The growth in alternative product offerings has been spurred by a shift in the consumer mindset. Consumers desire alternatives to traditional products because of ethical and/or health reasons. To cater to this demand, there is now an increase in innovative products which use familiar descriptors such as ‘vegan leather’ and ‘nut milk’. Although these descriptors somewhat contradict themselves, they serve to differentiate the products as ‘not vegan’ or ‘dairy free’.
Stakeholders in traditional industries are taking offence to the terms used to label these alternative product offerings, perhaps because these product offerings are reducing their market share.
Businesses have an incentive to use alternative terms to describe their products. Firstly, consumers want to wear and consume products that identify with their values, as well as allow them to move in the same social circles as their peers. Secondly, it is undesirable for a business to market an alternative product in a non-appealing but descriptive way, for example labelling a vegan alternative to chicken as ‘soy-based dairy-free protein balls’. If a business instead labels the product as ‘meat-free chicken chunks’, there is better consumer recognition. The consumer identifies the product as being similar to chicken, but with a guilt-free label.
France has taken the lead by prohibiting vegetarian products from being marketed as traditional animal products. This is on the basis that such product labellings are ‘misleading’ in practice. So for now, ‘soy sausages’ and ‘vegetable steaks’ are off the menu. Elsewhere in Europe, similar sentiments are being shared by the European meat industry, including the
British Meat Processors Association.
Closer to home, in 2017 The Poultry Industry Association (PIANZ) laid a complaint to the Commerce Commission over product packaging by Sunfed Meats. Although Sunfed’s product is made from pea protein, PIANZ took issue with the picture of the chicken on the packaging and the reference to ‘wild meaty chunks’, saying it was misleading conduct under the Fair Trading Act. Interestingly, Sunfed’s product packaging also refers to ‘Chicken-free chicken’ made from‘ clean lean plant protein’. As the outcome of the Commerce Commission complaint is still under consideration, PIANZ have not yet won.
Trouble is also brewing in the dairy industry, with Australian lobby group Dairy Connect calling for a labelling crackdown for plant-based milk products. Although Food Standards Australia and New Zealand define milk as a product from the mammary secretions of animals, Webster’s says that milk can be produced from seeds or fruit. It’s therefore debatable whether these alternative milk products are doing any harm, although some producers have opted to use descriptors such as ‘mylk’ and ‘milky’ to further disassociate themselves from ‘milk’. Whether or not consumers appreciate these terms as indicators that the product is not a form of ‘milk’ is debatable.
The alternate naming conflict extends to more than just food, presently invigorating debate within the leather goods industry. The French are again concerned about terms such as ‘vegan leather’ and ‘faux leather’. As the world’s third-largest exporter of leather, the French say that the use of alternate terms is diluting the quality attributes of leather, for example its rot and water-proof nature. This is understandable - some say that vegan leather is a term used too freely, particular when the substitute material is made out of plastic. The term ‘vegan leather’ could well suggest that a particular material has all the benefits of leather, when in fact it does not.
A rational way to consider whether these products are confusing to customers is to picture the alternatives placed next to the real thing instore. If customers are in a hurry, are they likely to pick up the box with a picture of a chicken labelled ‘Chicken-free chicken’ thinking that it is in fact chicken? It depends on the elements of the packaging, and where the emphasis lies. On the other hand, the purchase of a handbag is a more considered experience, where consumers are likely to check product labels and question the nature of the material.
If brand owners want to avoid controversy altogether, one solution is to come up with a new and distinctive trade mark which over time, people will associate with an alternative product offering. For example, Marlow Foods produces meat-free ‘beef steaks’ and other meat alternatives under the trade mark Quorn. Arguably, Quorn has a large enough following that it can use the Quorn trade mark without referring to additional descriptors. This is because consumers immediately associate the Quorn brand with meat-free alternatives.
In the vegan leather world, a common trade name is Piñatex, owned by Ananas Anam. Piñatex is a natural textile made from pineapple leaf fibre, and is known amongst the fashion community as a ‘pineapple leather’. Ananas Anam have built up enough recognition in the brand that any reference to leather is not needed.
For the time being, we eagerly await the outcome of the PIANZ’s commerce commission complaint. This may dictate if New Zealand will take the way of the French, which could have perplexing consequences. Will ‘lab-grown diamonds’ be a banned term? And what are the implications for ‘nice cream’, essentially ‘vegan cream’ made without dairy or cream? Watch this space.