Is it time to put down the coconut oil? James Roles, sales and marketing director at Five by Five, shares his thoughts on developing a product for the vegan market
Trends characterise today’s society, and the FMCG arena is no exception. Today’s popular health snacks could very well be in the bin by tomorrow. One day margarine is the sensible choice, the next it’s butter. Yet, so far, the booming vegan market is holding strong and shows no sign of being rubbished. Sure, a few vegans seem like extremists who’ll stop at nothing until meat is forever off the menu, but on the whole, the lifestyle has expanded with smiles all round. It’s grown by 360 per cent over the past decade by appealing to hardened hippies, millennials, health nuts and even carnivores. As such, appealing to this wide market takes more than just hopping on the coconut oil-powered bandwagon and waiting for people to lap it up.
Research, NPD and your subsequent launch are all intrinsically linked. Each has to be executed flawlessly to properly cater, not only to a very specific set of demands from the broad vegan consumer base, but also the wants and needs of your average meat-muncher on a mission for healthy living. Because the lay of the land is pretty optimistic for UK free-from circa 2018, whether it be for ethical or health-based reasons. The bar is higher than a flaccid salad - from Aldi to Ben & Jerry's, successful and high quality launches have been happening everywhere recently. Much like the vegetarian option preceding it, this is an extremely viable market. But it’s crowded. As a brand, if your launch simply frames your product as just another vegan initiative, then your audience can easily take their custom elsewhere.
You do need a USP, and simply stating that it’s free-from just isn’t good enough. That’s like saying your new line of bacon rashers are ‘made of pig’. Pay extra attention during research and subsequent NPD: how do you differentiate one beany proposition from another? More importantly, how do your customers differentiate them? Veganism as a mass market is still relatively novel, so don’t get caught up in your own idea of what’s best - get the stats, opinions and case studies to back everything up.
You need to truly invest in this. This is more than just a trend. To maximise your success, you have to maximise your involvement and commitment. Take Derek Sarno at Tesco. His job title is director of plant-based innovation. You might scoff, but the man’s Wicked Kitchen range, a line of 20 vegan-friendly meals made exclusively for the supermarket, has been selling out up and down 600 UK stores. This wasn’t just some grainy, grey, flappy rubbish that the supermarket made to appease a few nagging fringe-types. Its versatility and rollout had more in common with a fashion launch, setting social media channels alight - unveiling the range during Veganuary was an extra slice of genius, too.
It was big news for vegans, but the reason why Wicked Kitchen’s done so well is because it markets itself to more than just exclusive herbivores. It doesn’t say ‘vegan’ anywhere on the front of the packaging. Taking its cues from Quorn’s recent advertising push, the range avoids selling itself as an alternative to anything, as a lesser version of meat. It’s presenting itself as a healthy, attractive meal. That’s it. It’s not going on about being cruelty-free like Tofurky does. Not to say that Tofurky isn’t good - it recently launched its own sandwiches in the UK, so it’s not exactly struggling - but Tesco did this on quality alone, reaching out to people outside of the vegan diet and lifestyle. Labelling a product as vegan can cause sales to plummet by as much as 70 per cent - it’s still a dirty word, but Tesco’s tactics have shown us one way of doing this right.
And where to now? McDonald’s McVegan burger launched across Sweden and Finland in late 2017. In just the last month alone, sales amounted to over 150,000. Again, this success might not be replicated in the UK, seeing as nearly 10 per cent of Swedish food launches are vegan, but it shows that this kind of product can be successfully launched, even with a massive ‘vegan’ warning slapped across the box. Given that both McDonald’s and Tesco approached this very differently, there’s no ‘right’ way to go about launching vegan. It’s worth getting clued up sooner rather than later, because this lifestyle probably isn't going away - too many big names have weighed in. But if you tailor your NPD and pre-launch activity to the wider market while keeping your core customers - the reason why you’re doing this in the first place! - firmly in mind, then you’ll be one step closer to free-from utopia.