Marketing plant-based dishes – the do’s and dont’s

Restaurants and caterers should steer well clear of the terms “meat-free”, “vegan” and “vegetarian” if they want to encourage customers to eat more plants, according to new research. Descriptions like “low fat” are also a no-no.

Using provenance and flavour, however, helps sway diners to try the meals out. Compelling names and an emphasis on texture and “feeling” can also boost sales by up to 108%.

For the past two years, the World Resources Institute (WRI) has been assessing how best to market plant-rich foods to Brits and Americans. Trials on both sides of the Atlantic threw up some fascinating results.

For example, at the Sainsbury’s café in Truro, Cornwall, when the “Meat-free sausage and mash” option was switched to “Cumberland-spiced veggie sausages and mash”, sales rocketed 76%. “Field-grown sausages and mash” also worked – sales increased 51%.

Another test WRI’s Better Buying Lab did with the supermarket showed how sales of its “Meat-free breakfast” jumped 18% when the menu was changed to read “Field-grown breakfast”. Calling it a “Feel good fry up” was less effective – sales increased only 7%.

Indeed, “healthy restrictive” language is best avoided in the UK and US, the researchers said. "Healthy doesn't sell," explained Erica Holland-Toll, executive chef of Stanford University's “Flavor Lab”. "People don't want to eat dishes that are marketed as good for them. If you have a delicious roasted zucchini with mint and feta cheese, don't talk about how good the zucchini is for you."

A study conducted at Stanford last year showed that flavour-focused labels (called "indulgent" in the study), such as "Rich buttery roasted sweetcorn" and "Zesty ginger turmeric sweet potatoes" were chosen by diners 41% more often than identically prepared vegetables with "healthy-restrictive" labels. An online study in the UK also showed that renaming "Chickpea and potato curry" to "Mild and sweet chickpea and potato curry" increased stated ordering by 108%.

WRI’s research also found that colour and “mouth-feel” matter.

Colour is regarded as the single biggest cue people use to set their expectations of what a food will taste like. So, "Rainbow salad" creates “an expectation of a fresh, flavour-packed and visually vibrant dish”, the experts said. Renaming "Gnocchi with mushroom, fresh spinach and Parmesan sauce" to "Melt in the mouth Gnocchi with mushroom, fresh spinach and creamy Parmesan sauce" also generated a 14% increase in consumer-stated likelihood of ordering the dish.

The full research can be found here.

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