How diet & edible activism have become personal brand signifiers

by Rachel Cook

Let me start by acknowledging that the title of this post is not only far too long, but also one of the most painfully, ludicrously millennial I’ve written. But I’m afraid that if you’re a brand owner in food and drink retail, leisure, or health and fitness, it’s time to word up.

My report into alternative eating and edible activism, its figureheads and its business opportunities, has shown that alternative eating is sometimes as much about building a personal identity rather than building one’s health. Also clear: that the opportunity for retailers to move in tandem is there for the taking.

Check out the headlines below and be sure to get in touch to receive the full report before it’s released.

The way we eat is changing – fast

Veganism has increased by 350% in the last 10 years in Britain, making it the fastest growing lifestyle movement of the moment.

Let’s not forget to say hello to the flexitarians and reducetarians, either. In fact, a whopping 44% of people would now consider cutting their meat intake, either by reducing it or cutting it out entirely. And what about the Post-Milk (/gluten/wheat/sugar) generation? There’s no keeping them down either – the UK’s free-from market grew by a whopping £230m in 2016/17 – that’s 40% growth YOY.

In short, the stats show that diets previously known as niche or the choice of hippies alone, are no longer just that. With the help of influencers, clever retailing and a whole heap of great PR, alternative eating might have just about become mainstream. But are these choices about health, ethics or something else altogether different?

Diet as a personal identifier

  • There isn’t one single reason that is leading to the rise of alternative eating, but health, ethics and other motivators are all at play. Today, let’s focus on the research showing that joining a tribe and building your personal brand are also considered to be ‘significantly motivating’ to UK millennials when defining a diet choice.

    Ok. I don’t need to tell you that social media means that cliques can form much more quickly than they ever did in the the school playground. Joining one via hashtag or private Facebook group is immediate and the gratification nearly as quick – and using food as an entry point is no different. But what is interesting is that the sense of ‘belonging’ to a group is actual key in happiness. The higher the sense of identifying as belonging to a group (i.e. not just being a member of it), the greater the perceived happiness as an individual.

    Te adoption of food choice as a group identifier is a new and important shift. Diets are becoming recognised social tribes in their own right, their members defined by where they shop for food, what they tag (hey there #veganlife), which influencers they follow, and of course what they put on their plate. Some may see #meatfreemonday posts as trivial or meaningless spam, but research shows that this sense of belonging is increasing gratification and reinforcing personal identity.

    Flexible terminology has made it even easier to belong too; forget being all or nothing with your diet and choose to go flexitarian or reduceitarian instead and still find acceptance.

    Edible activism

    What interests me especially is the rise of using your food to make a statement to the world about your ethical and moral beliefs. It’s nothing new of course – the hippies of the mid-20th century brought a whole heap of attention to vegetarianism and conscious eating, not to mention Linda McCartney who did the cause the world of good back in the 70s, declaring she’d never eat anything with a face. It’s just that even with Linda’s profile, it still wasn’t really sexy.

    And now? Choosing to protest via your plate is suddenly, well… A bit cool. I don’t believe that’s enough to motivate everyone of course – even I’m not that cynical – but there’s no denying that edible activism has had quite a rebrand recently, and for some that has appeal.

  • Eating with purpose might range from searching for ethical choices, eating thoughtfully, reducing your intake of certain food types (usually meat or dairy) for health and ethical reasons, or of course eschewing animal bi-products altogether by going full-force vegan. Some of the more vehement vegans might be developing a reputation for their diatribes and militant behaviour, but their efforts for animal activism are beginning to take a hold. There’s no doubt that this is at least one factor in the decline in meat consumption in the UK.

    Let’s check out the stats: the 2017 Mintel Meat-Free Foods UK Report showed that:

    28% of meat eating Brits have reduced or limited their meat consumption in the last six months. A further 14% adults say they are interested in limiting or reducing their consumption of meat or poultry in the future.

    The reasons? Health was up there as the number one reason (49% of respondents), followed by weight-management, but animal welfare (24%) and the environment (24%) were both considered to be powerful motivators, too.

    Social media is talking – is yours?

    The real beauty of the growth of this market is that it really is down to the pull of the people. Without social media and especially the influencer crowd it’s difficult to imagine how the movement could have gained such traction. Well-tagged sharing of relatable content such as Netflix documentaries like Cowspiracy and What the Health, and PETA vids and influencer content has allowed the word to spread in a fashion that would have been imaginable back in Linda’s day, or even 15 years ago.

    And where the people go, the brands must go too. In my view, with the speed at which the movement is growing, I believe it would be foolish to ignore the surge of alternative diets and the increased desire to eat products that fit with a socio-political view (or at least the desire to be recognised eating them which is in some ways just as important). So, brand owners, can you keep up?

    Make sure your brand positioning and execution are fit for the people

  • Let’s take a tip or two from the audience themselves. The Instageneration knows what we branding types have been trying to hammer home for decades – that a tight positioning is key to building a successful brand. And a positioning that sits well with the alternative eating market may well prove to be a smart move.

    To better explain what I mean, my advice to many brand owners thinking about their own positioning of their brand is to consider narrowing their market focus to increase dominance in a very nice slice of the market, AND improve their brand salience at the same time. To quote Millward-Brown: “Brands that are meaningful, different, and salient derive three times more of their volume from the strength of the brand, as opposed to factors like availability and promotions. Furthermore, they command a price that is 14 percent higher, and their growth in value share is, on average, six percentage points higher than brands that are low on meaning, difference, and salience.”

    What does that mean for you? Well, if you’re a food and drink producer or retailer, it might be time to make sure you’re hot on your offer for the alternative diet market. For a quick start, have a think about the following:

    1. Consider your product line; do you offer suitable alternatives for the most common #alteaters?

    2. Consider your packaging; do you make it easy for shoppers to choose from your available products? Are the benefits and ingredients clear and really singing from the shelf?

    3. Review your brand strategy and messaging. Does it resonate? If not, could diversifying via a sub-brand help? Or is a new offer altogether appropriate?

    4. Get critical of your marketing strategy. Consider targeting this growing marketing, think about influencers and be aware of online crusades.


    Take these brand decisions with care. In my experience, whilst there is often a case for brand individuality (more on that another time), very often a singular brand with well-executed packaging design, considered and customised in-store merchandising, plus a well thought-through social media strategy is often most appropriate.


    I’m a vegetarian for ethical reasons. My family are farmers who do a lovely job with their animals so I should be fully in support of eating meat no doubt, but I find it too hard to know that I’m eating meat that’s well reared – so I choose to go meat-free. While I don’t have #vegetarian on my Instagram profile, I’m a sucker for brands who make it easy for me to choose products that fit my ethical stance but without compromising one bit on quality. Get in touch if that’s you…

    Oh and speaking of my ethics, why not read what I had to say recently on how the multiples can keep up with the eco revolution.

    Article originally posted on LinkedIn 12 June 2018

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