses and products popping up to fill that demand. So how do we market vegan products when “vegan” is a dirty word?
The first step is to know your audience. Are you marketing your product to vegans, those who are vegan-curious, or non-vegans? Even if your product is appealing to all three, the messaging, and their individual motivations, will be very different.

Marketing Plant-Based Products to Vegans

This one sounds easy – just call it vegan and the vegans will buy it. In a sense, yes, but we can certainly be more clever about it. And remember, slapping “vegan” on a product in the US is likely to deter a whole portion of the population, as described above in the little experiment I did on Facebook. The key here is to understand the different motivations for people to go vegan, and then appeal to those sensibilities. The main reasons people go vegan in 2019 are:
  • Animal welfare (for the animals)
  • Environmental impact (for the Earth)
  • Health and performance (for my health)
Many vegans will enter the movement from one direction, and then adopt the other reasons as they learn more about them. Personally, I became vegan for environmental reason, and was encouraged when I saw vegan athletes excelling in their sports. Finally, I was able to open my eyes to the animal welfare and ethics side of the meat and dairy industry, and feel comfortable that my diet was not contributing to the problem. Animal welfare has been the driver for decades, and organizations like PETA are partly to blame for the aggressive, political perception that some people hold for vegans. Many non-vegans are surprised to hear about the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industries, and this seems to resonate better than animal welfare. The health and performance motivation will only work with highly driven athletes, or people who have experienced a severe health scare. Telling someone that meat will eventually kill them is not motivation enough to change their behavior (like cigarettes, fast food, alcohol, etc.).

Marketing Vegan Products to the Vegan-Curious

Along with the growing vegan movement, I’m starting to see people call themselves “flexitarian”. My understanding is that being flexitarian allows you to eat what you want but with a nod to reducing your processed food and meat intake. It’s a mostly plant-based diet with maybe some seafood and chicken thrown in occasionally. Pescatarian is also a common term (doesn’t eat meat but does eat fish). In fact, my husband falls into this category, if he had to label himself.
These diets can work for many people. It eliminates some of the unhealthiest aspects of the Western diet, but it’s not so restrictive as to deter people from trying. There’s something to be said about approaching any diet as unrestrictive since viewing foods as “good” or “bad” is a slippery slope to disordered eating.
When marketing to this audience, the term “vegan” won’t necessarily turn them off. It might be an attractive term depending on where they are on their journey. With food, taste is everything so overall, tasty food is key. Flexitarians are the bridge between vegan and non-vegan. They can be the trusted source for non-vegans when they say how delicious vegan food is (and it is delicious, by the way).
Products like the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger are more geared to this crowd, too. As a vegan, I don’t miss the taste of meat so the Beyond Burger just blows my mind. It’s showing up as the only vegan option on menus these days, and that shows a lack of understanding of veganism. The Beyond Burger tastes so much like meat, it freaked me out the first time I ate it. For those who like the taste of meat but want a healthier, ethical, and greener option, these imitation meat products are right up their alley.
But beyond food, there are vegan products like apparel, makeup, and kitchen supplies. The marketing message here is all about sustainability, with a splash of animal welfare thrown in. I see many of these brands hiding the “vegan” aspect of their products on a back page somewhere and striving forward with the environmental messaging. That’s fine, but I think the word vegan should come out of the closet a little bit more.

Marketing Vegan to Non-Vegans

Marketing to this crowd, maybe skip the word “vegan”. As mentioned above, when it comes to food, taste is number one. It’s incredible how many people will avoid something if they think it’s vegan forgetting that at least 50% of their diet is already vegan – fruit, vegetables, potato products like French fries and chips, rice, pasta, the list goes on.
The question for me here is can we reclaim the word “vegan”? Can we get rid of its hyper-politicized, preachy, pretentious, and judgmental stereotype and replace it with a more open, understanding, and easy lifestyle to adopt? From the sounds of it, this is happening in the UK. Vegan has become trendy and companies are creating products with “vegan” declared loud and proud with relative success. Greggs, the largest bakery chain in the UK, launched its vegan sausage roll earlier this year with a huge PR and marketing push, supported by giving out free samples at their stores. My hope is that we can do something similar in the US. The beginnings are there – Burger King is running a trial of a vegan Whopper with the Impossible Burger, and White Castle has added a second vegan option to its menu.
While I’m not advocating for fast food (everyone should just stop eating it, period), having vegan options pop up in arguably the most popular restaurants in the US is one step forward in shedding the unsavory image of vegan food and vegans (maybe it’s just the vegans people have an issue with) in popular culture. As vegans we need to do our part to not play into the pushy, preachy stereotype. Lead with “it’s tasty, easy, healthy, environmentally friendly, and no animals were harmed in the process.” As brands, do we shy away from “vegan” in fear that it’ll turn too many people away? Or do we bank on this trend sticking around and the general population catching up? I’m hoping for the latter instead of the former.
Vegan is a dirty word