The nuanced challenge of “The Regular Kind”

In a breakthrough study by Alex Berke at MIT, she and her team showed that labeling a menu item as vegan significantly decreased how many people would order it. In similar conditions, it turns out that more people choose exactly the same item if it doesn’t carry that label.

One conclusion people might take away from this study is that the brand name “vegan” carries a lot of baggage. We see that people generally like food without meat, but when it’s labeled as a particular sub-category, they avoid it.

Consider that in other studies, researchers have shown that when food without meat is listed as the default option, far more people will choose it. Simply shifting the choice from “on request” to the convenient, regular kind, dramatically increases selection.

But the real insight is that if a marketer wants to reach the masses, the regular kind becomes worth understanding.

When Italian food was considered novel and was stocked in the ethnic aisle, marketers had to run commercials simply to persuade people that it was okay to serve spaghetti for dinner on Wednesdays. It didn’t really matter which kind, simply that it was normal.

An alternative is to seek the smallest viable audience instead, to create connected communities that change the status quo. The tiny symbols on many packaged goods that indicate kosher status are ignored by most people, but often closely inspected by enough small groups that use it as a certification of what they’re buying. When you can encourage a small group to look for something that the larger group doesn’t even see, it can shift how large producers (corporations, politicians, employers) treat the entire population.

While organizing a few is helpful to those seeking to create change, it also creates a risk for a brand that is comfortable with its position as a market dominator. They’re no longer leaders, because leaders make change happen and embrace opportunity. Instead, a brand that sees itself as the regular kind is relentless in seeking to serve everyone and offend no one. Which, inevitably, they will fail to do.

And so the creative destruction occurs that leads to a shift. A shift in what’s only available on request, on what’s stocked on eye level, and on what’s safe to serve at the big gathering.