“Two years ago, when we started the Better Buying Lab, we all had a hunch that calling food vegetarian or vegan or meat-free just didn’t sound as good as ‘brisket’,” said Daniel Vennard, director of the Better Buying Lab at WRI. “Who wants to be told what they’re not going to have?” he continued. Vennard recently sat down with WRI Vice President for Communications Lawrence MacDonald to talk about his research into menu language. They discuss the link between his work and social marketing, how your brain models taste while you're ordering, and why "vegetarian" and "vegan" might not be the language that shifts the majority of the population to more sustainable diets.

The recent commentary "It's All In a Name: How to Boost the Sales of Plant-Based Menu Items," co-written by Vennard and Jonathan Wise, senior research associate with the Better Buying Lab, provides recommendations on how to title sustainable options on restaurant and catering menus. This research provides the basis for Vennard’s conversation with MacDonald, and offers dos and don’ts for crafting appealing menu language.

“In the corporate sector everyone is great at selling products,” Vennard said. “My ambition is to empower civil society with skills and knowledge about the latest marketing techniques and how to use behavioral sciences to buy products that are more sustainable.” Vennard set up the Better Buying Lab in 2016. Consumers around the world say they want to eat food that’s better for themselves and the environment—but they consistently fail to follow through on that intention. The Better Buying Lab, in collaboration with food service providers, restaurants, grocers and other companies, researches how to enable consumers to buy more sustainable foods—an imperative, given the climate crunch and the emissions associated with consumption of meat, particularly beef, lamb and goat.

He goes on to detail an experiment with Sainsbury’s, the United Kingdom’s second-largest grocery chain, which took a series of dishes and changed their names in a number of stores. One of those dishes was meat-free sausage and mash. They changed it to Cumberland-spiced sausage and mash or field-grown sausage and mash. Sales rose 76 and 51%.

“We’re really understanding what influences people’s behavior and taking a scientific approach to learning what interventions work,” Vennard explained.

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