Plant Power: exploring brand protection as the vegan food market soars

Plant Power: exploring brand protection as the vegan food market soars

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How are your new year’s resolutions going? If you pledged to go vegan in January you are definitely not alone. Official Veganuary estimates suggest up to 2.7 million people in the UK aimed to cut animal-based food from their diet for at least 31 days during January 2022 with more than 600,000 officially signing the pledge.

There’s definitely a sense that the annual vegan venture has become more mainstream this year, with many major food brands launching meat-and-dairy free ranges. Hats off to Mondelez for its Philadelphia brand vegan cream cheese and Burger King, continuing its commitment to reducing meat on its menu with a pledge to make half of it meat-free by 2030  – albeit with a few bumps in the road. Ultimately it is easier than ever to adapt our diets to the challenge.

We’re also seeing a more relaxed approach compared with the somewhat evangelical tone often associated with veganism. Birdseye has coined the marketing slogan “do what you can-uary” to promote its Green cuisine range and appeal to shoppers who are interested in reducing meat consumption, without wishing to be labelled on the basis of their diet.

Awareness of the connection between meat consumption and climate change has also risen and is prompting consumers to consider modifying their shopping habits. Encouraging shoppers to substitute some meal elements is also easier than demanding an entire diet change and ultimately is more likely to result in long term behaviour change.

The evolution of vegan trademarks

Veganism popularity varies around the world.

Flying the flag in the UK is the Vegan Society, founded in 1944 by Donald Watson, a member of the Leicester Vegetarian Society who coined the term vegan to describe a vegetarian diet containing no animal-derived ingredients. In 1990 the society established the Vegan Trademark, a certification mark to help consumers recognise genuine vegan products. It is now found on more than 58,000 products worldwide with everything from cosmetics to violins qualifying to bear the mark.

Across the pond, the American Vegan Society was founded in 1960 and, has been the U.S registered agent of the Vegan Trademark since June 2021.

Veganism is less popular in France, with the word ‘vegan’ only recognised in official dictionaries in 2013, although the Fédération Vgane hopes to increase adoption of plant-based diets. In contrast, in Germany a thriving vegan scene aims to educate Europe on its benefits. 

Ultimately, while momentum varies, veganism is on the rise. The global vegan food market is predicted to grow from $16 billion in 2021 to $22 billion in 2025. As you would expect, a sector that’s growing so fast is seeing a lot of brand protection activity both from challenger brands and established vegan champions, and from big consumer brands diversifying into the vegan space.

A quick analysis of trade mark applications featuring the word ‘vegan’ in the goods specification, courtesy of our partners Trademarknow (now Corsearch), shows their volume rose 11% from 2020 to 2021, to a total of 6632 registrations worldwide.

Burger beef: major players and associated brand disputes

BEYOND MEAT® is a giant of the vegan market, founded in 2009 and going public in 2019 with the best-performing IPO of a US company in two decades. The pandemic suppressed expected sales growth for 2021 but a tie-up with McDonalds to formulate the McPlant burger – including a brand mention in McDonalds’ ad campaign – and significant investment in R&D points to a bright future.

The company is very active in registering its intellectual property, with more than 100 applications filed since 2012. It already has trade mark registrations for BEYOND MEAT®, BEYOND BURGERS®, BEYOND MINCE® and BEYOND SAUSAGE® and its ambitions in the wider food market are evident in applications to register BEYOND CHICKEN, BEYOND CRAB, BEYOND PORK and recently BEYOND MILK.

Having registered these marks, BEYOND MEAT is building a brand around “BEYOND” that it is keen to defend. It has successfully opposed applications for Beyond Tacos, Beyond Cheese and Beyond Butter, as well as an attempt by a German confectionery firm to register ‘Beyond Milk’ prior to its own filing.

Another vegan brand determined to defend its brand territory is Impossible Foods, which launched its Impossible Burger® in 2016 and has its own fast-food tie-up with Burger King’s Impossible Whopper. Impossible was embroiled in a trade mark dispute with NESTLÉ in 2020 against the latter’s Incredible Burger. The EU IPO ruled that the use of ‘Incredible Burger’ in Europe infringed on the Impossible Burger mark and was likely to cause confusion and required NESTLÉ to withdraw the product within four weeks or face a €25,000 per day penalty.

However, Impossible Foods has also faced criticism for its apparently heavy-handed tactics in attempting to cancel the registered marks of personal development, fitness and coaching firm IMPOSSIBLE®. The ‘David v. Goliath’ case is still pending.  

Another David and Goliath-style encounter saw Minnesota siblings Aubry and Kale Welch taking on NESTLÉ after the two proprietors of The Herbivorous Butcher were denied registration for “The Vegan Butcher” on the grounds that it was purely descriptive by the USPTO in 2017, only to find that NESTLE was permitted to register the mark shortly afterward. The duo successfully opposed NESTLÉ‘s registration, but declined to register the mark themselves, claiming it should not be owned by a single entity.

Bad faith trade mark squatters seize on vegan surge

When terms and markets surge, trademark squatters are rarely far behind. McDonalds was recently drawn into defence of its “Mc” prefix when an application was made for “McVegan”. An entity named Children’s Cancer Aid Limited applied to register the mark in a range of classes including vegan sausages and burgers. The court found in favour of McDonalds on bad faith grounds noting that the applicant had previously approached McDonalds with the aim of forming a partnership for vegan food sales and on refusal threatened to compete with McDonalds. For more on this read Foot Anstey’s analysis.

Snoop Dogg vegan hot dogs?

Celebrity and influencer endorsement is a big feature of vegan marketing, but one famous figure who might be aiming to take his support further is Snoop Dogg who recently applied to register his name as a source identifier for hot dogs. Snoop is already a supporter of BEYOND MEAT and the rumour is that he is considering producing a vegan hot dog – watch this space! An animal alternatives continue to grow in popularity and quality, we will undoubtedly see a lot more action in this space as new brands aim to build relationships with consumers and convince them to do their bit for the planet and its beasts by reducing meat intake.