The evolution of abstinence: from self-flagellation to positive affirmation

Jan 23, 2020

GDR Innovation researcher Charlie Lloyd explores why consumers and marketers no longer view Dry January and Veganuary as negative acts of self-flagellation but as an affirmation of positive lifestyle change.

We are nearing the end of what is now a month of abstinence for many consumers in the form of Dry January (alcohol) and Veganuary (meat and dairy). The timing makes perfect sense: it’s the month of New Year’s resolutions and it immediately follows the festive season when we consume very much of what we’re trying to cut down on. But while consumers and marketers may have traditionally viewed this as a one-off month of self-flagellation to repent for the sins of the previous month’s over-consumption, that perception is now changing. Dry January and Veganuary are gaining popularity as part of a genuine interest on the part of consumers in cutting down the amount of alcohol and meat they consume on a long-term basis. And in this context what was once a month of hardship is now viewed with much more positive associations.


New drivers of abstinence

Products that were once small in number and catering to a very specific and niche market are now proliferating and being targeted to the masses. This, coupled with technological advances in the production of realistic alternatives, has led to dramatic shifts in the ways that these products are being marketed. Veganism has only very recently been taken seriously by the mainstream consumer but has become so in a very short space of time, a result of which has been a rapid change in the visual language and marketing of vegan products.

Vegan branding has traditionally been along the lines of Cauldron, whose earthy greens and browns and calligraphic font speak to a different way of life, of being at one with nature, designed to resonate with a group of consumers for whom veganism is intrinsically bound to their identity and view of the world.

Over the past few years however, veganism has seen a surge of interest from consumers who grew up eating and drinking animal products and are considering giving them up for various reasons. Many are concerned about animal welfare, as has always been the principal driver in vegan conversion, but many others perceive veganism as critical to combatting climate change, and some simply view a plant-based diet as better for their personal health.


Co-opting the language of meat and indulgence

With so many new vegan or vegan-curious consumers that love their meat and adore their cheese, supply has been changing in line with demand. Very quickly, traditional vegan branding has been completely flipped on its head, co-opting the language and imagery of meat and indulgence. Grocers such as Sainsbury’s and Whole Foods have opened ‘butchers’ where customers can get their vegetables pre-prepared. The logo of Tesco’s Wicked Kitchen brand is a sharp knife to assure consumers that there is nothing soft about eating vegetables, and the ‘W’ of its name is wearing devil’s horns: telling you veganism is tough, and it’s naughty. Similarly, when Oatly launched its vegan ice-cream, it presented it to the world as “from Oatly, with love handles”.


Others have adopted the language of technology to distance their products from veganism’s wholesome image. When Greggs launched its wildly popular vegan sausage roll it did so as if it was launching a new smartphone, extolling its new product’s ‘147mm length’, its ‘vegan core’ and its ‘ten mega bites’. In the US, Nuggs makes iterative improvements on its plant-based nuggets and announces them through release notes like those of an app update: its latest version, Nuggs 1.5, “has a revamped, wheat-based coating system”. Consumers are being invited to participate in a new game: how close can we get vegan alternatives to the real thing?


No-alcohol goes mainstream

This trajectory has followed a similar path to that of the booming low- and no-alcohol category. The concept of abstinence might, for some, call to mind things like the temperance movement, piety and austerity, but brands such as Budweiser are challenging those perceptions. The name of its alcohol-free variant Prohibition Brew ostensibly does what it says on the tin, but subliminally it evokes an era largely defined by its rejection of temperance; of hidden speakeasies, moonshine, and the gangsters that ran them.

In London this month, Brewdog opened its first permanent location that serves no alcohol whatsoever. Its name, Brewdog AF, is a double entendre juxtaposing between abstinence and excess, and makes it clear that this is a space for fun.


The future of abstinence

How might these trends develop in the future? Good branding is usually reflective of the consumer’s own attitudes. If eating less meat and drinking less alcohol becomes the norm and doing so becomes second nature, then consumers won’t need as much reassurance that they aren’t having to make any serious sacrifices. It follows that this will be reflected by the brand’s themselves, settling down from their current bravado into a category more at ease with itself.


Recent signals from UK supermarkets suggest that this is already happening. Tesco has released a second vegan sub-brand, Plant Chef, that is happy to use the colour green and a low-key font to express itself in stark contrast to the knife wielding devilry of Wicked Kitchen.


Similarly, the Co-op recently launched GRO, whose name and vibrant green branding are loud and proud about the fact that these products are made from plants. It’s range spans from indulgences like sausage rolls and pasties to healthier options such as cous cous salads and falafel wraps. Its range is designed to mimic the content and scope of the mainstream offering and uses a clear visual signal so that customers know which is which – and this might be the model that eventually wins out.

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