Even as it was unfolding in the first cold days of Veganuary 2019, the launch of the Greggs vegan sausage roll felt like something marketing experts and cultural commentators would be pulling apart for years to come. Who knows: future historians may yet see it as a key turning point in the lead-up to the second English civil war (2020-27).
What is certain is that it was good for Greggs: its profits leapt more than 50%, to £40.6m, in the first six months of 2019. Even as Piers Morgan was raging about “PC-ravaged clowns” on social media, queues were forming at Greggs branches up and down the land and the Quorn factory in Darlington, where the filling is made, was going into overdrive. It was hard to keep up with demand for the piping-hot, fermented-fusarium-venenatum-strain-PTA-2684-based snack.
“We set out to get as much publicity as we could – don’t get me wrong,” says Roger Whiteside, Greggs’ CEO. “But we soon found ourselves holding a tiger by the tail.” It was a beast that Whiteside had been cultivating carefully for some time, as part of what has been a highly successful six-year strategy to transform the 80-year-old Newcastle-upon-Tyne-based bakery into a 21st-century “on-the-go” brand. Its shares have doubled in value over the past year.
Part of that strategy involved selling more coffee (Greggs is now Britain’s third-biggest coffee retailer, ahead of Starbucks), part of it involved selling sandwiches (it is now the second-biggest player in the ready-made sandwich market) and part of it involved expanding its range to cater to modern tastes and choices: low-calorie porridges, gluten-free brownies and a sausage roll that would appeal not only to vegans but also to “flexitarians” trying to reduce their meat consumption. “It took us a long time to do that,” says Whiteside. “Almost two years of recipe testing.”
The snack was launched with all the fanfare of an Apple product. “It was sort of a parody of all those iPhone launches,” Whiteside recalls. “We thought it might only last a few weeks. But it was selling out within minutes of arriving in the shops. And what was interesting about it was it had a sort of double effect. People arrived looking for that product. But once they were in Greggs they saw what else we did.”
The vegan sausage roll is now one of Greggs’ five bestsellers, but sales of all of its ranges have increased to the point that Whiteside was able to distribute a £35m special dividend to shareholders in July. The company is looking into vegan versions of its other bestsellers.
One way of looking at this is that veganism is great for business. Another is that vegan sausage rolls are a great marketing tool for pork sausage rolls.
Greggs is emblematic of the “vegan halo” effect, by which companies that have embraced veganism have reaped the rewards. In May, the “fast-casual” chain Leon reported that its sales for 2018 were up 24.5% to £95m. A lot of that is down to offerings such as jack wings, in which jackfruit replaces fried chicken, and the beetroot-based love burger. In January 2018, 46% of Leon’s sales were vegetarian, while 34% were vegan. By January 2019, those totals were up to 64% and 55%. The Love burger is the chain’s third-most popular item, prominently displayed on menus and posters.
Papa John’s, the pizza chain, has also seen a boost from its vegan “sheese” range, which launched in January. “When we launched the hotdog pizza in meat and vegan versions [in May], for the first three weeks the vegan version outsold the meat version,” says Giles Codd, the company’s UK marketing director, who notes the publicity benefits. “Our vegan customers like to share on social how happy they are that we are catering for them.”
The phenomenon is not confined to food. Dr Martens boots have strolled in and out of fashion many times in the past few decades, but the brand is proving a hit with eco-conscious teenagers – and celebrities such as Kristen Stewart, Jessica Alba and Gigi Hadid. The fact that you can buy vegan sparkling-pink 1460s and cherry-red chelsea boots made from polyurethane plastic seems to speak to the company’s core mission, which its CEO, Kenny Wilson, defines as “empowering rebellious self-expression”.
Dr Martens has been owned by Permira, a private equity company, since 2014. Private equity companies, as a rule, tend to value profits over ethical niceties. But it is increasingly hard to separate the two. Permira has helped Dr Martens almost triple its revenues, from £160m in 2013 to £454m in 2019, and Wilson recently told the Guardian that its vegan range is growing at “multiple hundreds of per cent”. Even if it accounts for only 4% of sales, it certainly helps the company’s image.
Chris Elliot, an analyst for Edge by Ascential – which collates pricing data for supermarket and other retailers – makes a comparison with recent trends for “organic”, “locally sourced” and “artisanal” products. “In the same way that you’d see prominent organic displays in the supermarkets a few years ago, you will now see prominent vegan displays.”
Suddenly, you can’t move for vegan sofas, vegan face cream, vegan things that you didn’t realise weren’t vegan in the first place. Take beer: “There were always lots of beers that were vegan, but never felt the need to tell you. That is, it didn’t seem relevant,” says Elliot. “But now, if a beer is vegan, you will definitely see a vegan label on it.” There is a certain amount of consumer education going on. For example, most people don’t know that it is common practice to strain beer through a substance made from fish entrails. Recently, I noticed a flyer in Bristol advertising “vegan massage” – it made me a little sad to think of all the charcuterie massages I have been missing out on.
Mark Coxhead is the founder of the Protein Works, a fitness-supplement e-commerce company based in Cheshire. Like Moliere’s bourgeois gentilhomme, who is delighted to learn that he has been speaking prose all his life without realising it, he recently cottoned on to the fact that he was perfectly placed to take advantage of the vegan trend. “We’ve been around for six years now and we’ve always had soya protein shakes and pea protein shakes alongside our products that were derived from dairy. But they never sold very much until the whole veganism trend took off – then we really noticed a surge.”
He decided to revamp the range to get ahead of the demand, reformulating recipes so that they tasted as good as the non-vegan equivalents and coming up with new lines. “We’re also making the messaging more prominent,” he says. “We might have called it a soya protein shake before. Now we’ll call it a vegan protein shake.” The vegan range now accounts for one-third of his sales.
Something like the reverse seems to be happening with brands that place meat front and centre – at least according to Cardlytics, which tracks purchase data from 2.5m UK bank accounts. Overall, the fast food sector, which has seen huge growth in recent years, saw a 1% decline in spending last year. The chains that suffered some of the biggest falls were burger and fried-chicken brands: down 7% and 6%, respectively. “On-the-go” food companies such as Leon, Eat and Pret a Manger – which have made visible efforts to foreground vegan options – saw spending rise by 5%.
In some ways, the clamour doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that only about 1% of Britons are vegan, according to the Vegan Society. The owner of one food company complained that, not so long ago, he invested lots of time and money to develop gluten-free versions of his products – then people stopped buying them. He is working on vegan versions, but is mindful that the trend may not stick around for ever.
But most people I speak to seem convinced that this is only the beginning. While veganism was previously associated primarily with animal welfare, now there are other compelling reasons to consider: health, climate, annoying Piers Morgan. For many, it is something to aspire to, as opposed to an all-or-nothing proposition.
“If you understand what’s going on in people’s heads, you can understand what sorts of decisions they’re making a lot better,” says John Clark of Coley Porter Bell, a branding agency that works with companies including Nestlé, Unilever and Tesco. “We learn by association. Brands are networks of associations in our heads. What we’re trying to do is manage those associations.”
He cites the evolution of health-food packaging. “It used to be that healthiness was associated with going without. If you look at old Weight Watchers branding, it was often pale and minimalist. Now, health is much more associated with balanced diet. It’s wholesome, vibrant, fun. A lot of the vegan brands pull on that. They’re very colourful now.” He designed the packaging for Marks & Spencer’s Plant Kitchen range and went for a turquoise palate “to instil a feeling of discernment and modernity. We took a lot of inspiration from food trucks and street food for the typography and the graphics. People then begin to associate ‘veganism’ and ‘health’ with that world.”
The cost of vegan food still raises eyebrows, given that peas, rice and lentils are normally cheaper than beef, prawns and chicken. “There’s no denying that the vegan crowd is younger and more affluent,” says Elliot. But he cautions against cynicism. Vegan products usually involve much more processing than meat products – and there are also economies of scale to consider. “Imagine how many Tesco beef burgers are manufactured every day. The cost-per-unit ends up tiny. The cost-per-unit of vegan burgers is much higher.”
Back at Greggs, Whiteside is careful not to make too many claims about the company’s world-saving credentials. He concedes that vegans may not be delighted at the thought of regular sausages piggy-backing on their Quorn-based pastrymates. “If you’re a vegan who wants everybody to be vegan, well, yes, you might want to go to establishments that only sell vegan,” he says. “One of the fastest-growing trends in the market is vegan-only retail. But those companies will end up catering only to vegans – and vegans don’t make up most of the market.”
Rosemary Ferguson and Gizzi Erskine had a social media hit earlier this year with a three-month stint selling vegan Filth burgers at a pop-up in east London – but the endorsements of the Beckham family haven’t translated into permanent restaurants. The Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton will be hoping for more luck when he opens his first vegan restaurant later this year.
Whiteside won’t say which vegan products Greggs is working on, but he admits it is “not easy”. “The test for us is that it has to be as good to eat as the non-vegan version.”
The doughnut is not vegan – surely that would be an easy win?
“Not as easy as you’d think,” he says. “Even if you can come up with the recipe, you need to separate out the production to ensure there’s no cross-contamination.”
None of this is cheap or easy. But, as Clark points out, the companies that try to make a quick buck from veganism will soon get found out. “You will quickly get a backlash if people think you’re ‘greenwashing’. Token efforts tend to get a lot of flak on social media. And if it just doesn’t taste very good, it won’t work, either.”
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