Veganism is on the rise. Even in Burgundian Brabant, plant-based eating has rocketed in popularity over the last few years. Food trucks serving seaweed burgers and vegan ice cream are rolling onto more and more festival sites, and an all-vegan restaurant will soon open its doors in Tilburg’s city center.
The question is whether veganism is the future of food or just an Instagram fad. “It’s hip to be vegan,” marketing lecturer and nutrition expert Odette Bruls says. “That’s good, but it would be even better if plant-based eating would move from food trucks and special restaurants towards really shaping the food choices we make in our day-to-day lives.”
Although many people seem to identify as vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian these days, Bruls says plant-based eating is still a long way from the new normal. She believes the right marketing strategies can be an important ally to the plant-based movement. We met up with Bruls on campus to talk about the marketing behind going vegan.
Are you vegan or vegetarian in your personal life, or is your interest in the plant-based food trend purely academic?
“My interest in plant-based eating is both professional and personal. Although I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, I try to eat more plant-based as much as I can. For me, personally, maintaining a healthy balance is more important than swearing off animal products altogether. And also on a more general level, it’s not my conviction that everyone should follow a strict vegan diet. I doubt whether the planet or our personal health would benefit from that. But what I am convinced of is that we cannot sustain the amount of animal-based products we are currently eating.”
The times when vegans were seen as un-fun carrot munchers with extreme views are long gone. Veganism has become hugely popular in recent years, especially among students and other young adults. Why are so many young people going vegan nowadays?
“Food choices have become a form of self-expression, especially for young educated people in urban areas. Plant-based eating is a way of expressing who you are and what you care about. I think that’s an important reason for people to choose a vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or other plant-based diet.”
Despite the growing appetite for plant-based products, you recently stated in an opinion piece published in daily newspaper NRC that meat consumption is not dropping fast enough. Apparently, the plant-based revolution won’t drive itself. How come?
“People are increasingly open to the idea of eating less meat, but the number of people actually embracing a plant-based diet is still very limited. That’s also true for green alternatives in non-food areas. Being positive about sustainable products is obviously not the same as actually buying an electric car, installing solar panels on your roof, or eating plant-based. In marketing terms, we call this the citizen-consumer paradox.
It’s a big step to break with the familiar. And not everyone can afford green alternatives, since those alternatives are often more expensive than the traditional option.”
How can the right marketing plan change that?
“Marketing can make plant-based products both more affordable and more accessible. Recently, HEMA announced to introduce a vegan variant of its famous smoked sausage. We discussed this in marketing class last week. Assuming this product will be sold at a HEMA price level, this was perceived by students as a way to bring vegan food to a larger and more general public.
Still, it’s not easy. We’re living in a meat-oriented society. Meat has been a vital part of our meals for many, many years. Nowadays, there are lots of vegan, vegetarian and hybrid substitutes available to replace that part of our traditional meals. But then the question is: how do you present those plant-based alternatives?
“My hope is not that everyone goes vegan, but that plant-based products go mainstream”
The positioning of plant-based products in grocery stores, for example, is very important. In most supermarkets, plant-based meat alternatives are shelved in an ‘alternative’ section rather than alongside the conventional meat products. Because most shoppers don’t intentionally seek out plant-based meat substitutes, they’ll walk straight past that section. If you want plant-based foods to be mainstream, you have to sell them alongside the mainstream products.”
Is it up to grocery stores to carry the plant-based revolution forward, then, or should it be a joint venture between retailers and other involved parties?
“I think it’s a joint venture. Food producers are doing their part by increasingly bringing meat-free products onto the market. Beyond Meat recently became the first plant-based meat-maker to make a Wall Street debut, and The Vegetarian Butcher has been acquired by Unilever. Those are developments that may help meat substitutes become more widely available.
At the same time, it’s important to help consumers look beyond ‘imitation meats’ that replace the real thing and explore new ways of meat-free cooking instead. That’s where retailers can make a difference. Through tasting sessions in stores, for example, or by including more plant-based recipes and ideas in the free magazines that shoppers can pick up at most big supermarkets.”
What about food bloggers and Instagram influencers? How important is their role in promoting a more plant-based lifestyle?
“Food bloggers and influencers have a large following, so they can have an important role in bringing positive attention to plant-based eating. Simply put, they’re making veganism cool.
But there’s also another side to it: food bloggers often don’t have a background in nutrition or dietetics. What works well for them and their personal health, may not work well for others. Followers who trust their opinions may develop a vitamin B12 deficiency, for example, which you only start noticing after months or years, when you’ve completely run out of reserves. So that’s something to be aware of.”
Scientists have warned that we must drastically cut our meat consumption to avoid dangerous climate change. Can scientists also contribute to making that reduction happen?
“Absolutely. Scientists can analyze benefits and barriers of consumers towards eating more plant-based. They can help think about how plant-based products can be promoted effectively, so that plant-based eating eventually becomes the new normal. That’s my hope for the future—not that everyone goes vegan, but that plant-based alternatives go mainstream.”
Are the marketing students in your lecture hall interested in advancing the plant-based cause?
“They are, actually. Many of my students are interested in studying consumer behavior related to nutrition and health, which I think is great. That wasn’t the case as much ten years ago. I notice this generation of students is very aware of societal issues like the importance of going plant-based, both in terms of our personal health and the impact on the environment.”