How brands can tap into the ‘flexitarian’ trend

More than a quarter of people have reduced their meat intake over the past six months but consumers are still turned off by terms like ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ so marketers must think more creatively if they want people to buy their products.

When Jeremy Corbyn revealed last month that he’s eating more vegan food it attracted headlines and column inches in all the mainstream media. Why? Corbyn is currently ‘cool’, for one, but eating less meat is even moreso.

Ten years ago Brits that chose to eat only plants numbered 150,000; today it’s 542,000 (just over 1% of the population) according to the Vegan Society. Beyonce and Jay-Z, Brad Pitt and Mo Farah are among the celebrities to have thrust veganism into mainstream thinking.

The horse-meat scandal and the World Health Organisation’s ranking of processed meats as ‘group 1 carcinogens’ have also ramped up interest in meat-free alternatives.

Research by Mintel shows more than one in four consumers (28%) have reduced or limited their meat consumption in the past six months, while another 14% are interested in doing so. This represents a massive opportunity for food brands and suggests ‘flexitarianism’ is no fad.

“The flexitarian trend carves a very accessible and unrestricted middle ground between simply meat eaters and non-meat eaters,” says Mintel’s senior food analyst Emma Clifford. And on top of the various benefits (animal welfare, health and environmental), it’s also become aspirational, she adds, with social media “playing an important role in the attraction of this endeavour”.

But the challenge now is how to market plant-based foods – whether they’re alternatives or more exciting veggie options – without sounding preachy.

“Coming here from Portland is like stepping back five years,” suggests Derek Sarno, chef, co-founder of the Wicked Healthy food blog and the new director of plant-based innovation at Tesco.

Sarno, speaking personally rather than for his new employer, says his focus is clear: “We won’t be telling anyone to give anything up; vegetables are being manipulated and twisted to entice people to eat them.”

If a product is presented as delicious, it’s more likely someone will consider it on shelf and take the time to read through health and sustainability claims.

Erin Ransom, Tofurky

Tesco isn’t the only one ploughing a more plant-friendly furrow. In January, Sainsbury’s announced that it has enlisted the help of experts at the University of Oxford to study how to sell more vegetable-based products.

The likely interventions include rewards for choosing veggie brands and moving meat-free products like pies and sausages to sit alongside the “real things”. Some say that would be a major coup given how it has stimulated the diary-free category.

However, arguments persist over whether this will serve only to confuse shoppers.

Brands must avoid confusion

The livestock industry is asking whether ‘milk’ is only milk if it’s from cows, sheep or goats, while in Europe a number of MEPs are calling for new labelling laws – they believe a sausage needs to be made of meat and not “pseudo-meats”.

The proposal is unlikely to gain any traction, not least because the vegetarian ‘character’ of the products are made unmistakably clear by using words like ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ on packs. But what if marketers want to remove these terms?

Indeed, slap vegetarian or vegan on the pack and the chances are that it will put people off rather than draw them in. As a result some brands have started to remove such terms.

Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s is a prominent example, with ‘vegan’ seen as a “deterrent” and at odds with the brand’s indulgent feel, according to analysis by Mintel.

Plus, research soon to be published by the John Hopkins University is expected to show that labelling a product ‘vegan’ can cause sales to plummet by around 70%. The same is true of restaurant menus – see box below ‘Sectioning off veggie dishes on a menu will stifle sales’.

Don’t turn consumers off

It’s not just the words vegetarian and vegan that can turn consumers off. ‘Meat-free’ or ‘reduced meat’ gives the impression that consumers are getting short-changed, while ‘healthy’ conjures up feelings that it’ll be less tasty or filling.

“We’re lousy at describing sustainable food,” says Daniel Vennard, who heads up the Better Buying Lab at the World Resources Institute.

“Marketing specialists pore over focus group data and behaviour studies to understand what makes consumers tick, carefully selecting words to evoke emotions, motivate us and shape our tastes. We need new ways to approach consumers about plant-based foods [and] the right phrasing can make a world of difference,” he adds, citing what the word “craft” has done for the beer industry.

READ MORE: BrewDog is a lesson in how to scale up without losing your ‘craft’

An appealing catch-all for plant-based foods has proved elusive, however. Vennard is working with the Yale Centre for Customer Insight, as well as the likes of Quorn, Sainsbury’s and Ikea, to find out what might turn people on.

The findings are due to be published later this year, but Vennard says “using positive, indulgent language that emphasises taste and flavour seems to be much more effective”.

Erin Ransom, director of marketing at Tofurky, a vegetarian turkey replacement that’s about to launch more products into the UK market, says labelling products with all the health and sustainable claims isn’t what attracts shoppers to their products.

“If a product is presented as delicious, it’s more likely someone will consider it on shelf and take the time to read through health and sustainability claims,” she says.

Ransom admits that the labelling dilemma is one that all plant-based food companies are having. Vegetarian remains “stagnant in its appeal”, but vegan is “gaining exponentially in notoriety and trend” thanks to celebrities and chefs, she explains.

Rethink product messaging

The current thinking among most marketers now is to use the term ‘plant-based’ more than ‘vegan’. Labelling products vegetarian, less meat or reduced meat is “the worst thing you can do”, according to Claire Hughes at Marks & Spencer talking at this year’s Future Proteins summit in London. They shouldn’t “look like alternatives” either, she says.

Quorn is one of the brands repositioning itself. The meat alternative has long focused its efforts on appealing to vegetarians and promoting the product’s health attributes, but a 19% rise in global sales have been put down to ‘flexitarian’ fans.

The trend has forced a rethink. “Our new campaign is to stop thinking about Quorn as an alternative and start thinking about it as good food that fits people’s lifestyles,” says marketing director Peter Harrison.

Gone is the orange-focused packaging and so too the athlete ambassadors, and in have come a “warmer” design and TV ads highlighting the versatility of the products. Indeed, despite all the trends pointing towards greater demand for plant-based foods, “you can’t just put something on shelf and hope it will sell”, says Harrison.

Quorn has announced plans to spend £150m doubling production in Teeside and year-on-year marketing spend will again increase, says Harrison. Enticing more flexitarians to try the products is one reason, but there’s also major competition on the horizon.

Some of the world’s biggest meat companies are now investing in protein alternatives and talking up the sector. There’s lots of waiting and watching going on, says Harrison, but with major global food companies involved “more messages will get out there”.

What they are and how they’re used on pack could determine whether meat-free remains niche or lives up to its mainstream potential.


Sectioning off veggie dishes on a menu will stifle sales

Linda Bacon, a former global strategy director at Mars and now a Master’s student in behavioural science at LSE, has tested how the term vegetarian goes down with diners.

“Having spent 25 years in the food industry, I can tell you that, despite our very best intentions, as consumers we don’t always make the buying decisions we wish we would,” she explains.

“Our brains are often too busy or distracted to fully evaluate what we should eat. We can be unconsciously influenced by many factors, including what we notice first, how attractively a product is described or displayed and social norms. The environment around us can have a real impact on our behaviour.”

Working with the World Resources Institute (WRI), Bacon’s new research has shown that sectioning off veggie dishes on a menu stifles sales: diners given a menu on which the plant-based dishes were integrated with everything else were twice as likely to select a meatless dish.

The problem with separating vegetarian off, says Bacon, is not only one of taste perception, it also serves to highlight the lack of meat or fish.

For Derek Sarno, chef, co-founder of the Wicked Healthy food blog and the new director of plant-based innovation at Tesco, this is a key issue. The messaging should be about celebration rather than deprivation, he says. “We are not telling anyone to give anything up.”

Daniel Nowland, head of technical and brand values lead at Jamie Oliver Ltd, isn’t surprised by the findings. “We don’t segregate vegetarian options as in some inferior way,” he explains. “They’re in with everything else but marked vegetarian.” Still, convincing a meat-eater to try them is no mean feat. “After a couple of glasses of wine, they see a stacked burger go by and their best intentions go out the window,” Nowland says.

The aim, he adds, is therefore not to push diners in any particular direction, but to make meat-free as appealing, delicious and indulgent as meat.

“What you don’t want is someone to come out regretting a vegetarian choice.” That could be bad for the brand, especially given the swell in interest in alternative options. But nail it and there are thousands of Instagrammers ready to tell everyone about it.



  • 56% of packaged food and soft drinks in the UK are labelled vegetarian
  • UK ranks second, after the US, in sales of meat substitutes
  • 44% of Brits are willing or already committed to cutting down on meat
  • 50% of shoppers at Pret A Manger’s dedicated vegetarian outlet define themselves as meat-eaters
  • Plant-based meats will have 33% market share by 2050

Sources: Euromonitor International; Lux Research; YouGov/Eating Better.