It’s true what they say: The way to someone’s heart is often through their stomach. A new WRI study suggests that carefully reframing menu language can successfully nudge diners toward more climate-friendly food options.
In what amounts to part consumer-behavior research and part foodservice-industry commentary, a new World Resources Institute (WRI) study highlights the potential positive impact of something as simple as the words we see on restaurant menus.
Environmental Messages Promote Plant-Based Food Choices, which will be released next week, highlights how language can steer diners away from animal-based, carbon-intensive food options and shift their purchases towards plant-based options ultimately better for the environment.
In a virtual event held Tuesday to discuss the findings, WRI behavioral science associate Stacy Blondin noted that the report’s research found 10 general themes that were signified as “positive,” that restaurateurs could incorporate into their menus to help sway diners. Among the best-performing themes were related to “joining a movement,” “small changes leading to big impact,” ''taste benefits,” “health & environment” and “a sustainable future.”
With 37 percent of all greenhouse gases coming from food and agriculture production, according to a 2021 UN-backed study, the purpose of WRI’s research was to see where and how strategic communication could help reduce emissions from one of the most potent sources while gradually educating consumers about more planet-positive meals.
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“It’s important to also build towards ‘flexitarians’,” Kaj Török — chief sustainability officer at Sweden's MAX Burgers — noted during the event, “(to appeal) to those who consume meat, but want to reduce that consumption overall.”
The report found that in terms of decision drivers, “health,” “heartiness” and “taste/appeal” were among the top influencers in menu choices. What that correlates to is that sensible and thoughtful language on the average restaurant menu can sway consumers, as long it’s done in an approachable manner.
Jonathan Wise, co-founder of ad accountability organization Purpose Disrupters, noted some key differences between US and European standards when it comes to messaging.
“(We found) that when you call dishes ‘vegan,’ it turns off the mainstream audience (in Europe),” he said. “It comes back as preachy and righteous.”
Interestingly, WRI research found the opposite to be true in the States, where diners often link “vegan” with inclusiveness, among other language choices.
Expanding to emerging markets
The next direction of this conversation is building language that makes sense for emerging markets, especially those in the Global South.
“These menu directives don’t have the same impact in emerging markets like Mexico, India and China,” said Mindy Hernandez, WRI’s Living Lab for Equitable Climate Action Lead.
She said more behavioral research needs to be done in those markets, but that in all cases “people make decisions based on the context and situation they find themselves in.”
“If you want massive change, you need a behavioral architect (to help with that), but nudging also matters,” she added.
Her point underlined the common notion that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to building the right messaging to get consumers everywhere to reduce meat intake and include more plant-based options in their dining choices.
“We have to make these choices simple and easy for other people,” she said.
Wise added that drastic changes to the architecture of people’s lives thanks to the pandemic are also changing the ways consumers think about messaging.
“People may perceive that they might be interested in making more (positive) changes now than they were (before the pandemic),” he said.
A messaging marathon, not a sprint
The event concluded with some thoughts to move the conversation forward, mostly around how to translate these findings into real-world results.
“Carbon labeling and metrics aren’t always clear to consumers,” Blondin said, reiterating that “nudging” consumers in a more environmentally positive direction can be more effective.
Wise added that brand communication should also be considerate of the growing sociopolitical element weaving its way into messaging perception. The direction should help people opt for more resource-efficient, climate-friendly foods, and the language shouldn’t be “aggressive.”
In any case, the overarching sentiment was that adding environmentally positive language in any capacity is better than no action at all as the climate crisis worsens.
Influencing wider adoption of plant-based diets is a continued goal of WRI, which has been actively working on Shifting Diets and increasing the sustainability of the food-service industry since 2016. In 2018, it launched its Cool Food initiative and Cool Food Pledge — which aims to help restaurants, hospitals, hotels, universities and cities tap the latest behavioral science to cut emissions from the food they serve. Strategies range from changing menu layouts and using appetizing language to help consumers more often choose low-carbon options, to offering more plant-focused meals.
In January 2020, WRI launched a playbook highlighting 23 behavior-change strategies that companies across the foodservice industry can use to encourage diners to choose more plant-rich meals. In October 2020, Panera Bread became the first restaurant chain to earn the Cool Food Meals Badge, which helps diners at Panera’s over 2,100 US locations identify more climate-friendly meal choices. When Max Burgers, Aramark and Nestlé Professional adopted the Cool Food Badge in fall of 2021, it expanded the program to 130 Max Burger locations across Scandinavia; as well as hundreds of retail food courts; convenience stores; and corporate, hospital and university dining halls across the US.