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2019: The year of the vegan

Veganism has gone mainstream. A survey in mid-2018 revealed that the number of vegans in the UK stands at over 3.5 million - up from 540,000 in 2016. Mintel research showed the meat-free foods market to be worth £572m in 2017 - up from £539m in 2015. The number of posts tagged with #vegan on Instagram is over 70 million. And Google stats show that veganism - in search terms, at least, is now more popular than vegetarianism.

But what does the rise of veganism mean for brands playing in an increasingly crowded market - and how can they use soft power to differentiate from the competition?

What brand managers need to know

Gone are the days when veganism was the domain of yoga-practising hippies that made Goa their spiritual home (even if their real home was in Dudley). Sustainability is on the rise (according to Unilever, a third of consumers choose brands based on their impact on society and the environment). Veganism is better for the environment, and it tackles consumers’ concerns around animal welfare and overall health. With celebrities like Brad Pitt, Will.I.Am, Miley Cyrus, Liam Hemsworth and plenty of others embracing veganism in their own lives, all manner of audiences have relevant role models to learn from.

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As a result, schools are going meat-free, Tesco now has a Director of Plant-Based Innovation, Wagamama has its own vegan menu, and big brands like Ben & Jerry’s are creating new ranges for vegan consumers to enjoy.

The size of the opportunity is vast, with Mintel predicting that there will be an increase in sales of vegan products from £470m in 2015 to £673m in 2020 - a 48% rise. And with 56% of adults stating that they adopt vegan behaviour when carrying out their supermarket shop, there’s a massive “flexitarian” market for brands to tap into, too.

Soft (plant) power

Clearly the major benefit of all vegan products is that they’re entirely how do individual brands ensure that they stand out from the crowd?

There are several brands using soft power to command impressive shares of the market - as well as awards - with their visual identity, tone of voice, imagery, impact and relevance communicating the brand to the massive. The radical, hippie image of veganism is no more: veganism is now cool, something to aspire to. And it’s partly thanks to the approaches to branding by key players in the market that this has happened.

Oatly oat milk, for example, sells the concept of plant-based living, rather than simply the product. Authentic, friendly, honest and clearly committed to the bigger picture, their £700k “It’s like milk, but made for humans” campaign, has helped the brand “blow way past their expected sales targets” Oatly's General Manager told Plant Based News.

Swedish brand Oumph! has made a great splash in the UK too, with its range now stocked in 620 Holland & Barrett stores and its pizzas in 179 Tesco stores. Winner of PETA’s Best Vegan Meat award in 2018, the bean-based meat alternative brand’s bold typefaces, use of exclamation marks and imagery of friends all tucking into Oumph!-based meals marks it out as a fun and sociable brand.


Truffle and ice cream brand Booja-Booja, on the other hand, is focuses on pure luxury. Their choice of language oozes decadence, promising “delicious moments of pleasure crafted to delight all the senses”. Over the years, their branding has changed to appeal more to the mass market but retains its premium feel: a classy, gold-embossed logo and a simplicity of design that puts them right up there with leading mainstream chocolate brands. And it’s paying off, with their net assets rising steadily in recent years.

“Condiments with a conscience” brand Rubies in the Rubble is on a mission to reduce food waste by turning fruit and veg that would otherwise have been thrown away into chutneys, ketchups and other condiments - and they’re all vegan, too. Their clever packaging designs highlight a commitment to the cause by including details of how many of the fruit/vegetable were saved to create each jar, as well as featuring label backgrounds designed with images of wonky fruit and veg.

From striking visuals to a singular tone of voice, the rise of veganism is rising in parallel with a maturity of brands’ soft power. The one common thread, however, is the distinctive voice. While veganism is undoubtedly growing exponentially, it has a long way to go before it’s truly mainstream. Brands are currently youthful, spunky and disruptive. It remains to be seen whether a truly vegan brand can unseat the big boys at the head of the vegan table. For big brands, however, it’s more of a case of joining not beating the competition.

Jumping on the bandwagon

With so many purely vegan brands achieving success, it’s understandable that the big brands want a slice of the action too. For some, it’s done by buying out smaller businesses: the Linda McCartney brand, for example, is owned by US giant Hain Celestial, while Alpro is owned by Danone.

But is this the right approach? An article posted by Ethical Consumer in January 2018 “named and shamed” a list of vegan brands that are owned by companies that also manufacture non-vegan products, suggesting that “the UK's vegans are unwittingly supporting companies that are deeply involved in the meat and dairy industries”, and that big FMCG brands are just “trying to cash in on the global vegan boom”.

While that’s undoubtedly true, there are also consumers out there who are embracing a full or partial vegan diet, but still want to enjoy plant-based versions of products that they love: it’s why restaurants like Vx - which sells vegan junk food including cheesy chips, steak frites, ‘fish’ wraps and dirty burgers - do so well.

The other approach, increasingly adopted by “mainstream” FMCG brands, is to create vegan versions of their existing popular products. It’s what Baileys did with their almond milk version, Baileys Almande (which wasn’t originally vegan), drawing on their existing brand assets to market their plant-based version to a new audience. The white of the bottle ensures that it stands out on the shelf and communicates the lightness of almond milk, while the watercolour illustration winding its way round the bottle reflects spontaneity and playfulness - with a touch of luxury added by the gold details.

Ben & Jerry’s - who we mentioned earlier - launched their vegan range into UK supermarkets in September 2017, and the public was impressed. It’s always been a brand with a massive personality and a strong commitment to social and environmental causes, and that continues with their dairy-free range. Each of the vegan tubs features a matching background which separates them from the dairy range, with the vegan logo prominently on the front of the tub and “I’m vegan” emblazoned across the side of the lid to make the focus clear. Basically, it’s the same Ben & Jerry’s that is known and loved, with simple design tweaks to make its USP clear.

Veganism is far more than just a fad: it’s a growing trend that serves not only those who follow a 100% plant-based diet, but those who are looking to a more flexitarian approach. The key for brands looking to capitalise on this burgeoning section of society is to stand out in an ever-more crowded marketplace, and a soft power approach is the way to do it.

Whether an entirely vegan brand or a mainstream player looking to challenge for market share, how can you use imagery, tone of voice, visual identity, impact and relevance to really make your mark?

To see how a soft power approach can transform a brand, take a look at some of our recent work.


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