It's time to give Vegan some recognition

Vegan and vegetarian lifestyles are becoming increasingly common, but with new-to-industry consumers trying to pick between brands and products in-store, are packaging designers doing a good enough job of differentiation? 

A walk down the meat-free aisle of any UK supermarket is a reminder of how far the industry has come in the last few years. Where once there was a cramped corner of a single fridge, with Quorn sausages, Quorn chicken-style pieces and, you guessed it… Quorn burgers; now there lies a plethora of brands and products, in some cases spanning a full aisle, battling for our plant-based attention.  

However, while the meat-free aisle is growing, in most areas the rest of the supermarket is still playing catch up. If a brand is marketing specifically to vegetarians and vegans it’s relatively easy to let them know what is in their product, giving the shopper a quick identifier as to whether it meets their dietary requirements. But when you’re designing a wine label, a chocolate wrapper or crisp packet, and that target audience is everybody, how do you let people with specific lifestyle choices know your product is for them? 

Well, the short answer is: with difficulty. Unfortunately, with the exception of one or two recognised marques (which we’ll discuss later), there aren’t any mandatory or established logos, icons or symbols that tell us what we need to know at a quick glance, while not taking up too much space on already cramped packaging real estate. We have V, Ve, Veg, V+, V++, none of which explicitly tell us the difference between vegan and vegetarian. We have icons of leaves, plants, milk cartons, and cheese, all of which can work, but they take up space and there’s still ambiguity. We have the tried and tested ‘ingredients in bold’ which to its credit is largely fool proof, but it creates effort on the consumer’s part, which isn’t ideal. Unfortunately, while everyone tries to come up with the perfect solution, they end up further muddying the water

Why does any of this matter? If people not being able to find suitable products isn’t a big enough reason for you, then think about how this affects your brand. If shoppers have to read the back of your packaging and it’s not immediately obvious that it’s vegan or vegetarian you run the risk of losing that customer, and not just on that occasion – for life. Often, due to the difficulty of working out what products they can buy, vegans and vegetarians will have a list of products they already know and will not bother searching for something else. You may think ‘well, that’s OK, there are plenty more shoppers in the sea’ and while that is true, we’ve already seen how much the industry has grown in just a few years, falling short of the mark might not affect you in the short term, but could have a significant impact in the long run. 

It would be remiss to not mention The Vegan Society, a widely recognised marque to help vegan consumers identify products they can buy. While they’ve done a fantastic job of establishing their brand, it comes at a price. Literally. If a brand wants to display the Vegan Society marque it must meet certain criteria and has to pay a fee to use it. Paying the fee isn’t an option for every brand, and there are further considerations. For example, if the food is made in a factory where cross contamination could occur, the product won’t pass the criteria, however there are many vegans who will happily buy products from brands where the label says ‘may contain traces of milk/dairy’. So, while the Vegan Society is doing an excellent job, it is far from an ideal solution. 

Is there a perfect solution? Realistically, probably not, but if we take a look at how meat-free products are marked in India, we could learn a thing or two.

It’s a simple icon, a green circle in a green square. It means nothing, really. There is no pictorial reference, acronym or initial to tell you what it is. But none of that matters, because it is mandatory and enforced by India’s Food Safety and Standards Regulations. Which means it’s nationally recognised, and vegetarians know what to look for when they’re shopping. It’s also worth mentioning that India doesn't currently have a vegan icon but adding one would be incredibly straightforward due to how established the existing vegetarian icon is. 

That could be all we need, a regulatory body to enforce a rule that everyone follows. Sure, it takes away some creativity and gives us yet more information to cram onto already busy packaging. But it makes people’s lives easier, and as marketers is that not one of the most important parts of our job? 

This could all be a long way off, and while we should push for an enforced rule, it’s unlikely to be something we see in the short term. So, with all that in mind, here are some pointers for labelling your packaging as vegan or vegetarian: 

  • Research: talk to vegans and vegetarians to find out what frustrates them and how they approach picking products in store (but remember they don’t speak for everyone)
  • Accessible: cater for language barriers, people with sight-based disabilities, and cultural differences
  • Remember that not all vegans and vegetarians are alike, within those broad terms there are food groups that some will and some won’t eat. Make sure you know what’s in your product, and what is likely to be an ingredient people would look for and draw attention to it if you can
  • Keep it simple: if you run the risk of confusing people with ambiguous icons, you’d be better off leaving them out altogether and opting for ‘ingredients in bold’