Making a Market for Alternatives

How can alternative food products be mainstreamed? Can mainstreamed alternative products retain their subversive quality or does commercialization always lead to de-politicization? In this paper we address these questions by examining the marketing of Oatly products – a popular Swedish brand that makes oat-based vegan dairy substitutes.

Plant-based consumption and vegan substitutes

The background to this study is the increased popularity in plant-based diets and the markets that are emerging in connection to this.

As plant-based foods are becoming increasingly popular companies have jumped on the bandwagon and eagerly work to produce and market vegan alternatives. Vegan alternatives such as Quorn and soy based products and oat-, rice-, almond-based milks are now commonplace in supermarkets.

These plant-based food substitutes seem however to occupy a particular position in contemporary food markets. They are marketed as more nutritious, more environmentally friendly, and more ethical than conventional food. We noted that meat and dairy substitutes, are often framed as part of a wider alternative food movement, drawing on some of the same counter discourses that challenge the dominant commercial/industrial ideology of conventional food provisioning.

However, it is also apparent that there are some important differences regarding how radical various “alternative foods” are. Initiatives such as CSA or the Slow Food movement promote both different ways of producing and consuming food. In comparison, the marketing of many meat and dairy substitutes is less drastic. Rather than promoting entirely new modes of producing and consuming food, meat and dairy substitutes are often intended to become part of already established shopping, cooking and eating practices.

This, we argue, is interesting and we wanted to take a closer look at this in-between position that Vegan substitutes holds. It seemed that these products were marketed as both different from conventional meat and dairy products (as ethical, sustainable and healthy alternatives) and as similar to these same products (used in similar manner, having similar taste, shape, and nutritional value).

So, we wondered, how are vegan food substituted marketed and positioned in practice? How do companies successfully balance between being different enough to be considered a valuable alternative but similar enough to appeal to conventional consumers? And is it possible for commercialized products to retain ‘alternative’ qualities?

A study of food alternatives and market making

In our paper “Making a Market for Alternatives: Marketing Devices and the Qualification of a Milk Substitute” we describe, conceptualize, and critically discuss how and with what consequences marketing is used to construct a mass market for vegan substitutes.

We addressed these issues through an analysis of the qualification of vegan products. We were particularly interested in how the ‘alternative’ quality is used to commercialize vegan products and we propose that a fruitful way to understand how and with what consequences alternative food products are “mainstreamed” is by closely examining how these products acquire their qualities in marketing and how they are then re-qualified by consumers.

Oatly – a Swedish company that produces oat-based dairy substitutes – served as an example. The analysis examined three sets of marketing devices – online media, packaging, and stores – and the qualification work that these perform.

What does the study show?

We found that Oatly products are qualified as ‘alternative’ to conventional dairy products in many ways to invite diverse uses and to capture a multitude of consumers with various interests and needs. Oatly products are not only qualified as vegan but also sustainable, healthy, small-scale, and Swedish. What is more, we also found that the products are qualified as similar enough to conventional products to be used in existing food shopping, cooking, and eating practices. Hence, they are qualified as alternative and convenient.

The analysis shows how Oatly, in an effort to construct a mass market for its products, simultaneously “alternativizes” and “convenienizes” their range of vegan products. In the process marketing devices construct compound products capable of capturing multiple groups of consumers with varying interest. The study suggests that the ability to qualify products along multiple registers is central to creating a mass market for these products. Allowing products a certain degree of plasticity enables them to attract various groups of consumers enacting what can be called a multi-niche market.

Besides offering insight into how alternative (food) products can be marketed to a mass audience the study nuances our understanding of the political effects of markets. This study show that the marketization of alternatives does not necessarily leads to the apolitical co-option of the alternative. Although making a market for alternatives means commercializing and appropriating ‘alternativeness’ this market can nonetheless act as producer of alternative values. If and how alternative products work as proliferators of alternatives depends however on how they are re-qualified by consumers. So, while alternative qualities are used to add value to and construct a market around products these markets can also, under certain conditions, serve to reproduce and proliferate alternative values and have political effects.

Read the original research article: Fuentes, C. & Fuentes, M. (2017). Making a market for alternatives: marketing devices and the qualification of a vegan milk substitute. Journal of Marketing Management.

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Christian Fuentes

Christian Fuentes

Christian Fuentes is a researcher at the Centre for Consumer Science, University of Gothenburg and an Associate Professor at the Department of Service Management and Service Studies, at Lund University. He is interested in consumer culture and market making. He undertakes research in the fields of Green Marketing, Ethical Consumption, Alternative Markets, and Digitalization and retail.

Maria Fuentes

Maria Fuentes

Maria Fuentes is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Consumer Science, University of Gothenburg. Her research mainly address consumer practices and market making related to food, parenting and retail.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.