Branding your vegan business: lessons from a design agency

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Jim O’Quinn from vegan design agency Jeoto Design explains how plant-based and eco-friendly products can use branding to stand out in the marketplace.

Jim O’Quinn is the founding partner at Jeoto Design, a vegan design and branding firm that helps businesses stand out in the marketplace and make a positive impact on their customer’s lives.

In our conversation, he shared the lessons learned from more than 25 years of helping vegan, plant-based and eco-friendly businesses shape their brand.

Being somebody who comes from a marketing background myself, there were so many new insights Jim taught me during this interview that have shifted the trajectory of my own business for the better.

What is branding, and why is it important for vegan businesses?

First off, we want to understand what branding is and how it is different from marketing. Imagine a business that makes frisbees for our dogs to run around and play with. It has an internal company mission to help keep dogs active, healthy, and potentially extend the span of their lives.

As part of the company culture and approach, it decides to partner with a dog longevity research foundation. With no additional cost to its customers, each purchase sends a few dollars to one of the most ambitious canine health studies in the world.

The end result? The medical community will have all the research and insights it needs to help us optimise diets, exercise and lifestyle habits for our dogs to allow them to live long and happy lives.

vegan dog foodAs a consumer myself, a brand that’s actively committed to helping our companion friends live longer and stay free from disease is definitely something I want to be a part of. It just makes me feel good and I would choose to do business with this company over another with all other factors remaining equal.

As you can tell from the example above, building a brand is about more than just highlighting the benefits of the product you offer or the crafty logo you design. Branding is about developing the overall look, style and identity of your business from top to bottom.

It starts with the logo, and extends to the website, the packaging, the uniform employees wear, the way you respond to posts on social media, the way your customer service works. All of those are things that have to be accounted for.

Branding also is everything that goes into generating that culture, that following, and is going to have the consumers not only loving your product, but seeking it out and asking for it if it’s not in a store.

Building a brand allows you to be immediately recognisable and keeps customers coming back again and again.

The benefits of great branding

The lifespan of some really great products is short-lived. Most companies started off as one product as a trial to see if customers would buy it. The right branding on this product is what makes the difference and helps them stay there to move onto the second product, the third, and all the products after that.

Gardein is a great example of a company that started out with one or two products. In the early stages of his career, O’Quinn watched the brand at food shows offering samples and demos. At that time, they were getting a little bit of traction.

gardeinIt’s Gardein’s product, its branding, and its messaging that resonates so well with consumers. It’s what got it onto more shelves and well-recognised to the point where it continued evolving its brand and kept creating new products.

That’s the real magic right there: when you get the people looking forward to the next thing, where they are already following the brand, and that’s what branding design agencies are here to do.

It’s also what allows them to generate that awareness and excitement.

Top branding mistakes

The biggest mistake most businesses make is that they are so focused on developing the product they hope everyone will fall in love and buy, they don’t pay enough attention to everything else that goes into building a brand. They miss out on the overall look and feel as well as fine-tuning the image you want people to perceive. They forget about it, they don’t invest in it. They do what they can to get things put together rather quickly, like the logo, packaging, website, and so on.

What tends to happen is that they launch, they start moving forward, things slowly work out, but a lot of times, they hit a plateau. They don’t have that reach or impact needed to break through the clutter. And there is a lot of clutter out there. The competition is fierce in every category.

Read our look at vegan branding with the help of the term “plant-based”.

Questions vegan brands should ask themselves upfront

Whether you decide to work with a branding design firm or plan on going about it yourself, there are six key questions you should ask that will allow you to fine-tune your brand, stand out from the competition, and get the recognition you deserve in the marketplace.

Who are we as a brand?

While this might come across as a loaded question, it’s important to consider how you want to be perceived by your customers. It’s great that you have a product and it’s something consumers will love. If you dive deeper than that, you want to ask yourself: “How do we want people to see us?”

Do we want them to see us as revolutionary, one-of-a-kind, never-done-before, where we are going to change the world? Or you could be seen more along the lines of: “We have a really reliable product we know is great, and you’re going to love it too.”

Try to really understand how you want your customers to see you.

How is this different?

You’re going to want to have a heart-to-heart on this one. There’s your product and there are thousands of other products out there, but yours is ________. What makes your product different? How does this make you stand out from competitors?

You really want to try and analyse this before you move too much further with anything else. These are things you can leverage and run with. It’s really all that much more important to help set you apart from the competition.

plant based brandingMany business owners want to shy away from this and shield themselves from the thought of other people selling a similar product. This is a mistake. Every company has strengths and weaknesses. When you find out what their strengths are and where they’re weak, it will allow you to identify the unique selling point that separates you from the competition.

While the competitors may have bigger advertising budgets, more customers, and have many more years of experience being in the industry, they can’t compete with you on this one thing that makes you unique.

What is that one thing for you?

What do you have to offer people outside of the product itself?

Does your company pride itself on outstanding customer service? Your goal is to do everything in your power to make your customers as happy as possible.

When I received my first order from Ritual Brews, in addition to the energy and focus coffee replacement drinks I ordered, it was to my pleasant surprise that I found a package of their night-time unwind brews completely free and a handwritten note from the founder thanking me for being one of the brand’s first customers.

I once had a bad experience with a different company where I ordered two products and one of them broke during shipping. Not only did they refund me for that one item, but they also sent a replacement along with samples of their other products I didn’t try yet. While they must have lost money on my order, they gained one loyal customer who will rave about them for life.

There’s a lot more to branding a business than just glorifying the key features of the product. There’s a whole lot that goes before, beside, and after it. What else can you offer your customers outside of the product itself?

Why should people believe in, follow and buy from you?

This has a lot to do with the product and the way your product is packaged and developed. You always want to look for innovative ways to make your product better. You can search for new ideas about your packaging, perhaps making it more environmentally friendly and visually appealing.

For every purchase of Toms Shoes, one pair gets donated to a third-world child in need. I know a few other companies that have a program set up where for every purchase, one identical item gets donated to someone in need.gopro

Remember the example of the pet toy company partnered with the dog longevity research organisation? Similarly, GoPro is more than just a camera. Its brand stands for a lifestyle that is exciting and exhilarating. It gives you an experience.

Those are the types of things that get a culture, a following, a community behind your business because of the things you’re doing. It’s not just the product alone. That branding is why people believe in them and buy from them.

Who are you trying to target?

You can’t please everybody. You can’t just expect to touch base with consumers that are young/old, men/women, etc. Your product tends to resonate well with a particular target market. So it’s important for you to really understand that target market inside and out.

This narrow focus allows you to fine-tune your messaging, your branding, and everything that you’re doing to resonate well with that market. They can do nothing but recognise you, see you, and follow you. And be a part of that whole buying process.

What can you do to really understand your competitors?

There’s going to be another company selling products just like you. You want to take the time to really understand what it is doing, how it’s doing it, what its following is like, how successful it is, and how long it has been in the market. All that kind of stuff is important to understand so you know what you’re up against.

You don’t want to only understand what your competition is like now but what they are anticipating to be like in the future. This gives you the insights to understand how you’re going to compete with them.

Taking your brand to market

Those are six of the most important things you should have figured out prior to meeting with a design studio that is ready to work with you. The more you know and the more you bring to the table, the more concise it’s going to be. You’ll get your messaging so clear that you’re going to be quicker, you’re going to get into the market sooner, and it makes everybody’s part in the whole process smoother and easier to go with.

After you do this, you’ll be more confident that when you promote your brand on social media and through traditional advertising, it will be well-received by millions.

The branding of the meat and dairy industries

To show the effectiveness of branding, you just have to look at the meat and dairy industries. They’ve done a phenomenal job throughout the past decades of convincing people that their products are not only good, but essential, for them.

dairy brandingThis is global. This is not just a small niche market that has done a really good job at convincing a small group of people. They’ve touched the lives of absolutely everybody on this planet.

It’s the marketing and branding they’ve done that has unfortunately caused us to be in the situation we are in now. There’s no dispute that environmental issues, pandemics, animal cruelty and non-stop suffering is the result of years of misleading branding and marketing.

Now, it’s the mission of plant-based branding experts to flip that around. They use those skills of branding and graphic design to change people’s perspective about the food they eat. They work with companies that are only doing good to help us get out of this problem, creating products that are plant-based, vegan, eco-intelligent, and sustainable, and using this platform to make the consumers aware of the beauty, benefits, and positive reactions a plant-based diet has.

Branding got us into this problem, and branding can get us out of it. And that’s the goal we are here to achieve.

Andrew Alexander
Andrew Alexander
Since 2011, Andrew has been a marketer helping vegan-friendly businesses launch their brands into the marketplace. In 2017, he started his own business,, which encourages people to be more aware of the effects food has on their health. In his free time, he enjoys going on day hikes, eating at new restaurants, scuba diving, and backpacking through other countries. As a side project, he is filming a documentary called Creating a Vegan World which outlines the work we are doing behind the scenes of the plant-based movement.