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Veganuary: Do food brands really care about ethical consumerism?

Sign-ups are up by almost half to 365,000 this year.

Veganuary: Do food brands really care about ethical consumerism?

With pigs in blankets at Christmas nothing but a fond memory, more than 365,000 meat-eaters are seeking a lifestyle change at the start of 2020 – and herein lies the formula behind Veganuary’s ever-growing popularity. 

First launched in 2014, Veganuary – a month-long challenge that encourages meat-eaters to stick to a plant-based diet – has grown to become a cornerstone for conscious consumers, with more than a quarter-of-a-million people signing up last year and upwards of 500 brands launching vegan products to lessen the burden of end-of-year excesses.

This year, big names including Burger King, Greggs, KFC, McDonald’s and Subway are throwing their hats into the ring for Veganuary’s seventh year, alongside endorsements from celebrities such as Billie Eilish, Joaquin Phoenix and Sir Paul McCartney.

But are brands doing enough to accommodate vegan diets year round or is the meat-free movement an example of what Leo Burnett chief creative officer Chaka Sobhani recently referred to as "purpose-driven for the sake of purpose-driven"?

"Brands are certainly thinking about it year round," Toni Vernelli, international head of communications and marketing at Veganuary, tells Campaign

The UK is currently the leader of vegan-food launches, with the market worth an impressive £740m in 2018 and adspend on meat-free foods doubling between 2012 and 2016. However, Vernelli claims that brands "save up their big launches" for Veganuary in order to appeal to a larger plant-based audience.

"We're trying to encourage brands to release products more regularly throughout the year, simply to avoid being lost in the noise [of Veganuary]," she explains. "There are some great products coming out this month that aren’t going to get the attention they should, because everyone wants to talk about the Rebel Whopper."

Burger King raised eyebrows with the roll-out of its almost-vegan Rebel Whopper – which, in spite of a plant-based patty, contains egg-based mayonnaise unless requested otherwise by customers (and is also cooked on the same grill as meat products). Yet Veganuary has been quick to applaud the fast-food giant for its efforts in reducing meat consumption among the masses.

She continues: "Our vision is a vegan world, but as far as we're concerned any step along that path is a good thing. No animals are harmed in the making of that burger and the fact that it's been cooked on the same grid as the meat doesn't actually impact the number of animals being spared from suffering.

"The non-vegan mayo was more of an issue, really, as far as we're concerned – that is actually contributing to animal suffering."

Ben Hayman, managing partner at brand-purpose consultancy Given London, also hails the Rebel Whopper as "a critical concept for people to get their heads around".

He says: "The Rebel Whopper is a gateway product – a way of demonstrating that even the biggest fast-food giants have something to offer consumers when it comes to making positive dietary choices, without making a compromise."

Elsewhere in the fast-food sector, Subway is promoting its Meatless Meatball Marinara Sub with "The taste test balls up", created by Above & Beyond – an ad that follows meat-free foodies as they were deliberately misinformed that they were eating meat.

Although Subway’s marketing director Al Gounder deems the campaign a "slightly anarchic" bid to "disrupt all the ‘me too’ conversation in Veganuary", the spot was named Campaign’s Tofurkey of the Week for trivialising the conversation around ethical consumerism.

And fast-food chains aren’t the only ones to leave a foul taste in the mouths of vegans. Another questionable campaign by food brand Gosh! features millennials "coming out" as flexitarian (people who are flexible in their diet) to their families – mimicking the often traumatic experience of people disclosing their sexual preference to their parents. As Gosh! brand manager Jenny Robertson states: "No-one should be ridiculed or veggie-shamed for their dietary choices."

In keeping with Veganuary’s hopes for "a world where veganism is a mainstream lifestyle choice" (as stated in its mission statement), Vicky Bullen, chief executive of Coley Porter Bell, a design agency that works on plant-based ranges for Tesco and Marks & Spencer, is urging brands to stop treating veganism as a "fad".

"Over the last few years, an explosion of retail and FMCG brands launching their own plant-based ranges have hit the supermarket shelves, but be sure on a few things: people aren’t suddenly all turning vegan," she says. "Veganism is not a fad, nor is Veganuary about ‘being vegan’ for January."

Bullen maintains that consumers are being inspired to modify their consumption habits by the health and environmental benefits that plant-based diets offer, as well as "the positivity that eating a plant-based diet elicits in a person, even if only from time to time".

With this in mind, Frankie & Benny’s and Lucky Generals enlisted rock legend Meat Loaf for a campaign promoting the chain's vegan menu. Unfortutnately, somewhat in contrast to the ethical message, the Bat out of Hell singer has since told MailOnline that activist Greta Thunberg has been "brainwashed into thinking that there is climate change and there isn’t".

Vernelli believes the environmental impact of animal farming and the wider climate crisis are the main issues driving Vegnuary’s popularity this year, while a report for the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that a plant-based diet can lessen the impact of climate change in the long run.

She also speaks highly of 17-year-old Thunberg’s efforts, which were instrumental in prompting last year’s Global Climate Strike.

"Even though Greta is a vegan, she doesn't really talk about it that much. It’s not that she isn't a vegan advocate per se, but she encourages people to take action and do what they can – and I think that is an important message.

"For too long, the vegan movement has been about purity and perfection and living by very strict rules, and that makes it daunting for people to try, and also really off-putting when people slip up."

In spite of some ungenerous stereotypes surrounding "preachy" vegans – encapsulated in the video below – it’s this more relaxed approach to a plant-based diet that sits at the heart of Veganuary as a social movement. 

Of last year’s participants, a study by Kantar found that consumers who gave up animal products for the first time continued on a reduced-meat diet until at least July, saving at least 4.5 million kg of meat or about 3.6 million animals).

With Veganuary’s popularity growing year after year, Bullen pinpoints the organisation’s challenge in building "an inclusive movement that brings together the outright vegan to the curious flexitarian".

"The challenge is how to build a brand that doesn’t alienate one or the other," Bullen says. "Let’s remember the success of this kind of initiative is when the masses take small steps, which are so much more impactful than only a few taking giant leaps.

"One thing’s for sure: the category has arrived and it’s here to stay all year round. Veganuary could probably do with a rebrand itself too – now is the time for our industry to mature it."